Vancouver’s approach to urbanism serves as North American model

By all accounts Vancouver is a modern metropolis. The eyes of the world were directed squarely at the picturesque Canadian city when it hosted the 2010 Winter Olympics, but Vancouver has been making noteworthy progress within its urban core for many years.

One of the most striking elements of Vancouver’s urban landscape is the sheer number of glass high-rises throughout the city. The design approach is more characteristic of a modern Asian city than it is of a North American city. The existence of this might make sense given the large Asian population found in Vancouver, but the tower typology is slightly different than what is found in Hong Kong, Shanghai or Seoul, for example.

Residential high-rises define the modern Vancouver metropolis. Photograph by Randy A. Simes in January 2012.

The Vancouver model of urbanism places a focus on diversity and truly embodies the Jane Jacobs concept that downtowns are for people.

Most of the high-rise towers you find in Vancouver are residential, not commercial as is the case in most North American cities. The towers are almost always glass and slender – a design approach almost assuredly meant to open Vancouver’s residents up to the breathtaking natural landscape surrounding them.

What is not immediately evident when viewing these towers from a distance is that their street-level engagement is completely different from most other residential tower designs you will find elsewhere throughout the world.

Townhouses and a corner grocery store create a human scale for the high-rise residential towers rising behind them. Photograph by Randy A. Simes in January 2012.

The brilliance of the Vancouver model is that it incorporates two- to three-story townhouses at the street, while the slender glass tower sets off of the street. This accomplishes three very important urbanist goals.

  1. The townhouses at street-level allow for a pleasant human scale, and are often designed with more expensive, natural materials that also are more pleasant to the human experience.
  2. The set back of the towers allows for natural light to permeate throughout the urban streetscape without jeopardizing its vibrancy with a blank area between the tower and the street.
  3. The towers allow for the always coveted young professional and empty nesters to find a place to live, but the townhouses allow for a desired housing typology for young families with children – thus offering a unique diversity of people within Vancouver’s urban core.

Vibrant schools and playgrounds, exciting nightlife and dining, an urban landscape that embraces its natural counterpart, and vibrant streetscapes are the result of this approach to urbanism.

While other North American cities continue to look for a way to embrace Jacobs’ concept, they should first look to what Vancouver has been so successfully able to implement.

  • What you show above is not a “unique”, aproach to urbanism, it’s plain, basic urbanism. Sad that it now looks so strange.

    • The approach of building two- to three-story townhouses at the base of high-rises is a unique approach. Most European cities do not have residential high-rises like this. Asian cities tend to have just the high-rise without the townhouse component. In the U.S., residential high-rises are typically built to the street and sometimes have a small setback to allow for an amenity deck four to five floors up…but this is done also to accommodate the above-ground parking garage.

      Historical building types didn’t include the residential high-rise like this at all. So while the buildings themselves look the same, I contend that the approach is unique.

      While the built form is a basic approach we should be accustomed to, the real intrigue is found in the varrying housing typologies seamlessly integrated into one block.

  • Anonymous

    While Vancouver certainly embodies the concept that ‘downtowns are for people’, it’s reliance on nearly identical steel-and-glass residential towers to accomplish that goal leaves the city feeling sterile and cold.  The common design for these towers, marching like soldiers row upon row, is to surround the bases with landscaped ‘yards’.  On the surface this might seem nice; but the green space is strictly private property, not public parks.  Access is ‘by permission’ only, and cause the buildings to sprawl further from one another.  This sprawl breaks the streetscape into separate chunks, destroying the contiguous urban landscape based on closeness and proximity and creating a feeling that each tower is an outpost, alone and solitary.  It also makes it much more difficult to travel on foot to shopping or entertainment, because the ‘yards’ greatly expand the distance between retail establishments.  It is, essentially, an urban/suburban hybrid.

    • I don’t know what “yards” you’re talking about. In the center city (Yaletown in particular) virtually every green space that I ran across was public space, and virtually every street had an uninterupted urban landscape – both in terms of closeness and proximity.

    • What you are talking about are the “towers in the park” that dominate the West End. These were built mostly in the 1960s. Apart from a few new towers around Coal Harbour, all of the newer buildings (ie., the last 30+ years) are built to the lot line, with townhouses and/or retail at grade.

