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Trevor Boddy on how to design Vancouver into a better city

Photos by Parisa Azadi 

"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.

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