by Lydia Heard, Urban Planner for VIA Architecture
Part 2 of A Citywalkers Take: Walking the Livable City looks at what it means for a city to be “livable” and how it applies in Vancouver, at different strata – up and down.
Walking to our office on Homer Street, I am suddenly stricken by a serious case of citylove. I’ve been here before, but coming back after being in other cities for a couple of years I’m filled with the sense of how comfortable and right this street feels, the sense of human scale in a four-story streetwall, and two well-spaced, attractively proportioned towers on this block offering no sense of intrusion. This is a new block in the famous Vancouver tower and podium style; across the street the block is made up of historic Yaletown low-rise buildings. Balance and beauty, high and low, old and new –I’m very happy to be here.
Vancouverize, Vancouverism. The city that became a verb and and from that a new noun. Rated, again, by The Economist magazine as the most livable city in the world. What does that mean, to be the most livable city? The Economist scores cities across five broad categories: stability; health care; culture and environment; education; and infrastructure.
We in the States, some of us at least, are aware of how Canadian health care compares to ours. Stability, education – highly scored but not something that can be clearly observed while walking the city. Culture? Environment? Infrastructure? High points for these categories are egregiously evident. I’ll come back to those soon – but what does it mean to live in Vancouver, or in any good livable city?
To me it has to do with accessibility, access to the necessities, pleasures and pursuits that make city life so positive. Can you easily get to a grocer or market? To restaurants? Entertainment, recreation, and social pursuits? To your job, if there are enough jobs? Is there housing available, accessible in price, of variety to suit different lifestyles and life stages, and close to all of the aforementioned amenities? Is there light and air where you are, and open space close by? If you need to go farther than is comfortable by foot, are there convenient means to get there, by bike or especially transit?
Vancouver Life (for a day or three)
I work through the afternoon in the office (but am being paid by the Seattle office, which I have to make clear at each border crossing), in the open timbered top floor of one of the historic buildings, silently cringing from the aspersions against U.S.A. being tossed about, even here, since our hockey team defeated Canada in the round-robin a few days previous. I’ve never caught on to athletics or sports and won’t be going to any events, but screens are everywhere broadcasting them, and getting caught up in a moment of incredible artistic and physical prowess, the excitement of a game in play, and especially the celebratory atmosphere, is unavoidable.
At end of day it’s time to drag my luggage off to find my home while I’m here, an apartment rented by the firm for visiting employees and others. It turns out to be in one of those beautiful Vancouver style towers just a few blocks from the office. It’s a third floor unit, on the alley side; a bachelor unit, as they are known here, well-appointed, with many closets and a feeling of spaciousness enhanced by a wall of windows.
There are coffee shops and restaurants of every type lining the nearby streets, and a good-sized corner grocer a block away; there is also a park on the next block. A few blocks away in the West End the streets are more residential and very quiet. These are examples of the variety that make dense urban living a more livable and optimal choice for more people, from singles to retirees to families with children. Out of the many restaurants, shops, and yes, bars (bars and nightlife are actually important to cities in attracting the younger creative class), finding something you want is less a problem than is deciding on one of many choices.
Parks are frequent, even along the open water by the seawall. This is a city that is well connected to most of its waterfront.
Walk through Yaletown on Davie, past the Roundhouse Community Centre and the Urban Fare grocery, where people are sitting at sidewalk tables; past the bicycle shop and the roundabout to the marina, and catch an Aquabus or water ferry to some False Creek destination; or go for a long walk along the seawall. The Coal Harbour trail is packed on a sunny day with people who gave up waiting in line for the Olympic Cauldron.
The new segment of the Seaside Trail past the Olympic Village at Southeast False Creek was closed for security reasons, as was that entire area, even the waterway; I hadn’t expected this but should have.
I walked across the Cambie Bridge with many other walkers and cyclists, watching three volunteer staff persons with aqua jackets and security clearances who are the only people walking the seawall.
On the north side of False Creek, facing a seawall full of walkers, joggers and cyclists (including one on a unicycle), two towers are fronted by newish Cooper Park, where dogs are chasing Frisbees and the constant activity has worked the grass to mud. It has a fine playground that sees lots of activity as well, showing that families enjoy life in this livable urban environment.
Livable for All?
Not everyone in downtown lives in fairy tale towers. Vancouver, due to the temperate climate, attracts large numbers of homeless people from across Canada, particularly in winter. These travelers, along with poverty-level full-time residents, have historically been concentrated in the Downtown Eastside, or the DTES. This was once the commercial center of the city, but like other historic urban areas has seen hard times and decay for decades. You can’t call the neighborhood downtrodden, however; it’s a center of activism. Strathcona (east of DTES) is the neighborhood that organized and managed to halt freeway construction to the downtown in the 1970’s, changing the emphasis of transportation infrastructure in the city. The Woodsquat of 2002, protesters, arrests, tent city and all, publicized poverty and homelessness and the need for social housing. So, in 2010, where are all the people?
One summer I was astonished by the crowds of people here. There are supposedly a greater number in winter – but now I hardly see anyone. Emboldened, I duck into the suggestively named Blood Alley. There is a nice treed area here in back of some housing; a few people standing about are eyeing me suspiciously. I feel like an intruder and turn back.
Further along is the 44 unit Pennsylvania Hotel, restored in 2009 for social housing at a cost of around $326,000 per 250 square foot unit. It’s expensive to bring a historic building up to code, but it was only slightly more expensive than new construction. The city has a Winter Response Program for seasonal emergency shelter; for 2010 a sixth shelter was added for a total of 500 beds. Funding was provided by the province for another 569 units of permanent housing on six sites, but these are not yet completed.
In protest at the continued housing shortage, activists set up an “Olympic Tent Village” in a vacant lot on West Hastings, with around 140 tents and anywhere from two-dozen to 100 residents from day to day. Originally intended to last only five days, some residents want to keep it going longer, reminiscent of the 90 days of Woodsquat.
Speaking of which, the old Woodwards block (the site of Woodsquat) has been transformed. The original building was retained and the rest of the block rebuilt to include social and market housing; a grocer, drugstore and other retail; and includes the Simon Fraser University contemporary arts program.
One rainy night while standing in the Hastings Street entrance consulting an artwalk map, I had the pleasure of directing people around through the courtyard to get into the Blue Dragon experimental theatre event. This project is considered a catalyst for revitalizing the DTES. It also generates concerns over gentrification, always a tricky balancing act. Old buildings that provide affordable housing eventually decay beyond repair; here it seems that a balance of market investment in new uses plus social housing, combined with public investment in renovation and replacement of social housing, might strike a comfortable balance.
In newly renovated Pigeon Park footsore tourists share the benches with people living out of a backpack or grocery cart. It’s all pretty inviting. Invitation is an important part of being a Host City to the World, Olympics or no.
Still to go in this series: Transit City, Green City, Host City, Future City?
Author’s note, in case you were wondering: The trademark sign is attached to 2010 in the title because VANOC (the Vancouver Olympic organizing committee) registered it as an “expression” during the Olympics. This is a normal practice for Olympic host cities; I just found it interesting.
Walking the Livable City, Part 1
Two image credits: yaletown, hockey