May 4, 2017

Is Vancouver the urban-design leader? – 4

This week, a series from urban designer Gloria Venczel (principal of Cityscape Design), who asked “Is Vancouver the Urban Design-City-Building leader in North America?”
After a Manhattan comparison, a contrast with Toronto.


I was also able to visit Toronto in the humidity and heat of the summer 2016. It is also a winter city with a plethora of underground shopping complexes downtown Toronto with edgy contemporary  architecture. But the streets seem to be for people/car movement with limited public realm vibrancy.

How does this compare to Vancouver’s newer developments from a pedestrian oriented urban design perspective? Livability? Vibrancy?


“One York”  – great architecture but nothing to do on the street as all the shops and services are below ground. No edge programming that would make the street more vibrant and safe.


Financial District, Toronto. Minimal building edge programming like cafes or shops  to actuallygive people a reason to stay. Planters do not in and of themselves create vibrancy.


Greater Toronto Area (GTA) City Hall . No recognition of people in the urban design in theforecourt, ironically a very anonymous and dangerous space.


Downtown Shopping , Toronto. Barren streetscape, no trees, benches or concept of a “public living room” . Just people and goods movement – utilitarian- close to the Eaton’s Shopping Centre.     

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  1. I’d say that one aspect where Vancouver has been a leader is in the central area of Vancouver, with City Council with the advice of the Planning staff chose to make city streets in the downtown the focus of public life by requiring:
    1) retail to be pedestrian-oriented rather than centred in internal malls;
    2) limiting the underground connections to be links to rapid transit
    3) fostering a network of retail streets and therefore streets busy with pedestrians throughout the downtown and the West End
    4) promoting walking as the primary way of moving around the downtown.
    Gordon Price who was on Council at that time will recall this decision that Council made as part of the 1991 Central Area Plan they approved in December of that year. Rhonda Howard with Larry Beasley, Trish French and Nathan Edelson worked with Council on that Plan.
    Much focus has been on the decision to promote residential in the downtown. But strategically the decision to limit “shopping malls” and promote a network of retail lining sidewalks was also one of the most strategic far-reaching decisions Council made 25 years ago.

  2. I’ve practiced urban planning and design in Toronto for about 6 years, but am a native of Vancouver. When a round of Vancouver bashing starts-up, I’m a fierce defender of my hometown. As I should be; Vancouver does a tremendous job with new-built communities like the Olympic Village and UBC Village. Mid-rise development, when it gets built, is typically better done in Vancouver. That said, to compare Vancouver to Toronto based on the cherry picking some of Toronto’s worst urban design examples isn’t exactly fair. With the exception of 1 York, the examples in this post aren’t contemporary (CIBC’s Commerce Court was built in 1972, Metro Hall in 1992). They’re from an era of urbanism most every Canadian city would prefer to forget. Stack these up against contemporaneous Vancouver developments like the Pacific Centre or 200 Granville, and Vancouver has little to brag about.
    But if you walk about 15 minutes east of where these photos were taken, you’ll find places like Regent Park, the West Don Lands, and the Distillery District: all complete urban communities incorporating housing, retail, office, open space and community amenities at the heart of the city. That’s to say nothing of the miles-upon-miles of active 2-4 storey mixed-use that crisscross the entire core.
    Sure, we’ve got some real dogs out here, but this isn’t for lack of urban design sense. The City of Toronto is tied up in a web of political, legal and economic factors (amalgamation, Ontario Municipal Board, property speculation) that can make reasonable urban design decisions difficult to achieve. But Vancouver has its own barriers to good urban design too, like a single-family home hang-up that gives us bungalows along major transit corridors. Let Vancouver and Toronto learn from each other. Together we can pick on Calgary.

    1. Let Vancouver and Toronto learn from each other. Together we can pick on Calgary.
      As an urban designer who grew up in Cowtown and has lived in Vancouver for almost 40 years, I can relate. There are a few 19th Century exceptions there, such as Inglewood, the old hospital district, Lower Mount Royal, and Kensington Road. But this is also a city that balked at the delightful $25 million Calatrava Peace Bridge for pedestrians and bikes while not uttering a peep about spending 300 times more on ring roads and arterials. There is much work to be done.

    2. Thanks Lucas…in my post you would note I did not criticize Toronto. I grew up in Toronto, but have spent most of my professional life working here in Vancouver.
      In January, I was in Toronto for several weeks having to travel daily from my friend’s home on Toronto Island, which is near heaven in Ontario other than Muskoka or Georgian Bay than I can find, to a hospital to see my Dad.
      Each day I journeyed across Toronto Harbour on a ferry and took a couple of streetcars along Harbourfront and then on the King or Queen St steetcars to St Joseph’s Hospital to be with my Father. I loved riding the Queen or King streetcars and observing all the local small businesses and folks out walking about. It was very comforting as I was head to or from the hospital to be with Dad. Bloor St, Yonge St, Spadina or St Clair are wonderful streets and they are still there as they were in my youth to enjoy so Toronto is doing good things in my books as well.

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