Vancouverism is an urban planning and architectural phenomenon in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada, that is unique to North America. It is characterized by a large residential population living in the city centre with mixed-use developments, typically with a medium-height, commercial base and narrow, high-rise residential towers, significant reliance on mass public transit, creation and maintenance of green park spaces, and preserving view corridors.
Being consistently ranked among the most livable cities in the world has urban planners flocking to the city to attempt to try to emulate and implement on their own city.
While many architects and developers have created a variety of interpretations of the term Vancouverism, here is my understanding of the evolution of the term.
In the early 1980’s, the planning department was puzzling about how the area north of False Creek and south of the core of the downtown would best develop in the future. We were aware that new space would be needed for residences, offices, services, open space and public amenities. The market for downtown residences was just beginning to emerge at that time, although townhouses along arterial streets were not a known quantity.
We were also keen to see such features as pedestrian-active streets, continuous shopping and other interests along the street frontages, “eyes on the street” and assurances that high rises would be sensitive to acceptable daylight, sunlight and privacy between apartments. Also of considerable importance was to share as much as possible of our wonderful ocean and mountain-scape views. These urban design principles had emerged from our work in following the general planning goals set by The Election Action Movement City Council in the early 1970’s.
We called in what we considered to be one of the leading urban design consultancies in Canada and asked them to help us come up with models of the form of development that would achieve those goals and would become the official plan and zoning bylaw for the area. It was the DuToit Allsopp Hillier Partnership from Toronto that sketched the prototype designs that provided the basic formula for continuous low rise development along the streets with high-rises in the form of point towers, separated sufficiently to give reasonable daylight, sun access and privacy from what we could see would be fairly high density development.
The challenge to us at that time was that there was not a great market either for continuous shopping frontages or for low rise townhouse or apartment development along street frontages. That part of town was not an especially desirable environment at that time and it was difficult for people to see how it could be improved. We had to develop a form which we hoped would become marketable and desirable for new residents and also provide activity, safety and amenity along the streets. Such features were described in new zoning and accompanying design guidelines. They especially stressed the interface between the public and private domains. They created a sequence of experiences and environmental conditions between the public sidewalk and the private dwelling. The variety of ways that was interpreted by individual architects and developers can now be experienced throughout this area and other parts of Vancouver.
Other key features such as the interior landscaped courtyards, the public walkways, seawalls, landscaped sidewalks, front patio gardens and pubic park areas, corner stores, schools, community centres and day care centres all add to the liveability of this form of development. Certainly as this form reaches False Creek itself, the south facing residences provide an exceptionally valuable amenity for the thousands of families who now live there.
While sometimes criticized as looking too much the same, the point towers have become a feature of this part of town. Many people believing they provide much of the unique liveability of this part of town. It clearly does not provide the preferred environment for everyone, but that is the nature and pleasure of cities. They provide a variety of places to suit the variety of needs and aspirations of the population.
So, “Vancouverism” came about from a desire within the community to create new neighbourhoods that would provide the amenities that genuine public participation and professional studies of up-to-date methods showed to be desirable. It was not one man’s or woman’s creation. It was the result of intelligent participation and objective research by many people in our community working together and seeking win/win solutions.
Director of Planning for the City of Vancouver, 1973 to 1988