      My guess is that you haven’t been to Vancouver in many, many years.

  • I happened to visit Vancouver last summer.  What impressed me the most about it actually was Gastown which was a very nicely preserved historic district from the turn of the century.  I wasn’t expecting this in a city as new or as contemporary as Vancouver, where all I’d think of is glass towers.  Kind of showed me that a city with a metro the same size of Cincinnati could pull off a nice balance of contemporary and old with the right mindset.

    Here’s a good pic of Gastown, which looks nothing like images that come to mind when thinking of Vancouver:

    • Neil you’re right. Gastown is an incredible district. I felt really comfortable there and spent the better part of an afternoon just hanging around Gastown.

      I also really enjoy how Gastown interacts with the adjacent, and slightly seedy, Chinatown. While the area was enjoyable during the day, I imagine that it is really hopping at night with bar patrons.

  • Anonymous

    nice how you failed to mention that no one can afford to live in Vancouver unless you are renting a room in a packed condo….. the horrible cycle is driving the life and culture out of the city turning it into a playground for the rich and their children

    • I also didn’t take into account the transport system of the city/region or the public policies implemented by local officials. There are lots of things I didn’t discuss, and the point of this article was to discuss the built form of the city, not its social issues.

      The issues of affordability may very well be worth an article of their own, but I’m not sure this unique to Vancouver. Most major cities struggle with unaffordability close to their downtowns. I think this is less of an issue of the city’s built environment so much as it is public policy and the natural landscape which limits space for build out.

  • Anonymous

    Vancouver’s urbanism has a bunch of HUGE downsides that are often ignored. First, Vancouver is one of the most (and I believe is *the* most) unaffordable city in the world. Much of this price is due to over-regulation of new developments, and a focus on luxury condos instead of middle class accommodations. Despite all the tall buildings, Vancouver actually is not a dense city because of this.

    The result is that working class people and young people without trust funds simply can’t afford to live anywhere near the downtown. Businesses such a bars and independent restaurants struggle with obscene rents and customers who can’t afford their products because all their money goes to mortgage/rent. This means there are few cultural gathering places, and neighbours really don’t talk to one another. 

    Vancouver is a stunningly beautiful city, but it’s also kind of dull, gloomy and sad. The beauty comes from the mountains, the gloomyness is from the rain, but the dullness and sadness are entirely the product of “Vancouver’s Urbanism”. While Vancouver certainly does some things right, it really is deeply flawed and anyone who cares about the poor, the working class, culture and vibrancy in their cities should strongly resist any urge to copy Vancouver’s example.

    • While your points may be valid, that was not the intent of this post. Too often people, I think, look at elements of urban planning as a cure all for social issues. They are not.

      The reality is that most all major cities have downtown areas that are in fact unaffordable to the middle class. New York City, Boston, San Francisco, Chicago, London, Paris, Seoul, Hong Kong, Munich, Madrid, you name it. None of these places are affordable in their downtown areas, but that isn’t a fault of the built form as much as it is public policies dealing with rent controls and other social issues.

      Bottom line, these are things that can not be solved through bricks and mortar.

    • Jeffrey Jakucyk

      The problem, just like here in the US, is zoning.  For all of Vancouver’s support of high density residential development in its downtown, it’s still completely surrounded by strictly zoned low density single family sprawl.  Because demand for housing is so high, but supply is so restricted, of course prices will skyrocket.  Wherever zoning is relaxed, such as downtown or some of the other nodes scattered around the suburbs, they build as intensely as possible, but it’s hobbled by the slow review and approval process.  

      As with many newer north american cities, the real trouble is that there’s so little middle density development.  That’s the 3-5 story courtyard apartments, brownstones, row houses, etc., that satisfies quite a lot of demand without also being so overpowering.  In that way, Vancouver is a lot more like Atlanta, Houston, or Charlotte than like Seattle, San Francisco, or Chicago.  

      Yes, there are some really good lessons to learn from Vancouver’s downtown development pattern.  But it must be kept in context with the whole metro.  What’s interesting is that despite how hugely desirable downtown Vancouver is, and how much the whole region is choked with low density sprawl, Vancouver’s suburbs are really ugly and vile, even by US standards.