August 13, 2021

Burnabyism – 2

It’s great to see some thoughtful responses to what is now the first post on the idea of Burnabyism: how the municipality pioneered and fostered the growth in regional and municipal town centres, building on both the Livable Region Plan vision from the 1970s and the techniques and designs of Vancouverism from the 1980s and 90s, using the tower highrise as a building block of transit-oriented station-area development – a very high highrise in Burnaby’s case.

Coincidentally, the Daily Hive has just updated another example of towers on steroids:


‘Highrise tower’ is of course a trigger phrase, turning discussion of urban form into the defects of density above the tree line.

So it always has been in Vancouver, at least since the 1960s, when the concrete jungle of West End rental tower blocks (very much back in favour) was massively rejected in the early 70s, ending the construction of highrises in the city until the condo boom started in the late 80s. (Some trace the current rental housing crisis in the City of Vancouver to that decision.)  But it was also in that time that Burnaby adopted the tower form for the apartment district that eventually became known as Metrotown with the arrival of SkyTrain.

Folks, this is not just about height; that’s just a question of scale.  It’s primarily about density, mix and design of public space within walkable distance of rapid-transit stations.  Other parts of the region make difference choices with respect to scale – like Richmond, which because of airport constraints sticks to a medium-rise flat-top form:


Or what Surrey proposes in Fleetwood with the extension of the Expo Line.  The Hive again:

But the ideas behind what became known as Vancouverism in the late 20th-century was the same regardless of building form: high density, mixed use, great public spaces and transport choices set into a verdant, resilient landscape.  Now we may debate the issues missed or disregarded like affordability and sustainability, but the debate over height never goes away.  And it’s true, we don’t need highrises to get density or sustainability, as this study (which Sandy will love) reveals:

Researchers at CU Boulder are part of a newly published study that finds that low-rise, high-density environments like those found in Paris are the optimal urban form when looking to reduce greenhouse gas emissions over their whole life cycle.

Sandy and I have debated the Paris model in Chatbox – but it’s not in our tradition of the Garden City.  We want our lawns!  And access to those distant views that define our identity.

Secondly, if you think we have a shortage of townhouses, duplexes and small apartment blocks that look like big houses, the market and eastern municipalities agree with you.

But this is not what you would do with the land within walking distance of a SkyTrain stop.  In ‘traditional’ cities like Vancouver it’s for the next ring out and beyond – but it will be incremental and too slow to provide supply on the scale needed to accommodate current demand.

Also: the Grand Bargain, which Burnaby has scrupulously maintained.

The Bargain has essentially worked so well that politicians across the spectrum have concluded that the political capital which would have to be spent to change scale and character of so-called single-family neighbourhoods wouldn’t deliver a return in the way of supply or affordability to justify the political cost.  Hence even more motivation to amp up the density in the station areas.

See above.  Way above.


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  1. “…that the political capital which would have to be spent to change scale and character of so-called single-family neighbourhoods wouldn’t deliver a return in the way of supply or affordability to justify the political cost.”

    That’s a good point.
    The geographic impact of changing single family zoned areas to have a 6 storey Paris-like density all over the city is much bigger than concentrating high density in taller structures in more limited georgaphic areas (which, coincidentally(?), are also easier to serve with transit).

  2. Reflecting on my comment in your other post, I see your point based on political pragmatism. The Grand Bargain being the deal struck to get some progress towards the ideals of higher density, more TOD and more human scaled walkable development. The alternative to the Grand Bargain in our politicial reality is ???. If one were to do a fresh sheet approach, the Paris Model would be ideal, but we cannot rewind the clock 100+ years. I still think however it is a better ideal…a better urban realm. I think if you took planners from places that built more or less to the Paris Model they’d come here look at what we’ve done and without the context of history find our choices to be odd to say the least. If one set out to do things properly from the start, Burnabyism would not be a sane and rational approach. So that is perhaps where the Grand Bargain needs further clarification. It makes sense based on the hand of cards we are dealt. If one theoretically had a large urban area they could build from scratch without such constraints…they’d be better off going the route of the Paris Model. A rather simplified example of Vancouverism/Buranbyism perhaps applied inappropriately might be Dubai. They in effect had a blank sheet and built a mix of the worst of American suburbia combined with lots of towers linked by transit. They built to the model without understanding why it was done a certain way. Vancouverism/Burnabyism might best come with a caveat…that it works in a way for specific reasons for a specific outcome in places where it is the only alternative to advance on TOD and density. If you have a greater breadth of options, you should look to other models, notably the Paris one as ultimately they might very well be better. In time, I am hopeful that as the towers go up and people live in them that their new urbanist dwellers will start to outnumber those have the privilege to enjoy and advocate for the maintenance of the single family home standard that consumes the vast majority of available developable land. In the future, I would hope that the ridiculousness of the missing middle will be called out with the strength and determination to finally outweigh the few who hold on to maintaining the ways of old. Perhaps the epilogue to the Grand Bargain is that it is not that the missing middle is never built…it just ends up being built last. Like many long standing injustices, we should never stop pushing. We must always continue to chip away. The Grand Bargain is a concession for now, but should not be the final chapter in the story. Maybe it’s our kids who end up completing the journey.

    1. Post

      Great comments, John. Here’s a question: Beyond the Peripherique, the ring freeway that contains historic Paris, does Paris even build Paris? Where is there in the world other good examples of the Paris model?

