Vancouverism, Hamilton and the Road Less Traveled

By Ryan McGreal
Published April 03, 2013

If you haven't been following the series of op-eds in the Spectator by Paul Shaker and David Premi, you really should. Their latest essay, Say Hello to Hamiltonism, draws inspiration from Vancouver's leadership in urban development and invites Hamilton to take the lead in its own development.

These days, Vancouver looms tall (ahem) as an example of urbanism done mostly right. While other cities decanted aggressively into their hinterlands and crisscrossed their built areas with highways, Vancover followed a much different growth strategy. Urban planners, theorists and observers increasingly recognize that the Vancouver model, often called "Vancouverism" of late, hews pretty closely to urbanist recommendations.

Nicholas Kevlahan, a Vancouver native himself, has written about Vancover and documented its prevailing built form in pictures for Raise the Hammer.

In the last twenty years I have returned to Vancouver every few years and have been fascinated by its transformation from a sleepy (almost too laid-back) backwater to a vibrant, urban 'world class' city. This transformation has been remarkably rapid.

The city today is globally recognized for its excellent quality of life because of choices it made 20, 30 and 40 years ago. Engaged citizens resisted the postwar plan to build a network of expressways through urban neighbourhoods - much like Toronto resisted the urge to build the Spadina expressway.

It was at this time that Vancouver and Hamilton diverged - as, indeed, Vancouver diverged from most of the rest of North America.

Its urban communities saved from destruction, Vancouver invested in rapid transit, building the Skytrain system that was offered to Hamilton in the early 1980s but which Hamilton rejected. (Instead, we eventually built a new urban expressway!)

It's also worth pointing out the particular building form made popular in Vancouver: a podium-and-pedestal model in which a building provides a coherent two- to four-storey urban streetwall to the sidewalk with a tall, slender tower that emerges from inside the building.

A great article in Urban Toronto on Vancouverism showcases this building form:

Coal Harbour condo tower podium lined with retail and residential units. Image by Dumitru Onceanu.
Coal Harbour condo tower podium lined with retail and residential units. Image by Dumitru Onceanu.

This model provides high quality density without sacrificing a coherent pedestrian experience at street level. (As such, Vancouver condo buildings function more effectively for pedestrian life than downtown Toronto's condos, many of which are a compositional disaster at street level and amount to vertical sprawl.)

The essay by Shaker and Premi is particularly frustrating in light of the missed opportunities for Hamilton to make some of the same choices Vancouver has made. Indeed, Vancouver took its seminal leaps of faith in the 1970s, '80s and '90s, but our continued reluctance today to start making good urban development choices comes in the face of decades of evidence that our trajectory leads to ruin.

As many locals can attest to, progress in The Hammer tends to go in fits and starts. Sometimes we start to stray outside our comfort zone on issues, and we sabotage our wins through retreat into the safety of old thinking.

This is where we can take inspiration from Vancouverism - to stay focused on a goal and become leaders in urban thinking even when this means we are doing things differently than other cities. That's what it means to lead.

I would love for Hamilton to be a leader in urban development, but we can scarcely bring our city to be a follower in the urban development we already know will work.

Hiding behind the exceptionalism of its unique geographic constraints, Hamilton ironically uses them as a lame excuse to maintain exactly the same pattern of suburban sprawl as every other unexceptional city in North America.

Vancouver, in sharp contrast, has regarded its unique geographic constraints as an opportunity to do things differently - to cultivate and leverage the distinctly urban economies that produce innovation and growth.

Vancouver took the road less traveled by, and that has made all the difference.

Ryan McGreal, the editor of Raise the Hammer, lives in Hamilton with his family and works as a programmer, writer and consultant. Ryan volunteers with Hamilton Light Rail, a citizen group dedicated to bringing light rail transit to Hamilton. Ryan wrote a city affairs column in Hamilton Magazine, and several of his articles have been published in the Hamilton Spectator. His articles have also been published in The Walrus, HuffPost and Behind the Numbers. He maintains a personal website, has been known to share passing thoughts on Twitter and Facebook, and posts the occasional cat photo on Instagram.


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By jason (registered) | Posted April 03, 2013 at 19:46:41

Amazing to see the results of intentional, forward-thinking planning. Here, council always seems to value getting re-elected before any city-building or forward-thinking plans. I'm not sure how, but one of these decades, it needs to change. From council right through every single department. Yes, Public Works, I'm talking to you.

