This story ran on page F1 of the Boston Globe on 8/10/2000.
© Copyright 2000 Globe Newspaper Company.

By Robert Campbell, Globe Correspondent, 8/10/2000

VANCOUVER, B.C.- What makes a great downtown waterfront neighborhood?

We debate that question endlessly in Boston. But a week ago, when I was sitting at a restaurant in this amazing city on Canada's West Coast, the answer was right in front of me. From the restaurant's generous outdoor deck, I looked across a lagoon called False Creek at downtown Vancouver. If I could have walked on the water, downtown would have been about 5 minutes away. I knew that because my Downtown Vancouver map wasn't scaled in miles or kilometers. It was scaled in minutes. The distance from A to B is measured by how many minutes it takes a person to walk it. Point number one: Vancouver believes in pedestrians.

Then the lagoon itself. It bursts with activity. Bars and restaurants spill their tables onto terraces and docks. Sailboats and powerboats crisscross the water. Bridges fly past, high above. You can rent an outboard for $15 an hour, and explore the harbor by yourself. Or you can grab an Aqua Taxi to any of four landings on the downtown side of the lagoon. Shops, businesses, theaters line the water, mingling comfortably with surviving industrial uses. Both new and old buildings are pleasantly unpretentious: There's no hint of historicist theming. Across the water, the towers of downtown - most of them are residential, not office - rise like pale statues against a dramatic background of mountains.

This is city life at its very best, providing the greatest variety of human experience in the least amount of area, offering the maximum of interaction and choice, with no need to get in a car.

Having fallen in love with Vancouver, I hunted up the city's planning director, Larry Beasley, to learn what makes the town so great. He described the ''Living First'' policy: Vancouver's planners think that if you just create a great place to live, everything else will follow. They think a great place to live is one that mixes different uses closely together, so you can walk or maybe bike from your home to your place of work, perhaps stopping to eat or shop along the way. Or you can walk to the water's edge, where an uninterrupted public path extends for 16 miles, with more to come. The planners believe in greenways - tree-lined streets and parks - but also in what they call blueways, meaning water as a transportation route.

Most of all, the planners believe in high population densities. They think that if population is going to grow, as expected, it should grow in a vital city, rather than sprawling across the countryside. Downtown Vancouver is expected to house 100,000 residents by 2020, up 60 percent from 1996. People come here not only for the magnet of city life, but also because they're fleeing congestion.

''Congestion is our greatest asset,'' Beasley says. ''It's hard to drive into downtown Vancouver. There aren't any freeways and nobody wants them. There are only a few crowded bridges. So we limit commuter access. And that makes people say, `I'd like to live downtown.'''

It makes sense. Even the city's official publications are filled with sound bites of passionate sanity. Here are a few:

''The underlying theme in Vancouver's strategy is to bring out the competitive advantages of the urban lifestyle as opposed to the suburban lifestyle.''

''Above-ground and below-ground walkways are not allowed, as they prevent people from coming together on the public sidewalks.''

''The street itself is fashioned as the focal point of community life.''

''Home, work and services should be as close together as possible.''

''The water's edge must be dedicated to the public.''

Best of all, Vancouver's planners actually get to implement their visions. Incredibly, to an American, in downtown Vancouver there is no such thing as what we call ''building by right.'' Every project must be approved by the city planners. The project must abide by a carefully thought-out official plan and, as well, must provide design excellence and public amenity. Every new residential development must reserve at least 20 percent of its units for low-income tenants. At least 25 percent must be for families with children, and these must be located within a 10-minute walk of a school.

I don't want to give the impression that planning is dictatorial. Far from it. Typically, the city makes an official plan for an area. Then developers make proposals to implement it. Endless meetings are held at public forums. City planners work with the developers' architects. ''We don't like them to go off on their own,'' says Beasley.

Typically, a development proposal passes through five or six cycles of amendment and review. An advisory urban design panel, made up mostly of leaders in the design professions, gets to comment on every proposal at every stage. Final approval comes from a Development Permit Board of four members. All the meetings are public and everyone is heard from, with one interesting exception: members of the Vancouver City Council are not allowed to attend meetings of the Permit Board, because their presence might raise irrelevant considerations. Beasley praises the councilors, though, for their design awareness.

Vancouver is a city of 600,000, roughly the size of Boston. Like Boston's, its center is a peninsula surrounded by water. You can't apply all the lessons of Vancouver to Boston, of course. It's easier to get people living downtown in Canada, where the crime rate is far lower than ours and where there is no serious racial conflict.

And then there are all those towers. Vancouver is almost unique - maybe Hong Kong is similar - because so many people prefer to live high up in the air. That's because they want the great views of the mountains. Boston has no mountains and no need for such heights. But the underlying principle - lots of people living and working in close proximity downtown - still holds.

It's worth noting that Vancouver's towers are slim and well-spaced apart, so they won't interfere with one another's views. That's another planning principle. And the towers are always surrounded by rows of three- to six-story townhouses, which line the sidewalks at a human scale. You're hardly aware of the towers as you walk the streets. More than 700 new townhouses have been built recently in Vancouver.

Beasley admits that planners sometimes goof. He talks about what he calls barrios-areas ''beyond the law'' - where people used to live and work on houseboats or ''live-aboards,'' served by ramshackle repair shops, tackle shops, and food joints. ''When we tried to wipe one of these out, to replace it with something clean and simple, typical of planners,'' says Beasley, ''we caught hell.''

They faced a barrio revolt, backed off, and opened the area to a much wider variety of uses. So reformed were the planners that they later proposed a houseboat co-operative for low-income residents.

Lessons for Boston? At least three:

A downtown isn't vital unless a lot of people are actually living in it and near it. On our South Boston waterfront, for political reasons, there will be many jobs, but few residents. Because people won't be able to walk to those jobs, there will be too many commuters and too many cars. And the water's edge will often be dead because there will be no one there.

Plans need to be made with the full participation of everyone concerned, but once they're made, the city has got to possess the will and the power to demand that they're respected. In the last decade, there have been only two or three court challenges to planning decisions in Vancouver. All of them lost. ''A city designed by lawyers is going to be a poor city to live in,'' says Beasley.

There's something to be said for continuity. Beasley has held his job since 1987, a period during which Boston has had at least four planning directors. A lot of lessons get learned with time and experience. Like chilling out over those barrios. ''We feel we're inventing an urban lifestyle,'' says Beasley. He should really say reinventing, because he believes he's recapturing the qualities of traditional cities of the past.

Boston should be so lucky.

This story ran on page F1 of the Boston Globe on 8/10/2000.

© Copyright 2000 Globe Newspaper Company.

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