      1. Well, I may have picked a fight well above my punching weight, but I’ll take a crack at a response.

        I am not the most well travelled or studied on this subject, but I suspect outside the outer ring of Paris you probably have the same Vancouver problem. Someone at some point said, this is way far out from the centre of the city with lots of room, so lets allow people to build single family homes on large plots. Lo and behold time passes, the city grows and expands and then you have the same problem as we have here. Enshrined property rights and the dynamics of market forces, established policy and reluctance to change combining into one big tough convergent mass of issues.

        Developers will always do what is most profitable for them within the rules allowed. In my view, Government often underestimates their power to change the rules. The private sector is quite resilient and will always find a way to succeed, more so that Government will often capitulate well before they have to. In a democracy however public opinion counts and can have dramatic results at election time…we’re all aware of examples both close and not too far away in the last decade.

        The Singapore model in terms of government ownership and control of housing seems to work well. They do build big towers over there…but that is probably more a function of necessity given the limited land mass. I am not sure we have it in our DNA here to allow for such direct government involvement in housing although it does seem to keep affordability in check. We’re taking tentative steps in buying up run down hotels en masse to try and solve homelessness issues….but its complicated by concurrent social issues which are another subject for another time.

        All that said, I do find places with a healthy middle to be overall nicer places to be. I’d much rather a city with lots of 4-6 story structures than towers and single family lots. Most places you find that are quite old. You raise a good point, where can you go and find that where it is new? Why can’t you find that? Most often I’m guessing its the combination of government policy and market forces don’t conspire in a way to allow it to happen. To do it you either need an abundance of cheap available land in close proximity to a growing population centre (conditions we don’t really see these days) or heavy government intervention with central planning….something we are not accustomed to in the West and something where Soviet apartment blocks or American ghetto housing immediately springs to mind for the masses.

        So yes it is indeed a very sticky problem. The “blank slate” scenario I envision simply no longer exists or is rare to come by. You really need that “right place, right time” mix of emerging metropolis and lots of cheap land to make it happen.

        Still, a healthy array of good mid-market solutions does make for a better Metropolis…not just far out but in close too. Imagine some of the worlds best urban areas…New York, London or Paris if they were strictly just towers and single family homes….they would not have the same feel. So there is indeed something there we should aspire to and desire to replicate. The answer seems to be for places like Metro Vancouver…slowly surely step by step, measure by measure through the back door. Start with laneway houses and move up from there. Something that we are doing. Given that it’s a slow process and lots of market demand…it won’t make a dent in affordability. I certainly appreciate why that is a lot more now.

        At the end of the day, we should dedicate ourselves to build the best darn urban spaces possible. The best darn urban spaces that we know of in the world have healthy middle market options. We have to find ways to incorporate that. It’s not easy in established urban areas…very much not easy. Doesn’t mean we should stop trying. Also forget trying to attach that to affordability….market supply cannot increase fast enough to make a dent in that. Any yes, Vancouverism and it’s cousin Burabyism do a lot to advance bigger loftier goals in a tough environment more than I appreciated.

        Lastly, I’d like to thank you Mr Price for actually reading my comments and engaging me in a discussion. I’ve always enjoyed watching you orate from your days on Vancouver City Council. It showed a younger version of myself how clearly articulated ideas and well structured arguments can make a difference for the better. It’s particularly uplifting in today’s current political environment that seems to be all too often absent of that. The idea of enlightening and changing one’s view through the process of discussion and debate seems to be something the world needs more of. Thanks for the opportunity to have that feeling again.

  3. “Also: the Grand Bargain, which Burnaby has scrupulously maintained.”

    Yup, unfortunately this is so true!

    Back in 2005, during the Neighbourhood Plan development for the Holdom Skytrain station area, as a member of the City of Burnaby Planning Advisory Commission, I opposed what was being put forward for this very reason. Basically, from the Skytrain platform, a erstwhile baseball pitcher could easily throw a ball and hit the single family homes across Lougheed Hwy, which are NOT slated to change.

    Fast-forward to the Bainbridge-Sperling Station area plan that is currently underway, the City has carved out the area north of Lougheed Hwy, again an area primarily dominated by single-family homes. Even within the plan area, the densities are far too low given the nearby mega green-space and sports centers in what is known as Burnaby’s Central Valley. For those cyclists in this readership, you may have passed through this beautiful area along the considerable network that runs east-west to Vancouver.

    While Burnaby is NOT afraid in the least to change under-utilized lands, including removing low-density apartments as evident around Metrotown, kid-glove treatment definitely for single-family homes. This is disappointing, and for City of Burnaby to deliver on its pledges around affordability and sustainability, few eggs may need to be broken.

    For example, I have long advocated for a north-south high-density transit route, possibly starting with Rapid Bus along the Willingdon corridor from Hastings which is starting to see mid-density apartments (4-6 stories) connecting to Metrotown. Eventually, when demand sufficient, the possibly light rail in this corridor might work, especially as the right-of-way here is well above standard dimensions. This will demand change to the single-family homes along this route, but my view, expressed in recent local Editorial, is “welcome to reality”

    Now for some optimism as the City of Burnaby is working on implementing a newly minted “Housing and Homelessness Strategy”.

    The current Mayor Mike Hurley, long-time City servant (retired as Acting Assistant Fire Chief) has the wherewithal and sensitivity to what can be done within the bureaucracy, and well understands the public sentiment. I wish him well, as new housing forms don’t happen in abstract. They require political adeptness to implement for long-lasting staying power, as developers are NOT ignorant of the political winds that can change every 4 years that can leave trendy development prospects dead in the ditch (and bankruptcy not far behind)

    Yes, the “grand bargain” will change, but forcing it to change will only alienate the populous. Let’s help our elected leaders to understand what can work, how it can work, and what needs to be done to assuage the harm that any change will engender.

    Telling them Paris is better will get us nowhere 🙁

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