It’s high time to make better use of our waterways

Vancouver should follow in the footsteps of other major cities to enhance commerce, housing options, industry and trade along the water

My last column reported on the Board of Trade’s Economic Scorecard 2016 prepared by the Conference Board of Canada, which compared Vancouver with 19 other international cities on a range of economic and social criteria.

Since writing this column, I have visited two other cities on the list: Copenhagen (ranked No. 2) and Rotterdam (ranked 13). I also visited Amsterdam and Hamburg.

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All of these cities continue to use their waterfronts for industry and trade. However, not unlike Vancouver, some derelict industrial areas are now being transformed into new communities.

As I explored these cities by boat, I was struck by how they seemed to make much better use of their water areas for not only industry, but also transportation, recreation, and housing.

This is not to say Vancouver hasn’t done a good job of creating attractive waterfront walkways, bikeways and parks around the city. We have. Indeed, planners from all over the world come to see what we have accomplished, and in one case, Dubai, even duplicated a portion of the False Creek waterfront.

However, unlike most other world cities, we have been very timid when it comes to allowing new activities on and around the water.

I discovered this first hand in the early 1990s when I was overseeing the planning of the Bayshore community in Coal Harbour. Unlike most waterfront areas in Vancouver where the water lots are leased, the Bayshore owned the land under the marina. I thought it would be both visually exciting and profitable to build a residential tower rising out of the marina.

City staff were concerned that this would “privatize” the water even though the marina was already private property. However, to offset their concerns, we proposed to also build a new pier at the foot of Denman Street, and an “Amsterdam-style” pedestrian bridge over the water around the marina.

Having been born in Blackpool, England, where three piers are major attractions, I thought a new pier would offer a wonderful way to experience the Coal Harbour waterfront. However, city staff and council sadly rejected the idea. Only Coun. Tung Chan voted in favour of it.

As a small concession, the city reluctantly allowed the Bayshore developer to create a pad for a waterfront restaurant, which today is Lift.

Now think about it: how many other restaurants have been built on or close to the water in Vancouver? Not many. And yet when we go to other cities, these are often our preferred places to drink and dine.

We rarely allow ice-cream or other food and drink to be sold along our waterfront walkways. Now compare this with Nyhavn in Copenhagen, where dozens of restaurants line the harbour.

Many Vancouverites and visitors enjoy riding the SeaBus and charming (albeit expensive) False Creek ferries. But why don’t we have more ferry services around the city and region? In Brisbane, Australia, students use the TransLink ferry to get to university. We should have a similar service to UBC. It might shorten travel times for some and reduce road congestion.

While visiting these European cities I was also struck by how many people were out enjoying the water. They weren’t all on fancy yachts. They were having lunch, dinner or drinks on small boats that they owned or rented by the day. Others enjoyed watching them from large and small waterside restaurants.

I also discovered many more people living on the water. They lived on barges and other craft that had been converted to live-aboards, and floating homes similar to those found at Granville Island and Canoe Pass Village in Ladner. In IJborg Amsterdam, I discovered a floating community comprised of townhouses, with basements!

In the future, we can expect large floating communities to be built, similar to prototypes on display at recent world Expos in Shanghai and Yesou, Korea.

In the meantime, let’s make better use of our waterfronts, not only for industry, but also for transportation, recreation and yes, floating home communities.

Not only will these initiatives offer Vancouverites and tourists delightful new experiences, they might even help us catch up to Copenhagen and Singapore (No. 1), where many enjoy travel by boat and thousands of places to eat on the waterfront.


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