Vancouverism — ideas for Australian cities?

At the World Urban Forum in June, Vancouver was showing off. The city's praises were sung by both locals and visitors, and with good reason. In the thirty years since the first World Urban Forum in Vancouver, Canada's third largest city has developed its own style of integrated planning for a more sustainable urban form. This style of planning successfully integrates all dimensions of city planning, from transport to affordable housing to recreation planning, and has become known as ‘Vancouverism'.


The most obvious manifestation of Vancouverism is the ‘City of Glass' that startles the senses as you cross the water into the downtown peninsula. The numerous downtown skyscrapers are reminiscent of Hong Kong, and this is no coincidence. Vancouver has always had links with the Pacific rim, and prior to the Hong Kong handover a number of property developers came to Vancouver and began reconstructing their homeland on the West Coast of Canada. This phenomenon coincided with the City of Vancouver's decision to increase residential density in the sparsely populated downtown. Between 1991 and 2005, the number of people living in the downtown almost doubled from 47,000 to 85,000, resulting in the fastest-growing downtown population of any North American city. The current population of the City of Vancouver municipality is approximately 600,000 while the population of the Greater Vancouver Region (containing twenty-one municipalities) is two million. At the World Urban Forum, Mayor Sam Sullivan announced the Vancouver EcoDensity initiative to further increase density in the City of Vancouver.

The City's ‘Living First' growth strategy began in the late 1980s with the adoption of the Central Area Plan which promoted housing over other land uses. The City's planning drew in particular on the work of Jane Jacobs to ensure development was at a walkable scale, focused on traditional urban patterns (e.g. street networks, neighbourhood centres, block size, open space) and minimised the role of the private motor vehicle. As a result, the number of car trips in the downtown actually decreased 4% between 1994 and 1999, while walking and cycling trips increased 11%. At the same time, in other parts of the region, car trips were continuing to grow.

Conscious of the fact that good urban places require diversity and that without regulation increased downtown residential density was likely to consist of a majority of single residents and couples, the City of Vancouver has implemented high density housing for families with children guidelines. These are comprehensive guidelines for developments of more than 75 units per hectare that cover project planning, project design and unit design. They suggest, for example, that such developments should be located within 400m of a playground and a public transport stop, that family units should be co-located within developments and that bedrooms for children must have some floor space for playing. The overall aim is that 25% of new housing in such developments should be for families.


Similarly, conscious that increased downtown residential density could result in walls of glass towers with little amenity, the City of Vancouver adopted view protection guidelines. These guidelines use ‘view cones' to protect selected threatened public views, especially of the North Shore mountains. Following the Stanley Park history (see below), the foreshore in front of the glass towers has been set aside as public open space with parallel walking and cycling pathways following the coastline. The parkland includes spaces small and large, space to play frisbee or basketball or for picnics, dog walking or teaching children to ride a bike — the full range of active and passive recreation. These public open spaces also provide permeability of access from the residential areas to and along the waterfront.

Good urban design is also evident on the streets of the downtown where at eye level many of the skyscrapers appear to be terraces. Vancouver downtown architecture is predominantly towers on podiums. Apparently the concept was developed to imitate Greenwich Village in New York City at street level. The guidelines ensure that variable facades, porches, balconies and interesting detail all exist at eye level.

With all the quality public space and amenity Downtown Vancouver could have become the exclusive preserve of the wealthy, if it had not been for prescient planning. The City of Vancouver's policy has been to achieve twenty percent of units for social housing in new neighbourhoods and for large projects. In established neighbourhoods, the City applies a development cost levy with some of the funds directed towards affordable replacement housing in the area. Further information on Vancouver housing programs can be found at:

It should be noted that Vancouver is not perfect — the Downtown Eastside is a neighbourhood of concentrated poverty, homelessness and drug dependence adjacent to the CBD. Within a few blocks are more than a thousand homeless people, an estimated 40-70% of whom are mentally ill, a significant proportion of whom are indigenous and most of whom are drug-dependent. There are people on the footpaths and in the alleyways shooting up, smoking crack pipes and doing deals. Australia is indeed fortunate that hard drugs are not as cheap and or abundant in our cities, although there's no guarantee the problem won't expand. The City has a Downtown Eastside Revitalisation Program that is trying to create a functional and balanced low-income community, in particular through the creation of social housing.

