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Originally published Saturday, April 13, 2013 at 4:59 PM

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Guest: Apply urban-design lessons from downtown Vancouver, B.C., to Seattle

When it’s done well, density is immensely important to the success of cities and regions, according to guest columnist Brent Toderian.

Special to The Times

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FOR many decades, Vancouver, B.C., has been held up internationally as a model of smart city-building, and for what I’ve come to call “density done well.”

Compared to 30 years ago, Vancouver’s downtown in particular is certainly denser — growing significantly in both residents and jobs — but it’s also more mixed and diverse, walkable, economically prosperous, green and creative. It’s a home for families, a hub for creative jobs and a target of healthy, friendly competition with Seattle’s own downtown.

A big reason for that success is Vancouver’s approach to the D-word. When it’s done well, density is immensely important to the success of cities and regions.

Density tends to be talked about as something developers want, but the list of public values from smartly done density is long: facilitating more affordable housing choices; curbing the negative impacts of sprawl; saving public money on infrastructure and services; mitigating climate change; making walking, biking and transit more inviting; and improving public health. Not bad for something often framed as being all about developer profit.

Vancouver has a long history with successful densification within a livable, increasingly green city-by-design framework. In recent years this culminated in our extremely challenging, highly controversial, but ultimately successful and award-winning EcoDensity Initiative, which brought in the greenest building-design requirements in North America.

More recently, Vancouver’s ambitious efforts to become the greenest city in the world by 2020 have upped the ante even further, with big initiatives around urban cycling and transit, food access and urban agriculture, our city’s carbon footprint.

So what does density done well actually look like? In my recent keynote to the Downtown Seattle Association's State of the Downtown breakfast, I outlined three critical components:

Align your land use with how you get around. For decades, most cities in North America have separated their thinking around land use and transportation, and the car-capacity tail has tended to wag the land-use dog.

This has always been a recipe for failure, resulting in car-dependent cities that ironically don’t even work for drivers.

Car-dependent transportation models create self-fulfilling prophecies of gridlock by pushing land uses apart and densities down, leading to communities that are unwalkable and not viable for transit.

A car-centric model forces people into their cars for almost everything. And if you try to do high-density planning around the car it also fails. Miserably.

Vancouver illustrates a different and better way. Starting with the refusal of freeways through the city in the late 1960s (which meant we never had to spend the money to bury them) Vancouver continues to design a multimodal city that prioritizes walking, biking and transit and recognizes that the best transportation plan is a great land-use plan.

Seattle’s Alaskan Way Viaduct, which lobotomized your downtown and waterfront, says much about Seattle’s prioritization of car capacity over better city-building. Although it’s a great thing that the viaduct is now coming down, so much more could have been done to build a better city with the money spent burying the highway.

If uses and activities are mixed and compact, with everything proximate and walkable, the “power of nearness” makes every method of getting around work better, including driving — with freedom of choice.

Be unashamed to have a consistently high urban-design standard. Cities that take what they can get when it comes to urban design and architectural quality usually get what they ask for.

On the other hand, having high, clear design expectations maximizes and protects value for both the public and private interests, something smart developers understand and appreciate.

High-design quality emphasizes creating places people love and includes connecting to and embracing assets such as Seattle’s waterfront for public use, as the removal of the viaducts will allow Seattle to do.

Perhaps most important, great design focuses on how the buildings meet the street and making the everyday walking experience, at eye level and the 5-mph pace of a real walker, constantly interesting.

That means no blank walls along the sidewalk, something I’ve noted too often in Seattle’s downtown. They are deadly boring for walkers, not to mention unsafe.

Amenities make density enjoyable. If you plan for too many people without the amenities that make high-density living enjoyable, it often fails. Amenities support public life, and the denser it gets, the more such amenities are needed: parks, recreational and people places; child care and schools; and cultural, civic and heritage offerings.

Choose amenities especially for families and design for kids, and you’ll get them — Vancouver has about 7,000 kids living downtown because we designed for them.

On top of publicly owned amenities, density brings the population for market-driven amenities such as the coffee shop, pub, grocery store and farmers market.

These publicly and privately owned amenities, usually paid for by and through new developments and density, make density livable, lovable and successful for all ages and for families.

The truth is, density done well is a tougher art and science than just these three must-haves. But if you get these three right, you’re likely off to a very good start.

Brent Toderian is Vancouver’s former director of city planning and president of the Council for Canadian Urbanism. On Twitter @BrentToderian


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