Vancouver doesn't often lag behind Canadian cities when it comes to urban design. More often than not it is at the forefront of trends in the field, from walkable neighbourhoods to place-making. Except for one. Unlike so many other municipalities big and small, the West Coast city has not had its own urban-design awards, which not only recognize excellence, but allow cities to hold up a standard for planners and developers.
Thanks to a push by Brian Jackson, who was as surprised as anyone that Vancouver lacked such awards when he became general manager of planning and development for the city two years ago, the third-largest city in Canada will be hosting its inaugural urban-design awards in September.
"It hopefully raises the bar and gets people to celebrate those unique buildings and spaces that are created as a result of new development," Jackson says.
Typically, urban-design awards dole out honours in a range of categories, from small, private projects to master plans for entire neighbourhoods.
Such award programs have proliferated as urban design has attracted more attention from the public and planning departments alike.
"Cities that are really trying to bump up [their] urban design got on that bandwagon some time ago," says Bruce Irvine, head of City Forum Consulting, a Calgary-based independent planning firm. "You've got a lot of regulatory sticks. This is one of the few incentive carrots."
In 2004, when the Royal Architectural Institute of Canada established the national urban design awards, only four municipalities – Ottawa, Toronto, Edmonton and Calgary – had a similar program. Since then, and with Vancouver now in the mix, that number has jumped to 17.
"The awards are a great framework for raising awareness, including conversations about how cities are going to evolve in future," says Jim McKee, executive director of the Royal Architectural Institute of Canada.
Toronto launched its urban design awards in 1991. The program usually receives more than 120 submissions. View the winners over the years and you can begin to see what goals the city is pursuing when it comes to the built environment.
"It's certainly an indication of how certain priorities are evolving," says Alka Lukatela, who manages the awards program.
For example, last year, a townhouse project in the city's Bayview Village, an area filled with large, single-family homes, won an award of merit for Teeple Architects Inc. and DK Studio Interiors. The project was a small but important symbol of dealing with intensification.
Similarly, Lukatela points to the breakthroughs with laneway houses, which used to be a "complete novelty," she says.
By helping to publicize new projects, the Vancouver awards could very likely have an important ripple effect across Canada, says Chris Dulaba, principal of Callidus Development Management, an Edmonton-based company.
"They've always been a city that a lot of municipalities turn to and say, 'Okay, how do we actually get better urban design?'" he says. The awards program may attract more attention to the work of architects, designers and planners in the city, he says. "It can help raise the bar and have an influence on design in a community."
The deadline for submissions was July 14. While the number of submissions is still being counted, Jackson says they span the spectrum from a single-family house to a high-rise building.
Vancouver has led the way in Canada in two of the biggest trends in urban design, says Dulaba, who has served on the jury of Edmonton's urban-design awards since 2009.
"They're really focused on how do you create good, pedestrian-oriented streets and neighbourhoods," he says. High-density developments in Coal Harbour, Yaletown and False Creek all show the emphasis on "human scaled" streetscapes, Dulaba says.
As well, the city has also been an early adopter of the "place-making" concept, creating developments that impart a sense of identity in a particular block or neighbourhood, Dulaba says.
As a result, how a building or piece of public art works in context is much more important than looking at it in isolation, however beautiful or bold it might appear.
"The way projects are judged now has much more to do with just the building. It is how the building fits in its neighbourhood," Jackson says.
The Vancouver urban-design awards will be handed out on Sept. 15 in 10 categories, including residential and commercial buildings, as well as landscape, public space, sustainable design and innovation.
A panel of judges that will include architects, landscape architects, planners and probably also writers or academics is still being selected.
"With all the controversy about design and building and density and height, people forget that there are some really, really good examples of the smallest projects of single-family houses all the way up to high-rise buildings," Jackson says. "And they really do contribute in a positive way to our urban environment."