Can't we build better communities?
There’s a lot that goes into neighbourhoods, especially vibrant, lively, and accessible ones. Usually, there’s plenty of access to amenities, the jobs are relatively close by, and you can put a roof over your head without breaking the bank. Unfortunately, if you’re not living in the downtown of a major city (or up-and-coming one like Vancouver) you’re seeing less and less of these important factors. In a rush to develop and build, some cities are forgetting what it means to build communities for the people that actually live in them. Instead of piecemeal developments that can feel disorganized and that only serve to entrench the system of ‘suburbia’, why can’t we start to be more creative with how we build? I’m biased, since I hail from the suburbs and think they will play just as important a role in Vancouver’s development as the City of Vancouver itself. So that’s why I have to ask, why can’t the ‘burbs be connected by rapid-transit that allows for the same kind of exciting and affordable developments that are happening in other parts of the region? Why can’t shopping centres across the Lower Mainland be retrofitted and redeveloped like Oakridge, or Metrotown? Obviously, these are some big questions that require lots of time and effort to be answered, but the conversation needs to start to happen in earnest. To start the conversation, let’s talk about two concepts that get plenty of use in the big cities but can be used in communities further East along Highway 1: mixed-use developments and shopping centres. Not the sexiest topics in the world I’ll admit, but vital to any conversation we have about Greater Vancouver’s future.
Stepping out of your basement-suite on West 4th in Kitsilano, hoping on the 84 and getting to your shiny new open-concept office in one of the many new office buildings going up in Downtown Vancouver specially designed for tech companies, then walking down to Yaletown after work for a drink and busing right back home afterwards. That’s the beauty of living in a dense, compact area like the City of Vancouver: most of what you need in life is either a short walk, bike ride, or transit trip away. Obviously, the basement suite isn’t ideal, and if you want to take a trip anywhere outside the Lower Mainland, a car might be useful. But the fact is that the layouts of most downtown cities, with everything close together and accessible, tend to create lively and liveable communities. Contrast this with the ever-expanding and distant suburbs of the Fraser Valley which lack decent transit options and are the classic prototypes of “suburbia”: strip malls, highways, and McMansions. However, City Councils across the Lower Mainland can start to create communities that work for everyone and incorporate all the different aspects of a city: commercial, office, industrial, and of course residential. There’s countless examples of mixed-use developments, and even more variety when it comes to how they can be built. Whether it’s relatively simple and small developments, or massive, city-building (and changing) projects like the one at Oakridge, these are the developments that are going to help build livelier, more affordable, and more exciting communities.
Speaking of Oakridge, cities that are east of Surrey should take note. With strip mall after strip mall taking up space in Suburbia, there’s a real opportunity for creative minds to come together and bring to life some really cool ideas. They’re now discussing a proposal to build twelve apartment towers at Richmond Centre mall. This begs the question, why not bring this idea out to the rest of the Lower Mainland, like Langley’s Willowbrook Mall? It was exciting news last year when we learned about the new developments coming to the mall that included new retail components and a modernizing make-over. However, missing was the mention of creating a location like the ones that are being developed at other malls. Realistically, if rapid-transit ever does make its way down Fraser Highway (either LRT or SkyTrain) then there should almost certainly be a stop at Willowbrook Mall. If that’s the case, there should be the appropriate mix of residential, commercial, and amenities that befit the central location. Now, understandably people are concerned about development taking away from the character of communities, but in this case, retrofitting the Mall would in fact add to the character of the Willowbrook area. There may be legitimate reasons why this sort of development isn’t being talked about. If it’s because it would be difficult, or complicated, they need to take another look at it.
In any case, the best communities are the ones that are built organically. But they do need to be supported by those in government at all levels. Consultation needs to be done, plans need to be made properly, and hard work will be needed. But there is a blueprint on how to move forward, and there is a way we can build better neighbourhoods that move us forward without sacrificing what makes each city unique. Now it’s just a matter of putting words into action that actually benefits the people who live in each of Metro Vancouver’s wonderful communities.