When Larry Beasley walks out of his apartment one afternoon, he passes his local café and waves to the proprietor. Next some tourists cross his path, and an old friend. Then it’s hello to a daycare class on the way to the park; a glimpse of some oldsters at a seniors residence; and onto the Seawall for a stroll to meet a friend. “This kind of fulfilling urban experience,” he writes at the end of this anecdote, “is the splendour that is Vancouverism.”
As the former co-chief planner of Vancouver, Beasley bears much of the credit for creating this master-planned, tightly designed urbanism on the city’s downtown peninsula. In his new book, he explains how that happened, and what the approach that shaped it – “Vancouverism” – has to offer the world.
But Vancouverism is a niche product, and expensive. On his block, a moderately nice two-bedroom condo is now listed for $1.8-million. Seen in that light, Vancouverism the book is an effort to defend a vision that has already shown considerable limitations.
Ken Greenberg’s Toronto Reborn is something else: a more personal and forward-looking book that examines the state of the author’s home city at “a decisive moment of transformation.” Greenberg is an urban designer, and more of a lone wolf than Beasley. But they’re of the same generation and similar progressive politics. Their two accounts reveal different approaches to urbanism: of the master planner and the facilitator, the city as sculpture and the city as a marketplace of ideas.
Beasley’s Vancouver began with the idea of a dense downtown. He and his cohort of planners, starting in the 1970s under planner Ray Spaxman, stood up against suburbanization. “If we wanted all the good things we talked about for Vancouver,” he writes – vibrancy, variety, culture – “density is what delivered those things.”
These were progressive young boomers, expressing their aesthetic and political preferences. “Ours was a searing focus on the heart of the city,” Beasley writes. Around Expo 86, he and colleagues – including Ann McAfee, who became co-chief planner – set out to build a new downtown. It was shaped by what Beasley calls “experiential planning”: a strong focus on the experience of pedestrians and on detailed design. Other values were clear. De-emphasizing the car. Encouraging a mix of uses, workplace and residential, within downtown. Building community for all ages, including children. Lots of public amenities and parkland. And a commitment to social housing.
On the skinny downtown peninsula, what they built between 1986 and the mid-2000s was predominantly homes, to “balance” the existing jobs. These were organized in discrete neighbourhoods, each with local retail and community facilities. And they looked and felt nice. Vancouverism “is all about physical design,” Beasley writes; where some planners avoid questions of design, Beasley’s crew revelled in it.
This didn’t produce great architecture. The buildings tend to dullness, adopting what Beasley calls “a clear and consistent modernism.” A few truly gifted architects contributed to the mix here, notably James Cheng and Peter Busby, and there are some gems.
But the emphasis of Vancouverism was on urban design – that is, the arrangement of buildings, of the functions within them and their relationship to the street. The most important component is the “tower and podium,” the combination of a tall, skinny “point tower” with shops or row houses that create a “streetwall.” This, in combination with street trees and carefully designed sidewalks, creates blocks that are pleasant places to walk and linger.
None of this was easy; as Beasley explains, it took years of patient, collaborative work from city planners, engineers and various designers. There is plenty of detail in the book about the ideas and (equally important) the process.
However, there were healthy egos involved. Beasley sees himself as a master builder, “a designer of neighbourhoods.” He became a powerful figure, ready to negotiate with developers on the complexities of their business model and the very shape of a project. He has often been criticized for being too close to those developers.
This much is for sure: While Beasley and his colleagues were massaging the details of their new Utopia, and worrying over the appearance of the skyline, they missed some stuff. They did little for what he calls the “lost souls” of the Downtown Eastside, with its concentrated poverty and homelessness.
And they signed on to a see-no-evil compromise with NIMBY politicians. The City of Vancouver’s low-density house neighbourhoods “were largely left alone,” he admits. No kidding: Basement apartments, the most modest form of intensification, were technically banned in parts of the city until 2004. The progressive policy-making of downtown barely reached some parts of the city until recently. What potential could the planners have unlocked in those vast, highly regulated areas?
