Gordon PriceEditor’s Note: As part of our “Escape to Vancouver” campaign, Sightline talked to Gordon Price—urban design expert and former Vancouver city councillor—to get his take on the changing landscape of Cascadia’s most urban city. Gordon, who has offered a Vancouver walking/biking tour to the winner of the trip, blogs and posts his popular urban design newsletter on his Price Tags website. (Full disclosure: Sightline is also lucky enough to claim Gordon as a board member.)

Sightline: Where would you start your Vancouver urban design tour?

Gordon: No doubt at all: I’d begin with False Creek. From the False Creek seawall you can see 40 years of various forms of cutting-edge urban design, from Granville Island to the south shore of False Creek and the Olympic Village to North False Creek and the West End. You really see a panorama of ideas for how Vancouver attracted people to live in the downtown corridor in a livable way.

Sightline: What’s the background of False Creek?

Gordon: The vision of a residential False Creek came out of the spirit of the 1970’s. It was one of the first experiments in creating family-friendly environments in denser urban neighborhoods—in what used to be a polluted industrial basin in Vancouver. So we planned for lots of green spaces, ground-oriented housing, schools, and childcare, a truly mixed-use neighborhood. Later, the same philosophy of family-friendly housing was applied to the north shore of False Creek, but at a level of much higher density.

Sightline: What are examples of its success?

Gordon: One is that in 2005, Vancouver opened its first new downtown school in half a century, Elsie Roy Elementary, on the False Creek Seawall in the Concord Pacific project. While other cities are closing schools, it’s full to capacity. False Creek really recalibrated the standard for high-rise living. Another example: Ninety percent of residents of False Creek North walk as part of their daily routine.

Sightline: Where else would you take folks?

Gordon: Probably to some of the old streetcar villages all around False Creek that are continually reinventing themselves, such as the West End, Kitsilano, and Mount Pleasant. Mount Pleasant is a good place to see the emergence of the bicycle as a mainstream form of transportation. On 10th Avenue, you’ll see very, very high cycling rates. It’s the Europeanization of cycling in Vancouver. People don’t wear Lycra, they wear street clothes. They’re riding bikes without gears, called “fixies.”

Sightline: These strike me as examples of Vancouver’s success at designing livable, compact neighborhoods that can allow people to get around without a car. I know the city’s not perfect, but it’s certainly been ahead of the curve in Cascadia. What’s made the difference?

Gordon: You could make a case that it entered our thinking right from the beginning, because we were surrounded by mountains and water and we used up our land base very quickly. Simply because of our geography, we had to find a way to create livable high-density. It wouldn’t be just an option for those who couldn’t afford the house in the suburbs. The other factor that was absolutely huge is we didn’t build freeways. [Editor’s note: Read more of Gordon’s take on the great Freeway Fight here.]

Sightline: Are there ideas that Vancouver is borrowing from places like Seattle and Portland, these days?

Gordon: Definitely. The Pearl District in Portland has been influential. So many green glass high-rises have been built in Vancouver that people have finally said, “Enough already!” Portland offers another model of how to do good density.

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  • Sightline: And how about from around the globe?

    Gordon: Although I haven’t see it happen explicitly yet, I’m pretty sure the sustainable communities that are being built in the Middle East and Asia will be an influence, such as Norman Foster’s Masdar development in Abu Dhabi. These are huge, instant cities that are adopting sustainability principles, particularly when it comes to energy. And many Vancouver architects and developers have been involved.

    Another trend is what the French call “passerelles”–pedestrian and cycling bridges. The best-known one is probably the Millennium Bridge across the Thames. They are among the most interesting blends of architecture and engineering around these days. They’ve become these iconic structures. [Editor’s note: Gordon has written about a new Vancouver Olympic Village passerelle here.]

    Sightline: What else is on your radar?

    Gordon: We’re seeing the effective marketing of small space, better designed. And Lane housing–small houses, four or five hundred square feet, at the most, in the back of the yard, on the lane. We’ve been doing that for a while below the horizon. Now it’s emerging. You can see this all through Mount Pleasant.

    Sightline: How will sustainable urban design trends be affected by the current economic crisis?

    Gordon: We’re seeing all kinds of crises occur simultaneously: collapse of financial markets, peak oil, climate change, health, obesity. And crises allow all kinds of things to happen, good and bad. I think it’s definitely going to mean a change in our way of life. The norm—low density, complete car dependence, and a big, energy-wasting house—is almost impossible to perpetuate as the dominant mode.

    Sightline: What gives you hope?

    Gordon: The younger generation in Vancouver and in other places have already begun to change their assumptions about what the “norm” is. Yesterday, on Main Street, for example, literally every bike rack and parking meter had a bicycle locked to it. As the numbers continue to build, Vancouver will be close to Copenhagen, which has a strategy of converting 2 percent of road space for other uses. In fact, I’ve talked to transportation engineers here who say, “Well, we haven’t calculated it, but, it wouldn’t surprise me if we’ve been doing that in the last few years just because of the commitments we’ve made to walking and cycling.

    And I’m just speculating, but at some point, when real tough decisions have to be made
    about the reallocation of road space, accommodating alternative modes such as biking and walking will no longer be a case of just accommodating the fringe. It’s becoming mainstream.

    Tools are being developed to help us make these transitions. For example, I’m going to Scottsdale, Arizona, soon. Thanks to Google Transit, I’ll be able to punch in the address of where I want to go and get a step-by-step guide to the transfers I have to make. If I can do it in a city that’s as car-centered as Phoenix, Arizona, then that shows you how far things have come already.

    It’s a re-framing of expectations and aspirations.

    Sightline: Where’s your next car-free vacation?

    Gordon: Hmmm. I’m trying to think of any car vacations that I’ve taken.