Urban thinker lauds Vancouver's diversity

Robert Matas
Globe and Mail
January 23, 2002

Vancouver has gone through a complete makeover since the world came to the foot of its mountains for Expo 1986. A surge in development inspired by the latest trends in urban design strategies has transformed the city’s downtown into a collection of eclectic neighbourhoods in which to live, work, shop and play.

With several construction sites signalling that the process of change is not yet over, it may be too early to take a final measure of the remake.

However, Vancouver had a chance last week to find out how things are going so far when internationally renowned urban thinker Jane Jacobs visited the city.

Ms. Jacobs, who has influenced generations of urban planners, asked the city’s top planners to show her around. What she found was a city that had grown from something she deemed drab in the 1970s, to a place rich in diversity.

Ms. Jacobs, 85, wrote The Death and Life of Great American Cities more than 40 years ago. The book, a searing indictment of large-scale urban renewal megaprojects, is still considered as one of the most important books written about cities in the 20th century.

With her gentle smile, glasses and a walker to steady her on her feet, Ms. Jacobs appears to be exactly the type of person she says must be accommodated in urban renewal projects to ensure that neighbourhoods remain vibrant.

As an urban activist, she has spearheaded efforts in New York and Toronto to ensure a human scale to development. As a critic on tour, she kept her eye on the activity on the street as the barometer to the health of the city.

Vancouver’s top planners, Larry Beasley and Ann McAfee, began their show-and-tell in the oldest part of downtown, driving by restored commercial buildings of Gastown, new low-income housing units in the drug-infested downtown east side and higher-priced condominiums a few streets over.

Mr. Beasley said the city had managed to ease the pressure to gentrify the older neighbourhoods by clearing the way for new development in other parts of the downtown core.

But gentrification is okay, Ms. Jacobs said. The infusion of people with money can help revitalize an older, poor neighbourhood. "Gentrification is okay if it goes ahead at a gradual pace," Ms. Jacobs said. "It’s when it’s a feeding frenzy that it becomes a problem."

As they drove through Chinatown, which is struggling to survive the exodus of the Chinese community to the suburbs, Ms. Jacobs asked about co-op housing. Dr. McAfee said the city was building 200 units a year, compared to 2,000 units 20 years ago. The dramatic drop was attributed to a shift in federal housing policy.

Mr. Beasley shifted the discussion from building housing to building neighbourhoods.

Unlike most cities in North America, Vancouver in the past decade has succeeded in drawing people back downtown. About 35,000 people moved in during the past 10 years, almost doubling the downtown population. Another 5,000 are expected in the next 24 months.

It’s not just the numbers that are impressive. Every new area is a mix of income, age and household type, Mr. Beasley said.

One-quarter of the new housing is set aside for families with small children; one-fifth is for low income. Along the waterfront at False Creek, a $4-million condominium is a stone’s throw away from $325-a-month rentals. Elderly people are within earshot of daycare centres and parks. Passing by shiny new high-rise towers, with two- and three-storey brownstone-type homes for families with children or pets along the streets, Ms. Jacobs gave Vancouver top marks for ensuring diversity in the neighbourhood. She also endorsed the concentration of glass towers.

Despite her support for people-oriented places, she does not believe that development must be kept small to be beautiful. "I do not think high density is bad," Ms. Jacobs said. "Vancouver could not be as vibrant as it is with lower density. But you need a mixture of uses with high density."

The city’s west end – a forest of high-rises reputed to be the highest concentration of people in Canada – was uninteresting because it lacked diversity, she added.

As Mr. Beasley drove along a street of stores set back behind a parking lot, Ms. Jacobs criticized strip malls. "They’re ugly. They separate the shops from pedestrians," she said. "The mind behind them thinks that movement in the city is only by automobile."

Ms. Jacobs also bemoaned her familiarity with the store names. "There’s no individuality," she said. City shopping areas need unique stores to draw people from across the city as well as to serve their own neighbourhood. "People feel it is their city, that the city belongs to them, when they are using all parts of it, not just their own neighbourhood," she said.

After inspecting new communities along the water and new housing in older neighbourhoods, Ms. Jacobs was asked how Vancouver is doing. She did not rely on a lot of theory to make her evaluation.

"Diversity is one of the keys to a great city. In spite of the tall buildings, there is a feeling that it is a human kind of place. The street has been domesticated," she said.

"I think this would be a nice place to live."

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