Stephen Rees's blog

Thoughts about the relationships between transport and the urban area it serves

Can ‘Eco-Density’ Be Beautiful?

with 14 comments

The Tyee

Much chatter about the role of the architects and how you get places to look nice. As though planners and architects had some kind of standard that we can all know and recognize called “good design”.

The idea, expressed in the documents that led to the LRSP, was that we would have a built environment that was as beautiful as our natural surroundings. But that really is not much help either as a prescription. Becuase beauty is, of course, subjective. Some people think slim glass towers are elegant – others that they have become ubiquitous and banal. Most people love trees, but a few object to the way they block the view, and others the way they litter the place every fall and drop sticky glue onto their cars in the spring. Are squirrels cute or tree rats?

Mole Hill is mentioned – but that was a restoration project. New build designed to look traditional has also become ubiqitous. Though on the whole better than shipping containers stacked in piles which I have seen advocated by some recently as way to solve the affordability crisis.

I am afraid that I have been soured by my association with too many English planners, who were usually frustrated architects – and anyway they would not have me in the RTPI because my LSE Masters in Planning did not include any design work at all. My feeling about too many places is that they may have looked pretty, but they didn’t work very well. And far too many public housing projects didn’t even look pretty either.

The other thing that has to be mentioned is price. Good design seems to mean the same thing as “expensive” – at least as far as buildings are concerned. And far too often, in the public sector we have gone for cheap. And it is not just the buildings either. Often the way a place functions has to do with engineering standards that are usually far too inflexible and often inappropriate. For instance the subdivision in Surrey that was supposed to be a good example of Smart Growth but had to have a completely redundant municipal set of pipes because that is what the code said and the local engineers had no knowledge of green buildings. Far too many rules are based on “this is the way we have always done it” or “public safety” when it is just a blind adherence to an out of date code.

And no matter what we build, we seem to insist on leaving great festoons of wire hanging off wooden poles.

But on the other hand I have seen what local teams of architects and landscape archictecture students can come up with in a 48 hour design charrette. And all of their offerings looked much better than what was built. Perhaps simply because it was conceived as a whole – whereas as most redevelopment I see is spotty at best. And also because it adhered to principles of function – and reduction of fossil energy use as an organising principle.

We can do better than we have done and are doing. But Peter Lander is wrong. It is about process. It is about involving people – because you are not dealing with open spaces but existing communities. And it will be about coming up with different approaches as there cannot (and should not try to) be one size that fits all.

And I would also hope that in addition to what it looks like we look at how it works. Which means we consider self containment, different kinds of tenure, how to achieve social diversity within neighbourhoods and so on. Yes what it look like will matter – but form follows function. Lets keep it warm and dry (something we forgot about with condos, don’t forget) using local materials, and use all those clever water and energy conservation ideas that currently contravene the codes but would work much better in future. Solar panels, windmills, ground source heat pumps, geo thermal etc. Hardly any parking spaces, but lots of paths and bike storage. Car sharing and transit and shared ride vans. Community bikes. Local shops and cafes. Community centres and pools (great for energy projects). Green everything. Shade. Somewhere than can be flooded for paddling in summer and frozen for shinny if it gets cold. Somewhere to grow fruit and vegetables and a few culinary herbs. Somewhere the kids can play while observed from inside the homes. Porches to sit on. A neighborhood pub – so defined by its total absence of parking.

I hereby offer to take a world tour at public expense to find examples of best practices.

Written by Stephen Rees

March 18, 2008 at 9:00 am

Posted in Urban Planning

14 Responses

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  1. “Some people think slim glass towers are elegant – others that they have become ubiquitous and banal.”

    Too bad Vancouver has very few *slim* glass towers. Ours tend to be short and stubby.


    March 18, 2008 at 10:03 am

  2. Someone in the UK is trying something like this out- I don’t know how practical it is, but I’m impressed by the idea:

    Andy in Germany

    March 18, 2008 at 10:58 am

  3. I like to help you with the world tour – allow me to concentrate on finding the very best examples of neighbourhood pubs!


    March 18, 2008 at 11:18 am

  4. There are lots of sour notes out there in the architectural realm, and those are the ones people focus on first … ain’t it the Canadian tradition? But there are also some shining examples of what works well. These need to be brought forward and encouraged.

    The overarching assumption is that registered architects perform it all, including the most ghastly works. Well, I agree with the statement that small-time builders (and I’d add the lowest denominator developers) have a lot to answer for. I don’t know of one architect who designed a tacky Vancouver Special, but I do know some who have redesigned a few either for their clients or for themselves, or designed better quality alternatives with the same economic objectives. Like any consultant, the best ones can give you award-winning design that fits into neighbourhoods well as well as assume the all-too-present risk of staying within then limits of budgets and schedules.

