Friday, 23 September 2011

Cutting a Deal - Heritage in Vancouver

Since arriving in Vancouver it has not taken me long to realize that the city lacks heritage.  'But we're a new city' is the response I often hear from locals in this 125th anniversary year of the city's founding.  And coming from Europe this makes sense.  125 years is only two generations above me so there is no value in making comparisons with London or other European cities which have longer and more varied histories. As a schoolboy I was ignorant towards the fact that my high school was founded in 1563.  But to a Canadian this is beyond comprehension.

Yet after attending a talk from Brent Toderian (Director of City Planning in Vancouver) it became clear that the lack of heritage actually stems from the weak planning laws and not the relative newness of the city.  It sounds so simple, but in the UK if a building is deemed to be of merit or value it is placed on a statutory protection list.  Likewise, if a distinct area (neighborhood or street) is judged to have a 'special character' it is allocated as a conservation area.  Put simply, permission is required to make alterations or demolish properties that are either listed or reside in a conservation area.  In British Columbia the opposite is true and the City have no legislative powers to prevent a property owner from obtaining a demolition permit.  As Mr Toderian stressed in his presentation, he has more power to regulate what goes up compared to what comes down.

The reason for this is the odd mix of civic values that try to bridge European socialism with the US-favored protection of personal property rights.  Unfortunately the personal property rights win out and any sense of heritage as a city-wide resource is lost.  This is incredibly hypocritical because whilst the legislation claims to value heritage it fails to provide adequate protection and instead leaves buildings open to the demands of the development sector.  This is the real reason Vancouver has such little heritage, not just the fact the city is so young. 

Friday, 16 September 2011

A Future With No Direction - The Regional Economy of Metro Vancouver

In a recent post I talked about how in the absence of a dominant industry, Vancouver has become obsessed with real estate.  This theme has been excellently, but worryingly, developed by Frances Bula in the current edition of Vancouver Magazine (see here).  In her article, Bula struggles to define the Vancouver economy in contrast to other Canadian cities.  If Toronto is finance, Calgary is oil and Ottawa is politics - what is Vancouver?  She settles on three possibilities - freight movement, tourism and technological entrepreneurs.  But in my mind all three have inherent problems in taking the bigger step to dominating the Metro Vancouver economy.
  • Freight - with rail freight close to capacity do we want more trucks on our roads?
  • Tourism - an unstable industry that can be impacted by external factors.  Hasn't the city already become a resort-type environment in parts of Downtown?
  • Technological entrepreneurs - does the city have the necessary business support structure (and suitable workspace) to upscale small enterprises?  

Thursday, 15 September 2011

'Spacing Vancouver' - review of Scientific American magazine

You can see my second feature article for the Spacing Vancouver blog here.  In the article I review the city-themed issue of Scientific American magazine, with a particular focus on 'smart cities' and skyscrapers.

The original Scientific American articles can be found here.

Saturday, 10 September 2011

Digitizing the Perfect City

In the not too distant past, SimCity had the monopoly on digital city building.  This game introduced many frustrated teenagers to what happens when your city goes bankrupt or crime spirals out of control.  Yet now digital city building has gained new impetus from multi-national businesses looking to explore what compromises the perfect city.

Two good examples are the PWC 'Cities of Opportunity' research and the BMW-Guggenheim Lab with the 'Urbanology' game.  The PWC research has established a correlation heatmap (see here) that allows you to correlate different variables to judge city performance.  For example, how strongly (or weakly) does life satisfaction correlate to traffic congestion.  The BMW-Guggenheim Lab (see here) makes use of data generated from answering simple questions to predict what is your perfect city (mine turned out to be similar to Toronto).  

The popularity of digital city planning and benchmarking by companies not commonly associated with the development sector is revealing.  Firstly, it reflects a general move towards open source data.  Increasingly, Governments and cities are releasing raw data to allow citizens and experts to develop their own analysis and potential solutions to problems.  Not only does this move show a level of transparency, it is also cost-effective - tapping into creativity outside the normal channels of dialogue, and often for free.  For example,the City of Vancouver released data to allow citizens to formulate their own mock budget.

Secondly, businesses see a future in 'smart cities'.  By this I mean a city which uses sensors and data to provide a greater understanding of how the local infrastructure is used.  This new approach to city building provides endless business opportunities in the creation of new infrastructure and software, and also in consulting (hence the involvement of a company like PWC).  Companies therefore recognize the benefits of early involvement in this growing trend and can establish a presence to capture a higher market share further down the road. 

Finally, these digital platforms are a form of advertising.  The word 'urban' has certain trendy and creative connotations and this allows businesses to associate themselves with this movement.  This is an area of advertising and marketing that could be difficult with their main business function, e.g. financial services.


So, though SimCity and other games are still going strong it is interesting to see how and why big businesses are also trying to plan the perfect city.  With the growing move towards open data, the popularity of smart technologies and the interest in city benchmarking, expect a few more big beasts of the business world to take an active interest in what the future city looks like.