Vancouver city planners aim to make high-density neighbourhoods livable
By FRANCES BULA
Aug. 8, 2017
The Globe and Mail’s B.C. bureau is spending the summer examining how Vancouver’s increasing density is shaping the city and its residents.
Ricardo Torres and his family live in a 20-storey tower near the Joyce-Collingwood SkyTrain station, a former industrial zone that was redeveloped in the 1990s to become the densest neighbourhood in the Lower Mainland outside the downtown peninsula. But Mr. Torres feels his family has more green space, more connections to people in the neighbourhood and better services than he ever did growing up in a suburb - a suburb of Mexico City, in his case.
“There are three parks right here. One is across the street. When we walk through that area, we always see someone we know,” said Mr. Torres, a 42-year-old who works in animation. His wife, Isabel Londono, is an environmental engineer, and they have three children, including new twins.
The family has the benefit of the parks, a community centre that is considered a pillar of this diverse community, plus great transit, thanks to the planning that went into the neighbourhood. Builders and city staff aimed to ensure that, in an area that previously only contained industry and single-family houses, the thousands of new people would have a rich array of activities and services, as well as a setting with more than just new towers.
That’s something all planners agree is key if cities are going to squeeze in ever more people.
And they are. In the District of North Vancouver, there are on average 54 people a hectare. In Vancouver’s Triangle West neighbourhood near Coal Harbour, there are 352. Accommodating such density requires better building design, a good experience for everyone walking down the street, carefully planned services - and lots of green space.
“Cities can be exciting, but they can also be very stressful,” said Kaid Benfield, who works in Washington, with the Natural Resources Defense Council and is one of the co-founders of an environmental rating system for sustainable neighbourhoods, called LEED for Neighbourhood Development.
“When we bring nature in, it gives people a sense that they’re getting more than just new development,” he said. “Then you don’t bring in just concrete, but some softness too.”
Other things he says are vital include creating mixed-use and diverse communities, ensuring that the area feels safe, designing public parks so they can be used intensively, providing green-transit options and having a mix of building types and heights. All of those encourage people to spend more time close to where they live, rather than adding to traffic congestion by travelling to shop or find entertainment.
Many of those elements are present in Joyce-Collingwood, where the local community centre has an outstanding reputation for serving a neighbourhood filled with different immigrant groups; where trees, landscaping and parks are visible everywhere; where there are a number of small shops along Kingsway Avenue and Joyce Street; and where the nearby SkyTrain station is a preferred transportation option.
(Its one possible flaw: not enough three-bedroom apartments. With new twins in the household, Mr. Torres and Ms. Londono are discovering that three-bedroom units in the area are very rare.)
It’s the same principle used in Vancouver’s downtown neighbourhoods, where the goal was to demonstrate that dense living could be attractive.
“I would say everything comes down to creating a quality experience,” said Larry Beasley, a former chief planner for Vancouver who now does international consulting. “It means you have to pay a lot of attention to design, to things as simple as how the sidewalks feel.”
Vancouver is renowned internationally among planners for the fact it did not let developers only build towers in the new neighbourhoods created on former industrial land around its downtown. Planners insisted on townhouses at street level, often on streets lined with double rows of trees.
“If you create a vivid experience at eye level, people forget about density,” Mr. Beasley said.
Vancouver’s development in the 1990s and early 2000s also built in the other elements, incorporating 20-per-cent social housing along with schools, daycares, community centres, parks, a seawall and new retail shops.
But one of the biggest necessities for denser neighbourhoods is a plan for moving people through the neighbourhood - or not.
In low-density parts of the region, bus routes tend to travel along commercial strips, which welcome the extra mode of transportation to bring in customers, and there is plenty of room for transit hubs.
As cities get more packed, that means routes are often going past dense developments where the noise and diesel fumes do not create a good experience for everyone living above the street. And there’s less room for some pieces of the transit system.
“We’re very mindful that it has to integrate well with the urban landscape it’s in,” said Daniel Freeman, the manager of transit-network management at TransLink, Metro Vancouver’s statutory regional transportation authority. “We have to be sensitive to how we create an efficient transit system and a pleasant place to be.”
That means a few priorities for transit planning. One is encouraging people in dense neighbourhoods to take public transit by making sure it’s nearby and that the walk to get there is attractive. People will, on average, walk 400 metres to a bus route and as much as a kilometre to a rapid-transit line – but less if the walk is unpleasant. (If it’s much farther than that, people switch to cars.)
That is why TransLink has put some money into making the areas around bus and SkyTrain stops appealing.
To combat the noise factor, Mr. Freeman and others hope electric buses will be part of the solution.
TransLink planners are making changes to combat two of their big challenges with density: congestion and a lack of room for staging areas, where buses and their drivers rest.
Bus service is getting slower throughout North America as cities get denser. So TransLink has been working with local governments to create dedicated bus lanes. Co-ordinated lights at intersections is another goal.
In Surrey, the agency is about to reconfigure its bus loop around the Surrey Central SkyTrain station. The buses at the end of a trip and waiting to start another one will be shifted away from the increasingly developed area right around the station to a few streets over.
“If the bus parking happens off street, we can use the street for place-making,” Mr. Freeman said.
Besides all that, Vancouver’s chief planner says, there has to be a focus on encouraging people not to travel at all, if possible, to make dense areas livable.
“Right now, everything serves through-put,” Gil Kelley said. “We’re saying, ‘What about stay put?’ - so that maybe they never want to leave.”