They also failed to anticipate the influx of wealthy residents and capital that began in their era and has rocked the city since. Beasley now admits the affordability crisis “might bring this great city to its knees.” While the Vancouverists can’t be blamed for all of that, they own some of it. “We thought the status quo of those days would just go on and on,” Beasley admits.
That’s a revealing statement. Planners as a profession like to solve problems, to regulate and shape things, to plan. But cities, and people, always have their own ideas.
Ask Greenberg: To him, cities “are complex, heterogeneous, and perpetually unfinished, capable of being made and remade in each generation by many hands often acting autonomously. They are living things.”
Trained as an architect, Greenberg has practiced as an urban designer, working for the City of Toronto in the 1970s and 80s before going out on his own. Among other things, he is now contributing to the important rebirth of Toronto’s waterfront, and collaborating with Google sister company Sidewalk Labs, which he calls “a valuable icebreaker” for city planning.
He is a respected practitioner who can be skeptical about planning orthodoxies. He gets some of that from Jane Jacobs, a perpetual skeptic herself, and some from his many years in Toronto – a city that has undergone radical shifts without ever committing to a plan as tidy as Vancouverism.
In Toronto Reborn, he observes a period of change “into an entirely different kind of city.” He sees Toronto’s economic growth, its great and growing diversity and an increased attention to nature all creating a remarkably worldly, more dense and more social place.
The geographical centre of the book is his own neighbourhood, off King Street West in downtown Toronto. It’s the Toronto analogue to downtown Vancouver. From his condo he can see a park that was once a colonial cemetery, some preserved loft buildings and a thicket of new condos that have climbed up haphazardly, all thanks to a kind of un-planning.
In the mid-1990s, Greenberg was part of a small group with chief planner Paul Bedford and Jacobs that looked at two industrial areas near downtown. Their recommendation: Loosen the rules. “Planners [became] less concerned with what was happening in buildings, and more interested in the ways buildings fit in their lots and shaped their surroundings,” Greenberg explains. The result is a fine, messy mix of housing, jobs, and busy retail and restaurants.
It’s much less neat than downtown Vancouver. Blame the complexities of Toronto planning policy, which has maps of zoning regulations that are decades out of date, and the legalistic Ontario Municipal Board – which Greenberg dislikes, and which has just been effectively reinstated.
Yet it is the kind of “heterogeneous neighbourhood,” Greenberg likes, intensively mixed and made by many hands. This is Greenberg’s goal for the larger city, too, one that Beasley would basically share: A mix of uses everywhere, with fewer cars, and a strong emphasis on public places.
Greenberg is explicitly political about this: In his view, the public realm creates a healthy discourse, and vice versa.
It’s part of why he helped create the Bentway, an unorthodox public space – quasi-park, quasi-trail, quasi-cultural venue – under the elevated Gardiner Expressway. It serves the thousands of new condo dwellers such as himself and is a brilliant piece of design, turning dead space into a gathering place.
Such fine-grained work is easier in the old city, built before the rise of the car (and before planning regulations). What about the suburbs, which dominate the outskirts of Toronto and the rest of the country, and to which Beasley has turned his attention?
“The challenge now,” Greenberg says, “is to make new, affordable, urban places in the postwar suburbs." For Greenberg, that project will require a nimble public service, a relentless emphasis on bringing people together in public space and a willingness to shake off preconceptions. It will have to “overcome myriad objections and an extraordinary tangle of intractable rules and rigid zoning regulations.” This is a fact, and it’s important: Yesterday’s planning has boxed in our lives.
Tomorrow’s will have to break down those boxes, and be very careful about what new rules it constructs. Despite the best efforts of planners, life is messy, and so are cities.
Expand your mind and build your reading list with the Books newsletter. Sign up today.