Stephen Rees's blog

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

The Great Vancouver vs. Seattle Debate

with 3 comments

As regular readers here will know I get quite a bit of content for this blog out of attending the public lectures put on by the City program at SFU downtown. One event I missed was a debate between Gordon Price, director of that program, and Seattle’s Peter Steinbrueck over the virtues of the two cities – Price arguing for Seattle, Steinbrueck for Seattle. The debates took place twice – once there and once here – and on Crosscut (a Seattle blog) a report of the debate has now appeared.

Knute Berger says that there are reports of the debate on line – but does not provide links. Just the following “Twitter feeds, a webcast and the Seattle Channel” – which I suppose I will have to look up – unless one of the commenters beats me to it. So he does not provide the sort of report that I usually write, but a digest of the pros and cons. So I will leave it at that except for a couple of observations.

Price touted the wonders of Seattle’s hills and having a city that lives in three dimensions. But, as Steinbrueck points out, the flatter Vancouver core is better for walking and biking. It’s an easier city to get around in

It does not seem to me that this point is either important or relevant – or indeed even especially accurate. The Vancouver region has plenty of hills – we even put one of our major universities on top of a mountain, a decision which now looks nearly as bizarre as sticking the other one at the end of a peninsula. In the urban core, people do “live in three dimensions” – the elevators carry more traffic than the buses – and along Broadway (and increasingly other major arterials) people live over the shops and other urban facilities. Hills are an equal challenge for citizens of New Westminster and  North Vancouver. And yes these are part of the city since how else could we make that famous boast about being able to ski and swim in the sea on the same day?

Is Bellevue a suburb like Richmond – or is it part of the City of Seattle? Not that it matters very much either way. I suspect that all city advocates get a bit myopic when it suits them. Gordon Price once remarked to me that he thought the suburbs were anywhere south of 12th Avenue – which is actually truer the more you think about it. Most of Vancouver outside of the core is more like Burnaby or Richmond than Coal Harbour.

Vancouver’s great failure I would say is that it neglected to hang on to employment in the urban core. This is two sides of the same coin. A lot of the new development did not go into existing neighbourhoods but rather into conversions of industrial and commercial areas. That is actually easier for the planners – fewer existing residents to make a fuss – and more profitable for developers – since a big increment is earned from the change in land use. It also meant that some significant environmental clean up of polluted sites got done – False Creek for example.  But the mass transit system was – and still is – designed for the traditional many to few origin- destination pairs, and does not cope nearly as well with the many to many pattern that developed with the office parks and other suburban workplaces that were never part of any plan but emerged due to the Monday night decisions of most municipalities. No wonder it is so hard to get around – we did not plan land use and transportation together. Or rather we assumed that cars (and a bit of road expansion and traffic management) would sort the problems out. And obviously we were wrong.  Of course displaced businesses went to the cheap sites at the edge of town and not the regional town centres – there was no way to stop them – not that anyone was trying very hard.

This, it seems to me, is much more important to the debate than most of the other issues like “architectural risk taking”. But to comprehend the issue you have to expand the discussion to that of the functional urban region – not just the central city. Seattle’s big feature for me is the freeway – both the one on stilts through the centre – and the ring road, which sweeps you into the airport when you want to get out of town to the south. (I5 is actually an off-ramp, not the major route at the last intersection of the ring road.)  And whatever the features of Seattle’s downtown we may choose to praise, the suburban areas of both regions are identical – and indistinguishable from every other suburb/exurb/conurb in North America. Wake up in a hotel room just off the freeway in either and the only way to tell where you are is to check the area code on the room phone – looking out of the window will be no help at all.

And now we seem to be eagerly copying Seattle’s biggest mistake. Or rather the Province of BC has forced that on us. I do not think anyone who understands cities supports that decision.

Written by Stephen Rees

June 22, 2009 at 9:43 am

Posted in Urban Planning

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3 Responses

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  1. The debate was all in fun. Gordon’s presentation was very funny. Both Gordon and Peter ribbed each other. Gordon knew he’d ended up on the short end of the stick having to argue for Seattle. As a Seattleite Peter seemed to be quite happy touting what he saw as Vancouver’s advantages over Seattle. At the end of the evening Vancouver may have come out of the exercise with a slight edge.

    In the Seattle it may have been just the other way around.

    A good time was had by all.


    June 22, 2009 at 11:20 am

  2. Agree totally about the Freeways being Seattle’s mistake that the provincial government is forcing on us. Speaking to your comments about the bike routes as well my understanding is that they want to put a “shoulder” type of bike lane beside the proposed South Fraser Freeway. There are a lot more appealing options such as a hiking / biking combination trail along the existing flood dyke ways (similar to Richmond) that have the advantage of waterfront view and fresh air.

    Bernadette Keenan

    June 22, 2009 at 4:46 pm

  3. Seattle will soon, real SOON–with some luck most of the people tha tare now between 20 and 50 will get to see it before they fly away forever–tear down the viaduct and replace it by a tunnel…I like Seattle (is that a grass is greaner…) because the older area, with great old buildings, is really neat but was quite shocked, appalled etc. one Friday when 2 buddies went to a ball game in the late afternoon while I was planning to do a lot of window shopping(I am more of a rugby and soccer type). I managed to spend about 15 minutes in the central library (What a building!!) before it closed at 6 pm, as ALL THE STORES downtown on a Friday evening!! I then amused myself watching drivers parking on very steep streets, spent some time in the famous Elliott Bay Bookstore and finally walked back and forth for a couple of hours under the viaduct, not far from Safeco Fields. That area was so totally dead there wasn’t even a panhandler to talk to!

    Red frog

    June 22, 2009 at 10:30 pm

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