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.