British Columbia

Vancouver high-rises: Are they the future of the city?

High-rise residential towers are a contentious issue in some Vancouver neighbourhoods. But with the region set to grow by over a million people in coming decades, are they the best hope for density and affordability? City planners and architects debated the issue Wednesday.

City planners and architects debated issue Wednesday night at Urbanarium event

Towers dominate some neighbourhoods in the city, but other neighbourhoods oppose them. Where should they fit into the city's future? (AP Photo/Tourism British Columbia, Albert Normandin)

Is Vancouver too quick to build towers in an attempt to solve the housing crisis?

That was the question put to a panel of city planners and architects Wednesday night at an Urbanarium event at UBC's Robson Square.

Dave Ramslie, an urban planner with the Integral Group, says it's just a matter of simple math for a region he says is set to grow by 1.1 million people by 2040.

"In order to do that, we need to find 550,000 units of housing … that's the equivalent to all the housing that's currently in Vancouver, Burnaby, New Westminster, the entire North Shore," he said during a pre-debate preview on On The Coast.

"A tower can do that at two times, three times less the space that a mid-rise development can do that, and there are other environmental imperatives to building a tower."

But Oliver Lang, an architect with the Lang Wilson Practice in Architecture Culture Corporation, argues that the city is indeed too reliant on towers.

"Our argument is for a broad range of mid-rise buildings anywhere from infill to 15-storey buildings that can create tremendous density but at the same time produce huge advantages to produce diversity," he said.

"We do not build our city any longer for people. We build our city to deal with big political pressure, to accommodate people, but we accommodate them in cell-like structures. We've lost our focus to think about the combination of livability, affordability and sustainability."

What about community opposition?

The issue of tower construction is a hot one in many Vancouver neighbourhoods.

On Wednesday, residents of Joyce-Collingwood rallied against new towers in their neighbourhood. And just to the west in Grandview-Woodlands, signs against towers along Commercial Drive pepper the area.

Ramslie says that while opposition to towers is strong, he thinks it would be even stronger if six or seven mid-rise buildings were being built in the same neighbourhoods.

He also says that towers could improve by focusing on building communities.

"We should be asking more out of our tower developments, making them more beautiful, making them more humane," he said. "There are design solutions, whether it's communal barbecue pits or communal kitchens or suites where you can entertain people for short periods of time."

"There are things we can do in the high-rise form that can make them pillars of our community, not just pillars of development."

Ramslie and Lang agreed that the city's neighbourhoods need to be engaged in difficult conversations about how to accommodate the city's growth, but Lang says those conversations can't just be pushing towards high-rises as the only answer.

"We are making a strong argument for diversification, with a real focus on really understanding who are we building for," he said. "We're building for people. How do they live? How would they like to live? And how do we accommodate their needs and their desires to live in an arrangement of basically stacking them vertically?"

To hear the full interview, click the audio labelled: City planners and architects debate where high-rises fit into Vancouver's future


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