What Russians can learn from urban development in Vancouver

When you are reading this week’s column, I’ll be in Moscow.

While many regard Moscow as large, gloomy, congested city, it is changing. In recent years, considerable effort has been devoted to making the city much more livable with new parks, pedestrian streets and even bicycle lanes.

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Former veteran Vancouver-based CBC reporter Chris Brown, who last year was assigned to head up CBC’s new Moscow bureau, recently told me during a Skype conversation that he regularly rides his bicycle to work.

I have been invited to Russia to speak to practising architects, bureaucrats and city representatives about innovative thinking when it comes to housing and urban planning.

My talk is part of an educational initiative of Strelka — a non-profit organization that amongst other things offers free educational programs aimed at improving the skills of Russian architects. Strelka’s goal is to improve the landscape of Russian cities.

Its chairman is Alexander Mamut, one of Russia’s major oligarchs. UK’s Daily Telegraph once described Mamut as the most powerful Russian oligarch you have never heard of.

While many Vancouverites lament our city’s housing unaffordability and over-abundance of high-density glass towers, around the world our planning policies, new communities and housing designs are highly regarded.

This includes EcoDensity. While many criticized former Mayor Sam Sullivan for coining (and registering) the label, Sullivan was right. We can and must protect the environment through increasing density of communities.

While many wrongly assumed EcoDensity meant highrise buildings, in fact it had more to do with “gentle density” and “missing-middle” forms of housing, including laneway homes, duplexes, infill townhouses and smaller apartment buildings.

I will also share Patrick Condon’s “Seven Rules for Planning Sustainable Communities.” They include achieving mixed-income neighbourhoods through a range of housing forms and tenures, alternative transportation options, vibrant mixed-use streets and neighbourhoods, good and plentiful jobs closer to home, resource-efficient buildings, access to natural parks and areas, and greener, smarter and cost-effective infrastructure.

Metro Vancouver’s best-planned communities and neighbourhoods adhere to most, if not all these rules. These include the South Shore of False Creek with its 1/3 low, 1/3 mid, and 1/3 high income socio-economic mix. While at first many worried this social-engineering experiment would fail, it has proven to be a great success, especially for the lower income households.

Collingwood Village and Westminster Quay in New Westminster are good examples of transit-oriented communities that adhere to these rules.

UBC’s University Town and UniverCity, the sustainable community at Simon Fraser University, for which I was the founding developer, are two successful examples of more recent planned communities. The number of international awards they have received is a testament to their world-wide acclaim.

One of the hot topics I’ll be discussing is “inclusionary zoning.” Since the late 1980s, all of Vancouver’s major projects have had to include 20 per cent affordable housing in one form or another. However, it is only recently Vancouver and other Metro municipalities have demanded smaller projects also combine affordable rental housing with market condominiums.

Inclusionary zoning is now also mandatory in Seattle, San Francisco, Portland and New York, to name just a few cities. The approach is not without controversy. Many people, perhaps appalled by the “poor door” label, question the concept of separate entrances, even though the homes are often in separate buildings.

Architects and developers also criticize the concept since many of these projects are no longer economical, and too many projects are being shelved due to rising land and construction costs.

I will also examine other local forms of housing, including those exemplifying “Vancouverism.” These are generally slimmer towers built on top of mixed-use or townhouse podiums. This design results in more livable suites and greater pedestrian interest at grade.

“Lock-off suites” are another Vancouver innovation. First approved and built at UniverCity, these apartments are designed so that the second or third bedroom has its own entrance and can be rented out, prompting one journalist to dub them “mortgage helpers in the sky.”

Finally, I will again try to promote the concept of car-sharing. However, the last time I did this, one audience member cried out to me, “Mr. Geller, over the years Russians have had to share so much. We don’t want to have to now start sharing cars!”











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