    I agree with the other statement in the Tyee piece that implies those who place affordable housing above all other considerations will have to support the most basic and ugly Vancouver Specials, because that is the basic response to affordability by the private sector. What other alternative is there except to finance “affordable” housing via the taxpayer? Which is a different matter.

    Lance Berelowitz also reitereated his disagreement with design guidelines in general. But I would counter with how I saw tacky Vancouver Specials disappear overnight in my neighbourghood with design guidelines. Small builders are now forced to reflect the heritage of the neighborhood in the roof angles, placement of the garages, materials, etc. And they have to answer first and foremost to the demolition of original houses, many of them of heritage quality (many of them not too). This demonstrates that a principle may be admirable in theory (I was against design guidelines too until I saw the result) but the practice on the ground can be quite positve.

    Peter Ladner also illustrated that many citizens have no idea what their ideal community should look like. Some are overly eager to criticize, resist and disagree with almost everything that comes along, but when they are asked to hold a pencil to paper themselves, or provide adequate examples, they slink away. The current EcoDensity consultation process has been conducted poorly, and therefore has to assume part of the blame for inflaming this latent attitude.

    However, the most constructive criticism defines what people find not just acceptable, but exemplary, and these should be brought forward. This responsibility should be taken seriously by citizens who are critical, but it often isn’t. City Plan and developing the Community Visions allowed the antithesis of this tendency to blossom, and it is unfortunately being swallowed by EcoDensity.

    The article mentioned the Arbutus Lands (former O’Keefe bewery site, Arbutus x 12th). That development works well, and did not result from rigid dictatorial planning or design policy, but from the modification of the developer’s objectives with proper consultation with the neighbourhood, and from architects who responded with appropriate references to site history, lots of public pedestrian-oriented space and a little public art. Regarding density, the developer wanted 20+ storey towers, the neighbourhood said 4 max, and the compromise was 8-12, with 4 along Arbutus with modern storefronts where none existed before. It worked well.

    Regarding slim towers, the half-block double towers sitting on a podium of townhouses has become known as the Vancouver Model and has made inroads into places like San Francisco. Vancouver is not perfect, but the point tower (slim indeed compared to other cities) was designed to define the ends, and the middle 2-4 storey townhouses were used to define the street in between and to meet the Metro objectives of ground-oriented housing. Other cities build towers that fill entire blocks.

    Perhaps the most prescient comment was by Peter Oberlander who said:

    “We really ought to launch a broad, city-wide campaign to improve the quality of design … because as the density goes higher, the quality of the design becomes crucial.”



    March 18, 2008 at 1:56 pm

  5. I speak seven languages. I offer my services as a translator. Besides, I also have some training in environment and sustainability 😀 … and I’m good carrying luggage, hehe. Great post, Stephen.


    March 18, 2008 at 3:18 pm

  6. Wasn’t Mole Hill horrendously expensive for the number of housing units that it provides?

    I do think that design requirements increase the price of housing and also at the price of individuality (whih is a larger issue unrelated to EcoDensity). i.e. The standard Vancouver house is now a craftsman style home popular when, in the 1920s through 1940s? Try to build a modernist house in Vancouver and you’d be run off the street. Any time a westcoast contemporary home comes up for sale in the City of Vancouver it’s snapped up like wildfire because there are so few of them.

    But anyways, I don’t see why working class neighbourhoods have to live up to the design aspirations of the other higher end parts of town. Scrap the superficiality of the neighbourhood – isn’t what makes a neighbourhood the PEOPLE? On the east side, you have wide open yards without trees, but you have vegetable gardens everywhere (impractical under the shady trees of the west side) – and you get the interaction of neighbours exchanging fruits and vegetables as they tend their plots. But wait, that vegetable garden wasn’t designed by a landscape architect – it’s gotta go!

    Ron C.

    March 18, 2008 at 11:55 pm

  7. There are several modernist houses I can think of in a glance, many of them in the “working class” East Side of Vancouver. Most are well-designed, a couple are in-your-face blatant statements.

    Craftsman houses are the Vancouver Standard? I wish! Pink/ beige / lavender stucco-clad Specials taken to the extreme spatial limits by small time builders with blinkers, are the most ubiquitous houses there now. They’ve made tremendous inroads in the “higher end parts of town” too.

    It is truly unfortunate huge swaths of ‘teens’ Edwardian houses in the inner ring and the small, comfortable bungalows built for the original working class of the 30s and 40s continue to be wiped out by the monoculture of Specials on the East Side.


