Smart City-Building In The Pandemic Era

The COVID-19 pandemic has stretched cities around the globe to their limits. In a virtual lecture hosted by AIR Rotterdam, I discussed how the principles of smart and equitable city-building have been relevant throughout this global crisis – as well as how they can be used to create more livable cities post-pandemic. Listen to the full lecture here:

The Benefits of 15-Minute Cities: How Canada’s Urban Areas Stack Up

Vancouver may not totally be the “paradise city” that the Globe called us, but it is true to say that almost three-quarters of residents enjoy the benefits of the 15-minute neighbourhood – that is absolutely the result of aggressive civic planning. Now if we could only find a way to offer this to people of all incomes in secure housing – this is the current challenge! Read more here.

What’s With All The Condos? – My Latest With Peter Edmonds of Rennie

Vancouver’s transformation into a model for urban planning around the world did not happen by accident. Rather, it is the culmination of decades of careful and innovative policy decisions. I discussed the process with Peter Edmonds-the host of the Rennie podcast, which you can listen to here.

Opinion: Reclaiming space for the community by giving the 13th floor to the people

Originally published in the Vancouver Sun.

The 13th floor is always the ‘bad luck’ floor.

As long as anyone can remember, residents have not wanted to live on the 13th floor and businesses have not wanted to have their offices on the 13th floor of any building.  Because of this phobia, the numbering of floors often omits the 13th floor, moving simply from the 12th to the 14th floor without any explanation. This superstition might be converted into tomorrow’s opportunity.

In Greater Vancouver, the single most worrisome issue facing local governments is affordability. This has to do with housing costs, not just for low-income people, but now also for what is called the ‘missing middle’. High rents are also pushing out independent retailing, small businesses, start-ups and all those non-profits that a city depends upon like childcare facilities, seniors centres, and offices for cultural groups. The point is that increasing land and building costs are pushing everyone and everything out except for the very rich. No one wants this to happen, not even the very rich. We all know we have to do something about it.

And that brings me back to the 13th floor.  I propose that, from now on, in every new building built anywhere in Metro Vancouver, the 13th floor become the people’s floor – dedicated for public use in perpetuity. This would be an overlay of public space organically integrated everywhere that we are expanding or intensifying our city.

There is a way to do this that works for the people and also works for the developers. As buildings are approved, they would be required to include a publicly-owned 13th floor in the plans. The ownership and control of this floor would be turned over to the local government once the building is built.  To compensate the developer, one extra floor of height over the current height limit would be allowed to take the place of the 13th floor given to the public and one additional floor on top of that would be allowed for the developer to sell to cover the costs of building that 13th floor. So, for the developer these bonus floors would offer a value-neutral proposition.  But, for the public, the publicly-owned floor would be a game-changer with very few impacts – once towers get so tall, it is generally hard to even discern a very modest increase in their height. And this public value would increase over time. This would become a virtuous quid pro quo for everyone.

But, there would be some unsolved implications, so here is what we could do.

First, any building less than six stories would be exempt from the requirement. That way, there would be no impact whatsoever on modestly-scaled areas of the city – which, of course, is most of the city. It would apply only in already dense areas, which are usually near public transit.

Second, any building between seven and 10 stories would be exempt from having to give a floor – after all, the 13th floor would not exist in these buildings.  But, to be fair, they would get the bonus floors and give a cash payment to the local government in lieu of giving the floor. This contribution would be used as an endowment to support the ongoing operating costs of other 13th floors – paying for utilities and the like.

Third, any building resulting between 11 and 15 stories would be required to provide the people’s floor but the developer would be allowed to designate the actual floor to be made public. There is no reason why the people would need the most valuable penthouse floor or even one close to the top.  The community just needs space in every tall building.

Fourth, any building starting at 16 floors and above would be required to give the 13th floor in exchange for the bonus. However, if the extra height would push the building into a view corridor or create dramatic unexpected impacts, then instead of building the extra floors, the developer would be given the value of those floors in bonus density to sell for transfer to another location. An assessment would be done to insure a comfortable fit for neighbours.

Now, some people will say that with all the development going on, this offering is a pittance. It surely could not take the place of all that is already being done to respond to the crisis of affordability. But the fact is that, over time, the additional space will add up. Imagine what we would have in fifty years – thousands of affordable housing units, offices and other work spaces.  Equally importantly, it will be space that is spread everywhere in the city, not pushed into one area.

The people’s floor would have endless uses. In typical residential buildings, it could be used for rental housing for every level of modest and middle-income families. We could even try non-profit home ownership for families just starting out. It could house those in the service sector and offering essential services. In social housing buildings, the people’s floor could be targeted for the homeless. In office buildings, the people’s floor could be used by small start-up businesses or non-profit community services.  In every case, there would need to be careful allocations so that the use of the 13th floor fits comfortably for everyone. Otherwise, it would become unpopular.