What are the lessons of Vancouverism for Australian cities? From a short visit it appears that leadership, vision and governance are crucial. These qualities seem to be related to the City's context, including a historical context of enlightened planning. In fact the first resolution of the first City Council in 1886 was to petition the Federal Government for the dedication of 404 hectares of the downtown peninsula as Stanley Park. Vancouver has its own charter and so is not influenced as much as other municipalities by the Provincial and Federal governments.

The City has also spent years and significant resources developing an agreed-upon approach with citizens, community organisations and the private sector. According to Larry Beasley (until June, long-time Co-director of Planning at the City of Vancouver), the Council's highly discretionary regulatory framework with its focus on guidelines and incentives has been a vital component of the ‘cooperative planning approach'. While cooperative, this planning has been highly interventionist. Crucially, the development assessment process is depoliticised. While the City Council is responsible for overall policy, final approval for major projects is given by the Development Permit Board, of which no member is a politician.

Coordinated, integrated planning at both a city and regional level appear crucial. For example, the twenty-one Vancouver municipalities have a joint transport agency (TransLink) and a joint municipal finance corporation so that city governments can access lower interest rates for financing projects.

The integrated planning that has underpinned Vancouverism includes the creation of Neighbourhood Integrated Service Teams (NIST). These teams include staff from the planning, police, fire, engineering, permits and licensing departments, community centres and libraries, as well as representatives from outside agencies such as the Vancouver School Board and the Vancouver Coastal Health Authority. The NIST share information and coordinate their efforts with residents. In 2003, the NIST program received the United Nations Award for Innovation in Public Service.

In contrast, Australian neighbourhood planning is generally more fragmented. In Redfern where I live major urban renewal of the area has been transferred to a new state body, the Redfern Waterloo Authority. Eight separate planning processes are underway, overseen by the one local government: the development of a Local Action Plan, two Local Area Traffic Management Plans, an Urban Design Study for the new Local Environment Plan, Master Plans for Redfern Street, Redfern Oval and Park and Prince Alfred Park and a Pedestrian Access and Mobility Plan. In addition, there is an LGA-wide bike plan out for community consultation and a parking policy review scheduled for public consultation later in the year.

Spatial and human scale are obviously significant. In Sydney there are forty-two local Councils, several with less than three percent of the region's population each. While they may or may not have good relationships with their residents, they have no economies of scale and little ability to plan in a coordinated manner across their sub-regions, although limited economies of scale are possible through Regional Organisations of Councils for sharing of works depots, plant etc. In contrast Brisbane City Council, like Vancouver, is able to undertake regional planning as it covers an area of almost one million people. It is easier to do integrated transport and land use planning, for example, when you manage the bus services. Most bus services within Brisbane are operated by the Council-owned Brisbane Transport.

Probably the most important inspiration from Vancouver is the evidence that increased density can be done well. Australian cities could be created with dense inner-city cores that are human-scale and liveable. People will scream that ‘Australians love their quarter acre blocks' as if living in an apartment is un-Australian, but prior to the 1950s the majority of Australians lived in medium density areas, including the terraces of Paddington and art-deco apartments of Mosman. This argument also fails to acknowledge the major changes in the demographics of the Australian population. A significant proportion of Australians come from Asian countries where many grew up living in apartments. Since 1986, the largest change in ancestry as recorded by ABS statistics has been the increased presence of Australians with South and East Asian ancestries, with the number of Australians with Chinese, Vietnamese and Indian ancestries more than doubling by 2001. A significant change in household structure in the last decade has been the trend towards more people living alone. ABS projections are that this trend will continue with the number of people living alone increasing from 1.8 million in 2001 to between 2.8 million and 3.7 million by 2026. Similarly, all major Australian cities have experienced a revival of inner-city living over the last decade.

It is not surprising that some people fear increased density, associating it with increased traffic, parking problems and noise or with the poor-quality flat development of previous decades, but Vancouver shows that, with good planning, high density can result in quality living spaces and attractive public space. Furthermore, the Vancouver model does not mean tower blocks in every suburb. The majority of land in Australian cities, like the majority of Vancouver, in fact, will remain largely suburban. A ‘city of glass' can, however, not only be more socially, ecologically and economically sustainable, it can also be an engaging place of beauty and pleasure.

Leave a Comment