Atlanta Comes to Vancouver

May 29, 2007 at 2:58 pm Leave a comment

A few weeks ago, a delegation from Atlanta came to visit. Atlanta LINK – 117 leaders in business and government – had a chance to listen to study our city and, more importantly, just walk around.

Atlanta tour

Here’s what the reporter accompanying them saw:

In Vancouver, civic leaders see a livable city

By Maria Saporta

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Published on: 05/28/07

Vancouver, British Columbia — To metro Atlantans, congestion is a dirty word.

But when a delegation of 117 regional leaders recently visited this Canadian city, they were introduced to a whole new concept.

Congestion is our friend,” said Larry Beasley, former city planning director for Vancouver, who has been recognized worldwide as helping create a new urban model. “Density is good.”

Metro leaders were exposed to a vastly different approach to growth and development during the 11th annual LINK trip, organized by the Atlanta Regional Commission, short for “Leadership, Innovation, Networking, Knowledge.”

Vancouver’s strategy of density and transit is a stark contrast to the Atlanta region’s road-oriented sprawl.


In the 1970s, Vancouver residents waged a 10-year battle to keep freeways from its urban core. They successfully defeated a plan that would have run a highway through its Chinatown and run along its downtown waterfront.

Now a traffic light at the edge of city limits signals that the interstate from Tijuana to Canada has come to a stop and is now a city street.

“We are the only North American city of any significance without an interstate at its core,” said Gordon Price, an urban affairs professor at Simon Fraser University, who used to serve on Vancouver’s City Council.

Instead of the city drying up economically and becoming inaccessible and unlivable, downtown Vancouver has become one of the most thriving urban areas in North America.

In building a wide pedestrian and bicycle path around downtown, it created an environment free from cars.

“There’s no better alternative to the car than walking,” Beasley said. “We have been doing everything in our power to make walking comfortable. We actually have fewer cars coming into the downtown area than we had 10 years ago.”

The city also has invested strongly in transit, including electric buses, rapid rail, commuter rail, streetcars and ferries.

“We like that it’s hard to get in and out of downtown,” Beasley said. “We have a policy to not even expand one lane of roads coming in and out of our city.”

The Vancouver model only works if communities follow four guiding principles: protect green spaces, develop in compact areas, increase transportation choices and build complete communities. A complete community includes grocery stores, drugstores, liquor stores, schools, jobs and a variety of homes, including units designed for families.

For Vancouver, it also is important to create communities where one can live from cradle to grave, rather than developing high-rise neighborhoods for just young professionals and empty nesters.

Density also is a hallmark of Vancouver. The greater the density, the better it is for transit. But density must be sensitively designed so it welcomes people at street level. “Once you get the street right — the first 30 feet of a building — how high you go is not important,” Price said.

Atlanta Mayor Shirley Franklin said walking around downtown Vancouver at all times of day told the story for her. On every street, she says the crowds were a mix of shoppers, tourists, students and workers — all walking.

“The public sculpture was stunning and fully integrated into the public and private plazas and parks,” she said. “I just loved walking through the neighborhoods and parks, witnessing first-hand the sense of place and human scale while surrounded by high-rise buildings and dense development.”

City leaders readily admit that their Vancouver model is counter-intuitive. But they add that the growth strategies of other North American cities designed around the automobile have failed.

“We are building cities we don’t actually like,” Price said. “Everyone can drive everywhere for everything. But if it’s the only game in town, it doesn’t even work for the car.”

While much of the Vancouver region also has been developed around the car, Price said attitudes are changing. “Suburbs want urbanity,” he said. Several close-in suburbs are developing high-rise town centers that can be linked to Vancouver by transit.

One agency in Greater Vancouver — TransLink — oversees all transportation, including roads. Transportation projects and operations are largely financed through gas taxes, which total nearly $1.60 a gallon compared to 25.9 cents in Georgia. And TransLink has total flexibility on how it can spend its money, meaning gas taxes subsidize transit and other modes of travel.

But the Vancouver region is not without its problems. The lack of affordable housing, the number of homeless people, the prevalence of drug addicts and the growing number of immigrants have strained the urban area.

A big dispute continues between the Province of British Columbia and the 21 municipalities that make up Greater Vancouver. The province has usurped the cities’ authority to run TransLink, and it is replacing it with a business-oriented board that’s friendlier to road building.

That flies in the face of the “Livable Region Strategic Plan,” a vision established over several years through citizen participation and regional consensus. The Vancouver region also has been developing a 100-year plan based on developing sustainable communities. Because of its natural beauty, residents fiercely protect their environment, perceiving global warming as a real threat.

“We are looking 100 years ahead,” said Darrell Mussatto, mayor of the city of North Vancouver. “What happens then depends on the decisions we make today.”

So when the provincial government interferes with their vision for the region, the municipalities are resentful and rebellious.“This community is a lot like Anna Nicole Smith — the city is beautiful on the outside, but there are definitely some issues,” joked Derek Corrigan, mayor of Burnaby, one of the 21 cities that makes up the region. “Municipalities are standing up. We won’t send the taxes we are collecting if they ignore the regional plan.”

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