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By Mogadon Megalodon (anonymous) | Posted April 03, 2013 at 23:27:16

It's reassuring to know that there's hope for Hamilton 20, 30 or 40 years from now, but I wonder how many will stick it out.

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By Rimshot (anonymous) | Posted April 04, 2013 at 00:03:29

The perils of being the country's biggest port city.

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By TnT (registered) | Posted April 04, 2013 at 00:26:00

Caveat being I’ve never been to Vancouver, but I certainly get mixed reviews from people who travel from there. From a pool of about 100 people, 90 plus do not have good things to say about the city. Huge condos acting like vertical gated communities have marched through much of the city. Whatever charm of its dirty, cement producing past has been converted from working class to yuppie. That is a small sample, but it may show a larger trend.

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By kevlahan (registered) | Posted April 05, 2013 at 15:08:16 in reply to Comment 87648

I'm a bit surprised by your experience, as most people I've talked to who have visited recently seem to love Vancouver. It could depend on what you're looking for in a city.

If you want low density, free flowing traffic, and neighbourhoods of single family houses with front gardens you'll not be happy with the downtown core and adjacent neighbourhoods. (Many people also hate the long, dark, rainy winter, but planners can't do much about that;)

But if you like a dense lively city with shops, businesses and accommodation mixed together, combined with easy access to beaches, parks and views of the mountains, then I don't think you can do better. Note that overall, the population of the City of Vancouver (603 000 in 2011 and 514 000 in 1996) is similar to Hamilton, but growing faster primarily due to densification.

I'm not sure what you meant by Vancouver's "cement producing past". The main concrete plant is still operating where it always has, on Granville Island, and Vancouver's traditional industry was not cement, but its port, lumber, pulp and paper, fishing and mining services.

Buying a house or apartment is very expensive in Vancouver, but rent is actually a bit lower than Toronto (average apartment rent is $989 compared with $1045).

The per capita income in CMA Vancouver is actually slightly lower than in the GTA: 37k versus 38k:

and the household income in in the downtown bia is actually significantly lower than in the City as whole, or Metro Vancouver ($56k, $68, $73k respectively).

Vancouver has built far more social and geared to income housing than Hamilton, and there has been a long standing policy of requiring a certain proportion (20%) of geared to income accommodation in new buildings. The Mayor also has initiated a taskforce on how to increase the supply of affordable housing: Downtown and the City are not reserved for rich people!

Comment edited by kevlahan on 2013-04-05 15:32:57

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By LOL all over again (anonymous) | Posted April 07, 2013 at 21:06:49 in reply to Comment 87683

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By LOL@LOL (anonymous) | Posted April 08, 2013 at 02:14:09 in reply to Comment 87731

It couldn't possibly be that Vancouver started to change from being similar to Hamilton around the same time it started planning and building differently, could it. It couldn't possibly be that Vancouver refused to build inner city highways and put in a firm urban boundary and built fast electric transit and zoned for high density mixed use buildings, and that's when it started to get all those things instead of just being a big pile of sprawl with a rotting inner core cut through with fast multi lane highways like Hamilton has done. It couldn't possibly be that Vancouver is different because it made different choices.

Nah, it couldn't be all those things that Vancouver did different than other cities that made Vancouver turn from a backwoods port town into one of the most famous cities on earth in just a few decades.

Let the idiocy continue.

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By LOL all over again (anonymous) | Posted April 11, 2013 at 02:25:26 in reply to Comment 87733

I am truly sorry. I didn't realize that Vancouver used to be a heavy industry city like Hamilton. When did they lose their heavy industry? When did Hamilton lose it's corporate headquarters? Was that before or after Vancouver lost their heavy industries? When did the provincial capital move from Hamilton to Toronto? Was that about the time Vancouver became the provincial capital? What ever caused the all the maritime industry to leave Hamilton? Did it move to Vancouver? Oh wait now I remember, Hamilton never had a salt water port, couldn't have considering we lie on the end of Lake Ontario.

I guess if you squint your eyes just right and look at the sun's reflection on the water Hamilton is just like Vancouver, or maybe not. Maybe all the comparisons are made by people who have no idea what they are talking about, or more likely know full well exactly what they are talking about and just want to bend and skew the facts to benefit their own agendas.

Let the downvoting begin.

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By jason (registered) | Posted April 08, 2013 at 13:08:00 in reply to Comment 87733

exactly....people who (for some reason) love the fact that Hamilton has done virtually everything wrong from a city-building perspective the past 3 decades like to make excuses for why all the successful cities can't teach us anything. Pretty sad state of mind when somebody actually WANTS their hometown to be a perpetual laughingstock and low quality of life.

