After Vancouverism: a conversation with Larry Beasley at the Gwerk Salon

Larry Beasley is the former co-planner for the City of Vancouver, and the father of Vancouverism. He believes that Vancouver's future is "intense and dense."

Larry Beasley
Larry Beasley, former co-director of Vancouver city planning and father of Vancouverism

People build a city, "people with ideas, passions, and disagreements." So said architecture critic Trevor Boddy in introducing Larry Beasley, an urban planner who has profoundly influenced the growth of Vancouver.

Larry Beasley is the former co-director of planning for the City of Vancouver. He now runs an international urban planning consultancy. In 2004, he was awarded the Order of Canada, the nation's highest honour, for his urban planning work.

If we consider Larry Beasley to be the father of Vancouverism, then he was looking at a sonogram of his grandchild at the April 16 Gesamtkunstwerk Salon. (There's that word again; it's usually shortened to "Gwerk"; rhymes with "twerk".)

Are you the gatekeeper?

As an urban planner for the City during the 1990s, Beasley held yea-or-nay power over real estate developers' permit applications. He used this power to do two things that would change the face of Vancouver forever.

First, Beasley forced developers to fold public amenities into their building recipes. These became known as Community Amenity Contributions (CACs), which you hear about at every single City Hall hearing that pertains to new residential constructions.

Ian Gillespie, who's developing the Vancouver House project to which Gwerk is attached, had to get past Beasley to build the Shangri-La. The associated CACs involved millions of dollars and thousands of trees.

Ian Gillespie
One of these people is Ian Gillespie

Second, Beasley pushed the idea of the podium tower on a reluctant development industry. At first, said Beasley, real estate developers just couldn't wrap their heads around the notion of people living in high-rises. (Fast-forward to today, though, and we can't seem to get them to stop building podium towers.)

Beasley credits the first notion of building towers in Vancouver to his colleague, former City Planner Ray Spaxman, who resigned amid running battles with then-Mayor Gordon Campbell's government.

Fast-forward again to tomorrow, though, and Beasley has suggestions, prognoses, and predictions for Vancouver and the people who live here.

A conversation with Larry Beasley

The Gwerk Salon with Larry Beasley followed a loose Q&A format with Boddy, who is curating the Gesamtkunstwerk exhibition.

Larry Beasley is an energetic speaker: the only person who moves more while holding a microphone is Axl Rose.

Larry BeasleyAppetite for construction

Beasley grew up in Las Vegas, but began his urban planning career in Vancouver. "I fell in love," he said. "I fell in love with a person, and then when we came here, I fell in love with the city."

Vancouver "was a pretty average city," Beasley conceded as the audience tittered, "but the setting was so beautiful. It seemed that it had kind of a soul to it already, and it had neighbourhoods! And that's when I really fell for it."

Boddy noted that 888 Beach is "where the tower and podium got married". The three-building complex modest in scale compared to other buildings in False Creek North and Yaletown, but its influence is immediately obvious.

Trevor Boddy
Trevor Boddy, Gwerk curator

Beasley and his partner still live there. At first, Beasley moved in for optics: to show that townhouse living was actually... livable. Remember, this was when developers were digging in their heels against building tall, narrow towers; Boddy said that he was tasked with getting Beasley to pump the brakes. He didn't, and so we have the shapes of today's Coal Harbour and Yaletown.

The ism is now the wasm

Those forests of steel and glass have been imitated all over the world, and Larry Beasley is a highly sought-after urban planner. Vancouver is a unique evironment, though: it's vanishingly rare for the development industry and city government to work so closely together. Boddy said real estate developer Gordon Campbell becoming Mayor in the mid-Eighties was "like Nixon going to China", and Beasley agreed: "[It was like,] 'Look, I'm the developers' Mayor! What can I do [for you]?'"

So, not only did Vancouverism not translate to other cities, the very notion of a  central business district (CBD) to which people commute could well be played out. Beasley told the Gwerk crowd that he was asked to plan a CBD for Beijing, but turned it down. That's because tomorrow's cities will have different needs, he said: affordability and sustainability must come to the fore.

Think outside the box (again)

Beasley said Campbell understood that building high-rises would result not only in high dwelling value, but high land value. It turns out that Campbell was a little too right.

The issue of affordable housing in Vancouver, said Beasley, "overwhelms all other issues." He continued, "it's getting less and less likely that by yourself, under your own speed, that you can get a place in the city." However, a city thrives when people own their own little corner of it.

We should explore other home-ownership models besides the straightforward mortgage-a-condo scenario, said Beasley. For example, "the co-op culture that we killed in this country in the Seventies and Eighties."

Also, in Spain they have market-based nonprofit housing. Basically, it's possible to buy a home at cost, under the legal stipulation that you cannot sell it at a profit. In effect, you get a starter home with which you can build some (modest) equity. The true value is in the resale, though: it starts low-cost and stays low-cost.

Solving the affordable-housing problem, said Beasley, will require "incredible creativity".

Adding some flavour

Vancouver's architecture is somewhat... vanilla. Boddy asked what role urban planning can have in architecture. Beasley said that, when perusing development permits, "very seldom was I interested in the architecture."

So minimum-viable-product design is on the designer. He said that "we're learning again about great architecture," and it's getting more feasible to bring daring designs to life.

The city of tomorrow, though, will be one of "intense, dense" mixed-use buildings and neighbourhoods; and short commutes. The latter is especially important, noted Beasley, who said that North American cities have been built mainly for access by car. "The real answer for access is a simple proposition. It's called 'proximity'."

The daily commute, he said, "is the one trip that's causing all of our problems."

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