    March 19, 2008 at 8:33 am

  8. With respect to East Side gardens, so many Vancouver Specials were built with double garages attached to the back of the house that entire back yards were paved with double-wide driveways. The modest houses they replaced had far more land for gardens. In fact, I contend the area now under food cultivation on the East Side has been dramatically reduced since bloated Vancouver Specials became the Vancouver standard in the 80s.


    March 19, 2008 at 8:47 am

  9. Ron C. is referring to new construction. Pretty much all new houses are Craftsman style houses.


    March 19, 2008 at 12:33 pm

  10. I don’t see that in my twice-daily commute through the entire length of East Vancouver, where I also live. Only (mostly) 40s bungalows that are obliterated on almost every block with basementless, soulless, faceless and cheaply-built (but not necessarily cheaply-priced) Specials taking their place. There are currently about 6 older houses for sale on E 33rd alone. It’s easy to predict their outcome based on prior observations.

    Many new suburban tracts adopted the “Craftsman style” about a decade ago, but they aren’t Craftsman houses. The original Craftsman house evolved in North America from the English Arts and Crafts movement in part as a celebration of local materials and craftsmanship, and often used once common throw away materials like clinker brick. They were also a reaction to the heavily ornamented Queen Annes that preceded them.

    Frank Lloyd Wright’s early work was influenced by A&C, but he went on to modernism, and was very influential on locals like Arthur Erickson and Ron Thom, both of whom in their early works designed post and beam houses and used regional + site specific references. West Coast Style at it’s best.

    If anything, today’s “craftsmen style” homes are inferiior in materials and craftsmanship. In fact, looking at the details, they aren’t even close, and probably won’t last as long.

    One last note, there was a Vancouver Special contest in the mid-80s when it became obvious Specials were starting to take over the landscape in waves. Fascinating results, and the contest winner proposed an ingenious design that saw a “big house” built at the front setback line, then a “small house” built near the alley. The big house was actually a two storey job that occupied roughly the same footprint of one of those older bungalows. They were joined by a galleria that looked out into a side courtyard. They could be built back-to-back if a variance would allow that (solid fire barrier required), and the design could therein be varied for narrower lots and accommodate more people without destroying the neighbourhood. The small house was meant to support family or could be rented out — this was before granny flats and coach houses came along.

    Eleven of them were built in Vancouver, the majority of them are well-designed, but they stopped allowing them when it became apparent small time builders just saw it as a way to increase lot coverage with modified Specials. Two or three slipped in under the radar and they look completely different– huge blank stucco walls, tiny plastic windows, no articulation or individuality … though they occupy the same footprint as then others. There couldn’t be a clearer demonstration on why design articulation is very important.

    How ironic.


    March 19, 2008 at 3:24 pm

  11. Yes, I was referring to the current design guidelines that apply to the west side of Vancouver – which require that houses pretty much have to match their neighbours. That pretty well means craftsman-like styles – mulitiple gables, etc.

    You even see that style appearing on the newer “specials” on the east side. Original specials haven’t been built on the east side since maybe the late 80s/early 90s.

    True wrt the double wide driveways taking up a lot of space, but people still manage to grow their vegetable patches on either side.

    The special design mentioned above suggests back-to-back duplexes/fourplexes which you see being built around the City these days (maybe moreso on the pricier west side) in a craftsman style (along with side-by-side duplexes)

    Ron C.

    March 20, 2008 at 6:01 pm

  12. BTW – I have a number of relatives who live in specials and they provide very good living space, even if they are ordinary or boxey looking from the outside.
    In terms of asthetics, they aren’t as repetitious as the rowhouses you see working class sections of towns in England.

    Ron C.

    March 20, 2008 at 6:05 pm

  13. I am not against eco-density BUT to what end? I (was ) a david suzuki fan for many years -I recall a show he did(nature of things ) many moons ago —it was about population to consumption ratio—- he went on to say that the world could only support 200million people on a forever basis,if we lived the life style of consumption of the average canadian citizen! but if we lived the consumption life style of a average citizen of bangladesh (his example not mine ) the world could support a population of a forever basis of 4billion! well there`s almost 7 billion on earth now——china stripping the bottom of the sea with (harmful scraping ) to feed our demand for fishy stuff- and many other nations are doing as much harm. I have read many reports that the oceans ( if we keep scraping and over fishing and polluting ) are destined to collaspe as a food source! I know I am a little off topic but— TO WHAT END! eco-densify to make room for 14 billion people! people if we were smart -which were not -we have to think centuries ahead ……..things could get pretty ugly out there shortages! ethanol and other plant based fuels are already causing havoc and world food shortages-especially in third world countries! every action causes an equal reaction but like I said were not very smart are we! signed………………………….bloated belly

    grant g

    March 20, 2008 at 6:29 pm

  14. … beauty is in the eye of the beholder


    March 20, 2008 at 10:40 pm

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