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Vancouver's Model Spreads
Alex Steffen, 10 May 04

Vancouver is the gem of North American sustainable urban planning. Vancouverites have largely stopped sprawl, turning growth inward and building up their downtown (which has added tens of thousands of condos and apartments in the last ten years), while making their city one of the most livable in the world. Perhaps most impressively, folks there are giving up their cars:

"Condominium towers are so popular that they're sold out before they're built. Some 25 percent of the units are designed for families with children and 20 percent for low-income residents. Vancouver is building its first inner-city elementary school in 30 years. Nearly 20,000 more people have moved downtown in the past six years, and, as they do, auto traffic is perversely declining as people give up a car.

"'Vancouver is a counterintuitive city,' says Larry Beasley, the hard-bargaining planner of the city's downtown development. More people, less congestion. Go figure."

Now, Vancouver developers are responsible for what is quickly becoming one of North America's other success stories, the redevelopment of downtown San Diego:

"As prime, cheap land began to disappear from central Vancouver, Bosa and other Canadian developers looked south to San Diego and saw another abandoned, decrepit downtown. Like Vancouver, San Diego had a beautiful bay to the west, and a hundred miles of traffic-choked sprawl to the east. As in Vancouver, San Diego city officials were anxious to do something about a housing shortage, and to revitalize a decayed downtown. 'I felt it was just a fabulous place, with a great climate. I thought it was ready for what I call urbanization,' Bosa says. 'It was lacking on one big thing -- more people.'"

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Interesting stuff.

Portland's "Metro" board has been managing sprawl for decades now. They take a lot of heat for it; a property rights group had a "meet your foe" conference here a few months back. Developers and ideologues from across the country came to PDX to have two-minute hates about the streetcars and strict urban growth boundaries.

The big development news in town is a huge (um) light-brownfield development south of down town. A big chunk of almost vacant industrial land is being turned into condos and light business, with a big fancy ariel tram to link it with the medical school in the hills to the west.

Posted by: Stefan Jones on 11 May 04

San Diego's downtown is certainly in a revitalization phase and is now a cultural scene instead of a decaying city center. But promoting the development of San Diego as somehow a sustainable and progressive model appears to me to be just flat out nonsense. Yes, if one is into spending money, drinking in bars, and acting like a tourist then San Diego is making real progress. But, bottom line, San Diego is a military naval town and the beautiful bay is a conduit for nuclear powered vessels that pose not only great risks to the new population but also provide un-legislated pollution at a vast scale.

Portland is a more likely model for a major city in North America attempting to turn things around. But, really, in terms of sustainability we need to look away from the current cosmopolitan and urbanization trend altogether. Vancouver puts a nice green spin on things, but so-called new urbanism overall amounts to little more than a greenwash for capitalization and habitat removal.

People interested in this topic should look at WorldWatch Paper 156 and the work of Lewis Mumford on the city.

Posted by: Richard Kahn on 11 May 04

Uh . . . Vancouver is encouraging people to *move back* into the central city. As opposed to creating more suburbs and edge cities. How is this "habitat removal?"

Posted by: Stefan Jones on 11 May 04

i live in vancouver and i love it. i live a little outside the downtown core, but i love going downtown to work and visit friends, unlike in other cities where the downtown core is either completely industrialized, or abandoned. you can't just keep expanding cities endlessly, so it's nice to see that there is starting to be some forward thinking about urban space and how it's defined. nice post.

Posted by: degan on 11 May 04

Yeah, Richard, I think you're way off base here. Vancouver is several times more sustainable that most conventional development anywhere in North America - they aren't sprawling but rather preserving habitat at the urban fringe, people there are much more likely not to drive (which is probably the worst thing, environmentally, that most of us do day-to-day), and there is a serious green building ethic emerging up there. That's not spin, that's a better built environment.

That said, I share some of your sentiments about new urbanism. There is too much new urbanist development which is simply restyled suburbia, which creates an aesthetic resemblance to village life while still being as unsustainable and destructive as sprawl. But no one's been talking about that, either in the post or in these comments.

And given that we're adding as many people to the world's population as live in the city of Seattle every week, I have no idea what you mean by "in terms of sustainability we need to look away from the current cosmopolitan and urbanization trend altogether..."

If it's not possible for cities to be made sustainable, sustainability itself is not possible.

Posted by: Alex Steffen on 12 May 04

No, my comment was mis-read, or I mis-wrote, sorry. I was saying Vancouver puts a nice Green spin on development, yes. Then I was saying that new urbanism in general is a greenwash. Two separate thoughts. I wasn't really commenting on Vancouver in this respect, which we know to be a green city; but I don't know enough about specifically to lay down any criticism of, save that modern cities in general are not sustainable social systems no matter how green they are. The New Urbanism, it is true is now mainly a project of disneyfication and suburbifying life. But in as much as it is trying to bring green to 20th century cities and instil community centers again it is part of this process -- certainly what is happening in San Diego's downtown is nothing but this. New Urbanism, arguably, also has its roots in neo-marxist urban plans that tried to overcome the town/country divide. That's why I used it, but maybe its inappropriately used I'll grant.

As to "sutainability" not being possible under the current social dynamics of production and population growth, yes, Alex, that is correct. Sustainability is right now a code word for development in the hands of the liberal left and rightward, and a mythic concept with quasi-religious undertones in the hands of everyone else. In this respect it links up with religious uses of environmental platforms of all kinds. This is not to say that sustainability is meaningless, it is to say that it is utopian and contains both revolutionary and counter-revolutionary meanings. These days most of the uses of the word are code words for status-quo modernization, and so counter-revolutionary.

Nice blog here all, btw.

Posted by: Richard Kahn on 12 May 04



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