Vancouver could be the first great city in the world to take this kind of bold step for affordability. If we get on with it, and every city hall in the region made it a priority, we could start securing the 13th floor in every new building by as early as Easter of next year. The benefits would build month by month and year by year from that moment on.

Let’s turn a liability – the unwanted 13th floor – into an asset : the desperately needed community floor. This would be one very easy, convenient and fair way to insure that, no matter what happens in the future, there will always be some place for all of us in our beloved city.

Larry Beasley is Distinguished Practice Professor of Planning at the University of British Columbia’s School of Community and Regional Planning and Founding Principal of Beasley and Associates Planning Inc.

Sorry Toronto-Everything Cool Comes from Vancouver

In November I spoke to Jim Sutherland about the birth of Vancouverism and the effects it has had on making Vancouver a center for Canadian innovation.  You can read the article here:

Connecting a City to the Water: Baker Program’s Inaugural Trip to Vancouver, Part One


JW_SHATour Van_Thursday-8692

Larry Beasley, center, leads the group along the waterfront walkway

By Jason W Henderson

This article was originally published on the website of Cornell University’s Baker Program in Real Estate

In March 2016, second-year students in the Baker Program in Real Estate embarked on a trip to Vancouver, British Columbia to meet with the people and companies that have played a hand in shaping Vancouver into the celebrated international city it is today.  Starting with a bold plan hatched in the 1980s to connect the city to its waterfront, Vancouver has spent the following decades on a transformation spree that is the envy of urbanists the world over.  Throughout a five-day itinerary, students visited the projects and neighborhoods that epitomize this transformation.

The trip began by meeting at the waterfront with Larry Beasley, former Co-Director of Planning for the City of Vancouver.  Beasley was instrumental in driving the City’s efforts to build the seawall, the pedestrian and bike paths along the water, and in crafting the zoning and developer requirements that would allow for the appropriate density, housing types, and public spaces.  The resulting development has been coined “Vancouverism,” a planning movement that has spawned inspiration in hundreds of other cities across the globe.

Beasley spoke of specific measures such as mandating the right amount of space between towers so that occupants aren’t uncomfortable (90 feet), and requiring ground floor uses of retail in the right areas, as well as townhouse-style housing product along the edges of residential towers that are popular with families moving from less-dense neighborhoods.  Underground parking also provides for efficient land-use without the impediment of parking lots or lost floors above-ground.  The urban form along the waterfront has also been carefully designed to allow for large view corridors so that residents along the waterfront and further-inland are able to see the water.  The spaces are ideal for streetscapes, parks, and openings that enhance the pedestrian experience, and provide residents with public amenities right at their front doorstep.

View corridorIMG_0988

                     View corridor                                          Split bike and pedestrian paths

Another challenge is how to manage the two modes of travel along the waterfront.  No- not cars!  But pedestrians and cyclists.  The waterfront paths are split between bike and pedestrian modes, with the pedestrian path along the edge of the seawall, which is embellished with ample trees, planters, and benches so that residents may enjoy the water at their leisure, or get to where they’re going with ease.  The split helps to keep accidents to a minimum, and the flow of travel at the right pace.

In addition to parks and open space, the waterfront development included the construction of a new school and playground so that local residents could easily raise children in the area without the need of a car or bus to deliver their children to school.  The convenience factor and space programming was intended to “crack the nut” on getting suburban families into the City- and it succeeded.  Beasley, the team at the City, and the waterfront developers came together with the public at large to determine what was necessary to drive interest in families to move to the City through hundreds of public meetings, thousands of private consultations and conversations, and a marketing effort that played directly to each housing group.

JW_SHATour Van_Thursday-8878

Through a strategy of transparent and open engagement, Vancouver developed the model for comfortable and sustainable urban living.  Though a City of over 600,000 (2.3 million in Metro-area), Vancouver can be comfortably traveled across by foot or bike in the fraction of an afternoon, and the City is consistently ranked as one of the most livable cities on the planet by a range of publications.  Newer developments such as the Olympic Village area even incorporate their own greywater-recycling and efficient power and heating as a whole integrated system- the City even boasts its own steam district, and new transit stations have recently opened to continue expanding the light-rail network.  The City is a shining example of what can go right in a City’s development when parties come together collaboratively, and effectively.

Part Two will explore the history behind the 1986 World Expo site, and Concord Pacific’s development along the waterfront.

Exit interview: NCC adviser Larry Beasley on surviving the Harper government


"The last government looked at the NCC and its role of custodianship of capital interests differently than previous governments," Larry Beasley says.

This article was originally published in the Ottawa Citizen on March 27, 2016. 

By Don Butler

When Larry Beasley stepped down earlier this month after 12 years as chair of the National Capital Commission’s advisory committee on planning, design and realty, he posted this tweet:

“Through all the trials of the last government, the @NCC-CCN remains strong, caring and innovative. I am sad to finish this assignment!”

