Last night we attended the second Urbanarium Debate. In this one, the resolution was that we should be building fewer towers in Vancouver.
The theatre at UBC Robson Square was full, with an audience comprised, it seemed to me, of a middle- to upper-middle class mix of young student types and grey hairs. I also saw a few City planners there, along with the manufacture consent PR folks, as well as a few neighbourhood activists.
The proponents of the motion were planner, designer, and writer Lance Berelowitz, and architect and entrepreneur Oliver Lang. The opponents of the motion were planner and developer Dave Ramslie, along with developer Christopher Vollan. The excellent moderator, as in the first debate, was David Beers who noted that “towers” were defined in Vancouver as buildings above seven stories.
The format was the Oxford Debate — 7 minutes for pro #1, 7 minutes for con #1, 7 minutes for pro #2, 7 minutes for con #2, followed by a 10-15 minute debate exchange, then five questions from the audience. Each side used slides to present their position.
There was a pre-debate vote of the audience: 95 for the motion, 91 against.
The debaters for the motion for fewer towers were clear that they were not calling for an end to tower building, agreeing that, in the proper location and context, towers were quite appropriate. The position of those opposing the motion — and thus calling for more towers to be built — only had one argument: that towers were the only way to handle the expected growth in Vancouver’s population. This was countered by reference to the studies of urbanists such as Patrick Conden and Scott Hein that low-rise and mid-rise developments were more than enough to meet all anticipated demand.
Both Berelowitz and Lang pointed out that towers were the most inflexible of building forms, utterly incapable of being repurposed to meet climate change, earthquake risks, social change. Calling towers “gated vertical communities”, they stressed that the tower/strata form reduced housing to a commodity undemocratically controlled by a small number of developers and major land owners. The “fewer towers” proponents also noted the “serious negative effects” that the sudden rise of a tower has on an otherwise low-rise neighbourhood.
In contrast, they stressed the flexibility of low- and mid-rise buildings, bringing density to neighbourhoods without the abrupt change of high-rises. They also focused on the democracy of low-rise buildings that can be tackled by a much wider range of small builders and, if enterprising, by homeowners themselves — a clear alternative to control by big corporations.
The pro side also illustrated the range of low- and mid-rise building forms that are common around the world yet virtually non-existent in Vancouver. They praised the diversity and choice that these options would bring; and noted that many could be built in wood rather than concrete, steel, and glass. They were clear that building more towers can only reduce the availability of these choices.
My judgment was that the best debater or presenter was Lance Berelowitz, followed by Dave Ramslie. Neither Lang not Vollan were terrible, but neither did they shine. That being said, the post-debate audience vote was 94 for the motion and 100 against, implying that the con side “won” the debate. But no result would have been meaningful given the easy availability of double voting (online and on paper).
As we were leaving I bumped into Charles Campbell who noted that we had now had two full debates without poor people being mentioned once. Maybe that unfortunate lacuna will be filled in the next debate which is about legislating affordability.
Thanks for providing this account of the debate. I was miffed when I found out about the debate only after it was sold out. For those of us who weren’t able to be there, could you perhaps do a followup post about the arguments presented by the con side? (Hold your nose, if you must.) I’d be interested to hear what they had to say, and perhaps get some insight into why the con side narrowly carried the evening.
Here’s a thought: towers allow extreme density. Vancouverites with roots in urban Asia have had experience of extreme density. Vancouverites without much experience beyond Vancouver, or BC, have until relatively recently not had much experience of density at all. Vancouver, beyond the core, and really, beyond the West End until Yaletown happened, post-Expo, was and still largely is a low density city, a suburban city. So between the two groups you could venture that not that many people have had the experience of living in the low- and mid-rise mid-density that is typical of many European cities and the central areas of older North American cities. What you don’t know or understand, you aren’t likely to vote for, or consider as a viable alternative.
A couple of summers ago my wife and I stayed in an apartment on the top floor of a hundred-year-old brick rowhouse in the Trinity-Bellwoods neighbourhood of Toronto. As we were walking around this leafy, green, quiet neighbourhood, with its little maze of streets, I was struck by how dense it was. Easily three times as dense as Grandview. And yet nothing was over three storeys. Mind you, nothing was under three storeys, either. And yards were little more than postage stamps. There was a uniformity of form, and it was rowhouse, which I guess could equate to stacked townhouse, or something like it, in the Vancouver Planning Department’s vision for the city.
The steady march of the tower that we’re seeing in Vancouver seems to be a leap straight to extreme density, which seems questionable. We aren’t about to become a city of 10 million. We are probably going to become a city of 3.5 to 4 million.
Hi Lachlan. Thanks for your considered response.
The thrust of the con side (i.e. for more towers) was data-driven, trying to prove that growth in Vancouver will be so large that ONLY towers could possibly meet the need and we could not afford to look in any other direction. They ignored the evidence from respected urbanists that this was untrue. Moreover, they felt that towers should be part of every neighbourhood. I got the impression from both Ramslie and Vollan that they were trying to sell me something.
Obviously I am not the best at putting their POV. The Urbanarium site (http://urbanarium.org/city-debate-2-build-fewer-towers-sold-out) should have the video up pretty soon and I encourage everyone to watch the real thing.