Urbanism — the art and science of making cities — encompasses a broad range of perspectives. There’s the conceptual and long-term, about the role cities and urbanization play in humanity’s future. But there’s also the immediate and tactile, what you might call street-level urbanism: how to mix uses on a street, the right way to position doors and windows, the height and arrangement of buildings. The details.
I got a much greater appreciation of street-level urbanism when I took a bus up to Vancouver, BC, to take a downtown walking tour with Brent Toderian.
Toderian was the Vancouver’s Chief Planner from 2006 to 2012, a time of furious change for the city that saw the 2010 Olympics along with a broad range of programs to increase density, non-auto mobility, and livability. He’s now a consultant to cities that want to move in the same direction. (The tour was part of the 25th annual meeting of the The Congress for the New Urbanism.)
Walking along the waterfront and through downtown with Toderian (and a few old friends and colleagues, still in city government), it became apparent just how much thought and attention have gone into every building, street, public space, and park in the city.
It’s not that Vancouver is perfect — Toderian and his friends are quick to point out where a park is a little too wide, or a building doesn’t match its neighbors, or a particular strip of retail isn’t working. It’s clear these kinds of things haunt them.
But in Vancouver, like few other North American cities, nothing is simply left to chance, or developers, or the market. There is a deliberative regulatory framework in place, and every decision within it is made consciously, working backward from a clear vision of the city residents want. That’s one reason Vancouver is consistently ranked among the world’s most livable cities.
Experiencing urbanism this way, at street level, through the eyes of those who crafted it, is a little like taking the red pill in the Matrix. Once you start noticing the fine texture of the built environment — the details, the spaces and edges, how they make you feel, what kinds of activities they encourage or discourage — it’s impossible to stop.
And it turns out that most of the spaces most of us inhabit most of the time are pretty poorly designed. That’s why it costs so much to live in the well-designed places.
But Toderian is relentlessly optimistic that every city and town can get better. He stressed that Vancouver is not magic — any city can do this. He has practiced and explained city-making for over a decade, but he still has the enthusiasm of an evangelist. (His twitter feed is worth following as well.)
I talked with him after the tour in Vancouver, and over the phone a few times afterward. To make the conversation manageable, I’ve broken it in into four thematic pieces.