Trevor Boddy on how to design Vancouver into a better city
"Vancouver thrives when it embraces its many origins, peoples, ideas and forms," writes urbanist and architecture critic Trevor Boddy in his manifesto, HybridCity. "Our metropolitan strength, the power of our urban engine, is creative diversity — without it, we become brittle, uncaring and dull."
Boddy, who will be attending the Design Thinkng UnConference in Vancouver on August 19 - 20, is one of the preeminent urban critics who has thought long and hard about the virtues and problems of this city. He is the curator of the Vancouverism exhibit, which showcases local architecture that has become a source of inspiration to other cities ranging from Seattle to Dubai. Although Vancouver's architecture and reputation as one of the world's most livable city has been long admired, it is not without its flaws, argues Boddy.
The high density urban residences, the concentration of poverty and substance abuse in the Downtown Eastside, the lack of well-paying jobs to support high living costs -- all of these issues came about not organically, but through the "stroke of a pen", according to Boddy's manifesto.
If the city's current challenges were created by design, there's hope that excellent design can carve the way to solutions as well.
The dangers of real estate economy
Vancouver is characterized by the tall, skinny condo towers that spring up like blades of green grass from the city's downtown core. The design, Boddy explains, is influenced by Hong Kong architecture, as Asian investors began buying property in the city in recent decades. The critic has long targeted Vancouver's imbalance of residence buildings to offices, and warns that it will create problems for locals in the event of an economic downturn.
"Downtown Vancouver has become a high-end residential neighbourhood, and this may not be good policy in the long term, as a lot of businesses want to be close to residences," he said. “I think it was silly and destructive for the NPA city council to have re-zoned all of “Downtown South” (most people now call it Yaletown) to 'housing optional' in 1991, as virtually no developer has since elected to build offices in what was previously being held as downtown’s future growth reserve.”
Boddy voiced his alarm that downtown Vancouver -- never that much of a business city -- was becoming even more condo-focued in recent years, rezoning eight million square feet of potential business space in the downtown south as "housing optional". From 2000 to 2006, he reports, one-third of head office jobs left the city, even as the number of residents continued to skyrocket. Presently, a stroll through downtown Vancouver would find many residents walking their dogs or chatting in cafes, but not very many business buildings offering these people a stable place to work.
"Other cities have a better balance," he said. "Winnipeg has more head offices than we do. Our biggest industry by far is a real estate ... We have everything to hike up the real estate business, but no economic development strategy."
While he applauds the Mayor for his green economy strategy, Boddy said that competition is stiff, as "every other mayor in North America has the same idea."
"Vancouver should be very concerned, because we're about to go through another period of tough economic growth, and this time we won't be able to dodge it," he said, noting that the end of the Chinese real estate boom will hit homeowners hard in the city.
"We need to look beyond real estate. There are many other industries, including design, and advertising and games, and publishing, graphic design -- I think we have a huge pile of talented people, but we need to help them promote their work around the world. "
Design problems in the Downtown Eastside
In Boddy's view, the impoverished Downtown Eastside is largely a result of misguided city planning that tried to push undesirable populations into one area of the city.
"In Vancouver, we've put all the people we don't like -- all the poor people -- in one neighbourhood," he said. "We didn't build bars west of Main Street at all until the 1970s." He said that a long history of concentrating bars and social housing projects in the Downtown Eastside has created the "drug ghetto" that people recognize today.
Portland Hotel, a social housing building in the Downtown Eastside
"We also made a law that 'Asiatics' could live in Chinatown and nowhere else -- as for the loggers and miners, they didn't have support from their families, so they had to live in the single-room occupancy hotels in the Downtown Eastside," Boddy said.
Boddy questioned the tendency to concentrate social housing projects and poverty services in one area of the city, advocating instead for a mix of low-income and wealthy people in every part of the city. He calls for a "hybridization" of Vancouver so that there is a larger mix of income levels, as well as cultures, in the different neighbourhoods.
"Whenever Vancouver tries to purify itself, it gets in trouble," he said, noting that affordable housing -- far from being just for society's most marginalized -- could also help more young people contribute to the city's economy. Currently, the average cost of a home is 9.5 times the city's median household income of $63,000, which forbids many young families from living and working in Vancouver.
"Affordable housing is one of the most important ways for economically developing our city," he said. "I think that City Council is starting to listen to this. They've been very timid in their policies, and they need to be a lot bolder."
Public debate on design
Boddy, a former architecture critic for the Vancouver Sun, believes that the lack of a healthy debate around the use of public space has led to many missed opportunities. He argues that the lack of debate over important public spaces in the city comes from the concentration of media ownership.
"Vancouver has a very mild, polite and ineffectual mainstream media," he said. "Part of that is because just one company, Postmedia, owns all the major newspapers."
He argues that if the media, as well as designers, were more engaged in public debate for spaces such as BC Place and the Stadium, which Boddy feels are examples of missed opportunities.
"We could have done a much better job with design of BC Place," he said, talking about the roof, which deflated after its run of 30 years. "If we had a good design imagination, we would have built a stadium over one kilometer east on Main Street, where it would be better for cars and parking."
The retractable roof at BC Place
He argued that designers in Vancouver, while talented, have been too reluctant to go public and become more political if they are to create a better city.
"Affordable housing, creating a better balance for the neighbourhoods ... those are the issues that designers can help with," said Boddy. "Vancouverites need to try a little bit harder. We can't just rest on our prior accomplishments. We need leadership in our design thinking."
The Un-Tour of Vancouver
To kick off the Design Thinking Unconference in Vancouver, Boddy will be hosting "Vancouverize," a tour (or, as Boddy calls it, an "un-tour") of the city on Friday. In the tour (open only to the DTUC participants), Boddy will lead participants into different areas of downtown, explaining the history of the city, the features of well-designed buildings as well as those with poor design, and ending off with a Chinese dim sum lunch.
See more about the Design Thinking UnConference:
Read excellent articles by Boddy about urbanism here: