This Wednesday UrbanToronto looks beyond the Greater Toronto Area to the west, and launches a five-part series of articles examining Vancouverism: Planning, Design, and Landscape. Writer and photographer Dumitru Onceanu introduces his series below.

What exactly is Vancouverism? To where can its origins be traced, how does one describe it, and what influence might its design principles have on projects in our own city? Vancouverism is a broad term that describes not just how buildings and their landscape coexist, but it is rooted deep in a planning philosophy with specifically desired outcomes for how people live, work, and play in their neighbourhoods.

What we see today, predominantly in the Coal Harbour and False Creek areas of Downtown Vancouver, are the results of over two decades of planning, design, and construction, which follow a few core principles that were articulated in the 1980s. What we aim to do is to provide a brief introduction to those principles, showcase some of the resulting communities which have been built during this period, open a discussion with you the readers, and encourage you to form your own conclusions as to the effectiveness of Vancouver's strategies.  

A recent visit provided the opportunity to walk through some Vancouver's communities and explore some of the streets and buildings which make up the last two decades of development. 

Vancouver skyline taken from Stanley Park. Image by Dumitru Onceanu

After a rapid departure of industry from Downtown Vancouver, and following the successful EXPO 86 World's Fair which occupied much of that former industrial land, the City embarked on a massive process of urban redevelopment with the intent to reverse the trend of city residents departing for the suburbs. The City's primary goal was to create an enticing and competitively viable alternative to the suburbs for all demographics. 

The planning philosophy under which all of this came together was dubbed 'Living First', and it is this mantra which still drives design and development in Vancouver to this day. An article published in 2000 by Larry Beasley, former co-director of Planning for the City, describes Living First in detail and can be read here. At the heart of this framework is the aim to create urban communities that are more environmentally, socially, and economically sustainable. Notable among the guidelines are two principles.

First principle:

To limit commuter car access to downtown by giving priority to transit users, cyclists, and pedestrians, rather than focusing their effort and financial resources in strategies to alleviate traffic congestion. They made a 'conscious and profound choice' not to allocate any more major capital spending or additional space to the car, and to let congestion become an ally in people's decision to live downtown. They also aimed to design communities around a 'third place', after home and work, where people of the neighbourhood could gather, socialize, and play.

Second principle:

To develop complete neighbourhooods at a pedestrian scale, with a mix of mutually supportive uses, focusing on main commercial streets and providing a variety of amenities such as schools, daycares, community centres, parks, walkways, and bikeways. The City also insisted on developing both market and non-market housing that would be suitable for the needs of a diverse demographic including those who are single, have families, are senior or special needs, and also for those who choose to live unique lifestyles, allowing for artist studios, lofts, and houseboats. To soften the effect of tall towers, street fronts are lined with 3-storey townhomes or podiums, with many of the towers set behind. More than 600 townhomes now add to the diverse mix of downtown housing stock. A key point the City also emphasizes is that there should be no blank walls along street fronts. 

Vancouver also takes a different approach to planning whereby all new proposals are analyzed by an independent Urban Design Panel of architects and experts, in an effort to analyze a specific proposal on its design merits, and to take its long term impact into consideration. The Board operates in an advisory capacity at an arms length from the day-to-day political workings of City Council.

For those interested in reading more about urban design and planning in the City of Vancouver, this website and its PDFs describe in great detail how Living First has been put to the test in various neighbourhoods.

Coal Harbour waterfront and Harbour Green Place viewed from Convention Centre green roof. Image by Dumitru Onceanu.

Here's a sneak peak at what to expect in the coming days:

Part 1: A look at Concord Pacific's early years, from 1995 to 2003. As Concord had been involved in the Toronto condo market from the late 90s at CityPlace, and more recently at Park Place on Sheppard, we are showcasing their vast portfolio of work in Vancouver. Concord, while only one of several Vancouver-based companies doing work in Toronto (others include Pinnacle, Onni, Amacon, and Concert), has by far the largest impact on our city, and also offers the largest portfolio of Vancouver work for comparison purposes. We invite you to consider the similarities and differences, discuss what we can learn from Vancouver's experience, and how we can better our own planning and design process in Toronto.

Part 2: A look at Concord's more recent projects, spanning from 2004 to the present and beyond. When fully built out, will CityPlace be in a position to achieve the same degree of critical acclaim that Concord's Pacific projects have in recent years? 

Part 3: A selection of work by high-profile Vancouver architect James KM Cheng. This showcase will include Residences on Georgia, Shaw Centre, Shangri-La, Fairmont Pacific Rim, as well as two notable condo designs at Harbour Green Place. Might Cheng's designs have something to offer the Toronto landscape, beyond Shangri-La?

Part 4: Vancouver Curves, a visual look at successful beyond-the-box designs in both the residential and office markets. Curved designs and unconventional spaces work in Vancouver. Can they work here as well?

Part 5: Public Realm, a pedestrian experience of design. We profile a variety of podium and townhome designs, prominent lighting features, the almost ubiquitous use of water in landscape design, green roofs, public art installations, as well as bike lanes and their supporting infrastructure.

This Wednesday, we invite everyone to journey to the West Coast with us and experience Vancouver through our eyes. Is Vancouver doing some things better than Toronto is, or are they just different? What does Vancouver's experience have to teach us in Toronto? You be the judge.