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Friendly Reminder: Density Works

2013 December 18
by dan bertolet

Why is the trend of decreasing auto use shown below happening in downtown Vancouver, BC, even as population and jobs have risen?


Because of this:


That is, lots of tall residential buildings. That is, density.

Vancouver BC is not afraid of height. They’ve been successfully weaving towers into their neighborhoods for decades, as on this quiet West End residential street:


Towers everywhere you turn:


Sleek towers:


Weird towers:


Shortish towers:


And they just keep building more:


And even with all that height, downtown Vancouver is an amazingly comfortable place to be a pedestrian, mainly because most of the towers are relatively slender, and there’s lot’s of space between them. All the urbanist Vancouver hype is well-deserved—the City’s urban form is truly unmatched.

Meanwhile, in the big city a couple hours south of the border, height is still a dirty word. And the result is not only squandered opportunities for density and all its sustainability benefits, but also a more oppressive urban form of chunky, squat buildings crammed in together.

Why is Seattle so afraid of height?


Source of Vancouver chart:  Vancouver Transportation 2040. All photos by the author, taken in downtown Vancouver 12/11/13 — 12/13/13.


10 Responses leave one →
  1. December 18, 2013

    Height blocks all of those tasty views that Seattleites cherish and value so dearly. Another archaic legacy of Victor Steinbrueck.

  2. RossB permalink
    December 19, 2013

    Vancouver should be a model for Seattle. There are some differences. Our waterfront is much steeper, so it will never blend as well into the rest downtown the way that Vancouver’s does. But as far as development and transit, we should try and emulate them.

  3. Matt the Engineer permalink
    December 19, 2013

    If it’s really about views, I’d love to see the top of each of our 7+ hills have unlimited height zoning. It’s hard to block anyone’s view from the top of a hill. Plus two or three of them already have access to mass transit, and at least one more is in the running for a future light rail station.

  4. Rico permalink
    December 19, 2013

    For the record Vancouver does have height restrictions. Obviously just not as severe as Seattle. That said what limits heights in downtown Vancouver are ‘view cones,’ basically preserving views of the North Shore mountains from key points in the city. These are mapped and people generally know what the maximum height of a lot downtown can be. Note that does not mean that NIMBYS don’t exist in Vancouver. There is a major push back against further density in several neighborhoods (mainly the neighbourhoods just outside downtown who worry about turning into downtown).

  5. December 19, 2013

    Downtown Vancouver is definitely a great place. Love walking around Gastown and the West End. Although I admit I don’t really love Granville Street. Its oddly ugly for the epicenter of such a great city.

    Also remember though that Vancouver’s larger success has been its ability to densify as a region. All of those towers in Downtown and the West End only contain about 100,000 people, roughly 4% of the Vancouver metro population. Many of the rest of the 2.3 million folks live in mid-rise, townhomes, and other strategically dense semi-urban locations that have helped Greater Vancouver achieve a density level that’s greater than Metro New York (according to wikipedia). This regional density is a major boon for creating and maintaining effective mass transit, and certainly another reason that auto trips in to downtown have been going down.

  6. Chaz permalink
    December 20, 2013

    The pedestal with a tower type development is an odd consequence of Vancouver area planning laws. Without the zoning element unique to that area, you would get development that looks quite different. (Possibly mid rise buildings that fill in the block, like you would see in Europe – just as dense, but create more of an ‘outdoor room’ feel).
    Not that there is anything terribly wrong with towers, but Vancouver is just locked into this one typology of dense development. It has its place, and is quite pleasant. And so are other types of density. It may help to present differnt options to the opposition to help point out that there are different options beyond the boogeyman they have in their head.

  7. Jean Small permalink
    August 19, 2015

    Not everyone wants Seattle to be denser. For most, Density brings a lot of issues.

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