Since joining the advisory committee in 2000, the 68-year-old Beasley, one of Canada’s most eminent planners and urban designers, has quietly helped shape virtually every federal project in the capital. He’s no Larry-come-lately. So both his departure and his parting words are worth noting.

That reference to the trials of the former Conservative government, for instance. What’s that about?

“The last government looked at the NCC and its role of custodianship of capital interests differently than previous governments,” Beasley says. Previous governments often delegated responsibilities to the NCC. “The last government felt they wanted to pull some of those things back to the centre of government.”

One of those things was the management of new monuments, notably the proposed Memorial to the Victims of Communism. Another was responsibility for programming, which, Beasley says, “was a very strong and innovative part of the NCC for many, many years.”

The period of Conservative rule, he says, was a “difficult time” for the NCC. The highly political victims of communism memorial is a case in point.

Beasley had never encountered a government that just said: “We’re deciding on the site and we’re carrying forward and we’re not going to go through the normal process that makes sure those things are the right scale and the right nature and the right quality.

“They had their own agenda, they carried forward with it, and they did that in part by how they shifted responsibilities for those things,” Beasley says. “But they also did it in part by just deciding they were going to do it in a particular way.”

Beasley, who lives in Vancouver and works on projects around the world, is pleased the Liberal government is relocating the victims of communism memorial to another “decently high-profile” location. “And, frankly, I’m very happy there will be a new (design) competition.”

Monuments and memorials, he says, “tell a story about our country and about us as a people. And we have to be careful about that.”

The Conservative government’s strong-arm tactics had no impact on the advisory committee’s deliberations, Beasley says. “We were very clear that our job was to give the best advice for the country, not to meet any political agenda of the day.”

Not that there was never any pressure to toe the line. “There’s always a sense of pressures,” Beasley acknowledges. “Governments are powerful. Prime minister’s offices are powerful.”

But the advisory committee’s members are independent-minded and “a little immune to pressure,” he says. “We’re not there all the time, we don’t have vested interests (and) we don’t have really anything to lose.”

Beasley never felt any direct pressure. “No one ever came to me and said, ‘Boy, you’d better do this right or you’re out of here.’

“But there were times when people said, ‘This is a top government priority – you don’t want to stand in the way of this,” he said. “We said, ‘Yes, but getting the best should also be a top priority,’ and we would stand our ground.”

Though it only advises the NCC and has no decision-making power, the committee’s expertise has made it extremely influential. Its advice is accepted most of the time.

The committee took the plan to develop LeBreton Flats from a “fairly mundane project to a much more sustainable concept,” Beasley says. It had a big impact on the Zibi development in its conceptual stages and had input into signature projects, including the rehabilitation of the Parliament Buildings.

“I know that we have improved the urban design of many, many projects,” Beasley says. “The aspiration is that the capital be a bit of a model in the country for an intelligent, sustainable development of a city, and I think we tried to do that.”

One high-level project Beasley and the committee considered numerous times was 24 Sussex Drive, the official residence of the prime minister.

“There’s no question it needs a complete overhaul,” he says.”It’s been an embarrassment to the country that the prime minister’s residence has portable air conditioners in the windows and things like that.”

Though the NCC is still trying to decide whether the house should be fixed up or replaced, Beasley strongly favours renovation.

“I’ve heard the argument that it’s an opportunity to express the best architectural mastery in the country, and there’s some merit to that,” he says. “But I think there’s a strong symbolism in 24 Sussex that’s very important to reminding people of the long history of our country and our democracy.”

If it was purely Beasley’s decision, he’d happily carry on with his work on the committee. But his term had already been extended by a couple of years. “They felt it was time to bring other representation.”

He’s hardly retiring, however. He’s doing work in Dallas, Rotterdam and Scandinavia, and is just starting a project in Canberra, Australia’s capital. “I’m a busy person.”

He hopes to have some continuing involvement in Ottawa, as well. “I’ve come to love the city,” he confesses, “and anything to contribute to the capital is a good thing to me.”

The thoughts of (ex) Chairman Larry

  • City building is a very complicated thing and you can’t guess it all right. You have to be courageous and try things.
  •  When a development is in the phase that LeBreton Flats is in right now, a lot of people are critical of it. If the first move isn’t absolutely splendid, they become negative about the whole thing. Once the thing builds out and they can begin to see the formation of a real community, all that starts to change. I think that will change there.
  • Victims of Communism was a contentious monument. It did not make sense to a lot of people. It certainly did not make sense to vest that kind of image, regardless of what it was trying to say, next to the most important images of our national government.
  • Capitals are always in a process of transformation, because the culture and governance of countries is always in a process of transformation, and the capital needs to reflect that. A capital city is always an unfinished art.
  • Parliament Hill, to me, is an extraordinary thing. It needs to be protected and nurtured. In 150 or 200 years, people need to be able to see the same thing and remember where it came from.