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Developing densified Vancouver into a designer metropolis

This low-rise development near Granville Island sports a rooftop green space accessible by spiral staircase.


The Globe and Mail's B.C. bureau is spending the summer examining how Vancouver's increasing density is shaping the city and its residents.

In their 1977 study of architecture and social behaviour, researchers Andrew Baum and Stuart Valins housed college students in two types of dormitories: one with a traditional corridor-design layout, with bedrooms next to each other and a shared bathroom on every floor, and another with a suite-style design, with several bedrooms, a bathroom and shared lounge in every suite.

Each design offered a comparable amount of space for every person; the main difference was control over social interactions.

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The researchers found that those in the corridor-design dormitories – who had less control, and therefore more unwanted social contacts – developed a greater sensitivity toward large groups and became more withdrawn. Those in the suite-style-design dormitories were more sociable and developed deeper friendships with roommates.

Read more: How strata-housing owners in B.C. can deal with disputes in the face of density

The study, one of the first of its kind, highlighted the impact of the built environment on behaviour. Well-designed density can accommodate a city's growing population while fostering community engagement, decreasing energy costs and even making its residents healthier. But poorly designed density risks creating concrete jungles that feel soulless and claustrophobic.

As growing cities move to densify, experts say it's imperative to consider design at the outset: Successful density is determined not by building height, they say, but how well it is executed.

In Metro Vancouver, much of the density is in low-rise buildings. According to the latest census, apartments in buildings with up to four storeys accounted for a quarter of all dwellings, compared with apartments in buildings with five or more, which made up 16.7 per cent.

Andy Yan, an urban planner and director of Simon Fraser University's City Program, said this type of density – more than, say, 40-storey towers – helps foster a good balance of scale, neighbourliness and connection.

"I think it's the connection to the ground, and how the building is related to the streets, that really gives people a sense of place," Mr. Yan said.

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"A building is only as good as its interface to its urban context."

He cited as an example a four-storey complex in Vancouver's Kitsilano neighbourhood. Ground-floor businesses include a bank, clothing stores and a market whose tables and chairs spill out into a shared courtyard.

"It mixes all these private spaces with public spaces and uses," he said. "That's kind of a neat blend of uses as well as sociability."

Brent Toderian, an urbanism consultant and former chief planner for the City of Vancouver, referenced a comparable layout in the Mount Pleasant area: a building with four storeys, a large and shared rooftop garden, grocery and hardware stores on the ground floor.

"It shows you can integrate big-box retail stores into the city in an urban building with a vibrant and active street edge, and [have] housing above – a vertical, urban 'power centre,'" he said.

It's also an example of how good design can integrate nature and neighbourliness while allowing privacy and respite when sought.

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"Great architecture and urban design supports quality of life, livability, lovability, social connections, mental and physical health and, yes, happiness," Mr. Toderian said.

"Bad design does the opposite: It supports poor health, obesity and many deadly preventable diseases, depression and isolation and general low levels of satisfaction and trust. Design doesn't make you happy or sad by itself, but it feeds and supports both."

Anita Molaro, assistant director of urban design at the City of Vancouver, cited Yaletown as one neighbourhood that densified well. Taller towers spaced far enough apart give residents a sense of separation from the buildings across from them, but also allow sunlight to reach the streetscape below.

"It's a combination of all those things, the typology of all that, working on a number of different levels," Ms. Molaro said.

In the neighbourhood, what helps make density succeed is an engaging public-realm interface, she added: places to walk, places to hang out, places to meet friends.

"In a high-density living context, the public spaces become an extension of our living spaces," Ms. Molaro said.

In 2013, the Urban Land Institute and Singapore's Centre for Liveable Cities released a publication on lessons learned from Singapore, which is seen as a high-density, high-livability development model. Among the lessons, the authors emphasized the need to incorporate nature to help "soften the hard edges of a highly built-up cityscape."

With limited horizontal space, planners in Singapore introduced "pervasive greenery," inserting it wherever they could, such as for road dividers, on rooftops and on vertical walls.

"Singapore has managed to create tiers of highly visible greenery from ground level up to the building tops," the publication read, seeing opportunity in the high-rise structures that form the cityscape as a means, rather than an impediment, to introduce more greenery."

It also highlighted the benefit of "activating spaces" through design – building apartment towers around playgrounds, sports courts and other shared spaces, for example, to increase visual access and create zones of ownership. Such design can also make denser communities less vulnerable to crime, the publication said.

According to Statistics Canada figures released earlier this year, Metro Vancouver has the highest population density of all census metropolitan areas (CMA) in the country. Vancouver's CMA grew 6.5 per cent between 2011 and 2016; the City of Vancouver makes up 25.6 per cent of that, Surrey 21 per cent.

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