May 14, 2020

The Urban Forest of Vancouverism

This is what we planted in the 1990s: a landscape design from the post-Expo era that has come to be known as ‘Vancouverism.”

Downtown South was in a post-rezoning boom, and Hong Kong investment, families and sensibilities were arriving – evident on the 800-block of Hamilton Street where the major tower, completed in 1995, is named ‘Jardine’s Lookout’ (a mountain and residential area on Hong Kong Island).

Now, a generation later, it is surrounded by a maturing urban forest.

The 1991 Downtown South rezoning was accompanied by a neighbourhood-specific streetscape manual in 1994, meant to provide a greener, quieter identity on what would otherwise be traffic-heavy arterials.  Influenced by Erickson and Oberlander’s landscaping of Robson Square, the sidewalks would all have a double row of trees, with increased setbacks and, in this case, a heritage garden (all paid for by the developers, from building to curb.)

Note how there are four levels of landscaping, from bushes and hedges at grade, to the rows of trees, to the gardens on decks and roofs.  Foliage surrounds the pedestrian on every side, and above, proving that high-density urban environments can be greener and more lush than any grass-dominant suburb.

Regrettably, the curb-adjacent planting strips (inspired by West-End boulevards) could not handle the foot traffic along the metered streets, and so the grass has been replaced over time with asphalt, brick, concrete and astroturf.  Having been the councillor who pushed for grass curbing in the original urban design, I regret my over-optimism on its survival, but do wish we had gone for something both permeable and able to withstand the wear-and-tear.

This is an urban forest in its adolescence.  And it’s not the only block.  Throughout Downtown South, from Robson to Pacific, Granville to Yaletown, the streets are becoming so lush and thick with foliage, we’ll already have to consider how we’re going to thin them out.


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  1. It lloks great. I wonder wether the fact that the building is a condo proect controlled by a strata council will have any effect on long term maintenance and form.

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  3. While we are busy re-examining our use of road space (especially in residential areas) it came to me that there’s no reason we shouldn’t start treating the downtown south much like the West End. Hamilton, Homer, Richards, Helmcken and Drake could all be interrupted with pocket parks and other traffic calming measures leaving even more space for greening to compensate for the curbside loss.

    And let’s get the cars out of Yaletown altogether.

    1. I wonder then, how those of us who chose to live in the city, so that we might “age in place” are to access services and recreation, if cars are prohibited? What about people who have mobility challenges? A year ago, whilst recovering from surgery, I used a taxi to travel from Seymour Street to Mainland. Walking would have been impossible.
      This is the same question I pose to the suggestion of keeping Stanley Park car-free.

  4. The real problem with these urban forests (in, on and around condo developments) is that many developers want the landscape architects to over-plant these spaces to make it attractive to buyers. This is usually when the building is going into the ground. Landscape architects know that its not good practice to do this, but they feel they must satisfy the client to ensure future work.
    Usually these landscapes grow fast, and within five years the trees, plants and ground-covers are overcrowding their planting beds.
    During this time, the new strata council decides on the most economical landscape maintenance firm to oversee care, which usually means employees who have no idea what they are doing. So, we have trees being volcano-ed (soil built up against the base of the tree which leads to the eventual death of the tree), plants improperly planted. Now, you are left with a sad and butchered planting bed that looks like many landscapes around the city.
    Some landscape firms (both L.A.’s and maintenance) do know their craft and try and design/nurture these landscapes into what you have described above. But we could have a lot more such urban forested areas with better landscape practices.

    1. You also have lots of dogs peeing on the gardens. The strip garden along the sidewalk at Jardine’s Lookout had to be replaced a number of times until they found a good combination of prickly shrubs and hardy plants, plus large stones as groundcover, that survive the onslaught.
      Down the block at Rosedale Garden which has pet-inaccessible raised planter beds, the stench of urine (ammonia) on the concrete sidewalk can be stifling.
      In 20 years (?) the whole garden will have to be ripped up to replace the waterproof membrane below (as seen at Robson Square in recent years).

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