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By jason (registered) | Posted April 04, 2013 at 03:20:52 in reply to Comment 87648

Interesting. I've been a few times and just love it. Granted, folks like me and possibly your friends, enjoy the charming brick streets of Hamilton as opposed to condo towers as far as the eye can see. But their geography played a large role in the need to go up with development.

The street level is fantastic though. It's like a modern Manhattan. I would never advocate for demolishing blocks of homes to build towers, but we don't need to. We have tons of land along our main streets, empty lots, empty buildings, west harbour land and former downtown factory/brownfield sites. We could literally build a new city within the city, and never touch the grand historic streets like Ferguson South, Catharine North, Stanley Ave or Napier.

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By Fred Street (anonymous) | Posted April 04, 2013 at 01:16:08

It's nice to see Vision 2020 getting some love.

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By ScreamingViking (registered) | Posted April 04, 2013 at 07:36:39

Not to disagree with this article (we do need a sustained vision and plan for Hamilton that is forward thinking, based on sound planning, respects the desires of city residents, looks to the future, and has unified political and administrative support), but I'm curious to know what has happened over the past several decades in the rest of Vancouver (the city proper, not the GVRD)

People usually note what has been happening downtown, the urban part of the peninsula on which it is located. But it's really just a small part of the entire city (and that city is similar in area to the pre-amalgamation City of Hamilton). Have similar planning principles applied to other parts of Vancouver? Have they changed as much? Has there been a difference between neigbourhoods adjacent to the rapid transit lines and neighbourhoods that are not?

Just curious.

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By kevlahan (registered) | Posted April 05, 2013 at 14:44:57 in reply to Comment 87654

The same planning principles have been applied throughout the City of Vancouver proper, which has a population not that different from Hamilton, but with higher rates of growth (603 000 in 2011, 514 000 in 1996).

Outside the downtown, West End, Coal Harbour, False Creek and Yaletown (the peninsula), mixed medium density has been the rule. South shore of False Creek, South Granville, Commercial Drive, west 4th and new developments at UBC are good examples of medium density and mixed use development.

However, the rest of the GVRD, especially in the Fraser Valley, has been sprawl autocentric development. This is an excellent illustration of how principled planning, followed over decades, can make a real difference.

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By ScreamingViking (registered) | Posted April 05, 2013 at 18:22:58 in reply to Comment 87681

Thanks. How have the Skytrain lines influenced development in the rest of the city?

I really need to get out there again. Not just to experience Vancouver (loved so many other places in the Lower Mainland and up the Fraser, the Okanagan, etc.), but it's been 20 years so it would be interesting to see firsthand how the city has evolved.

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By kevlahan (registered) | Posted April 05, 2013 at 18:30:35 in reply to Comment 87694

Skytrain has led to a lot of development around the stations (e.g. Metrotown in Burnaby), but not much in between due to the elevated tracks. The isolated elevated stations have also been criticized for being crime hotspots because they are out of sight.

This is one reason I think ground-level LRT is much from an urban design and development aspect.

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By Schematic (anonymous) | Posted April 04, 2013 at 11:40:39

*Note: Hamiltonism may require razing 40% of century buildings in the heart of the city

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By LOL all over again (anonymous) | Posted April 07, 2013 at 05:49:23

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By Rimshot (anonymous) | Posted April 14, 2013 at 22:29:03

Another ray of hope!

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By Observer (anonymous) | Posted April 18, 2013 at 01:03:22

Ryan you say:

1) "These days, Vancouver looms tall (ahem) as an example of urbanism done mostly right." and
2) "Vancouver followed a much different growth strategy. Urban planners, theorists and observers increasingly recognize that the Vancouver model, often called "Vancouverism" of late, hews pretty closely to urbanist recommendations."

You further make sweeping generalizations about Vancouver and even Toronto based on your understanding of urban form and urban growth. But are things really the way you think they are? Here is Vancouver's reality and it is very scary.

These are comments from someone living in Vancouver:

1) "The Vision Vancouver city council is absolutely complicit in turning Vancouver from a livable city of neighbourhoods to a sterile forest of empty investor owned condos. Citizens who are appalled at how the city's heart and soul is being demolished to make way for more empty glass condos needs to become active in removing Vision (and keeping the NPA) from power in the next election. We've had enough of city councils who do the bidding of developers while giving Vancouver citizens their middle finger. This is our city, and it's high time we took it back."

2) "Yes condos have become a huge business here, but few are being built for those retiring from their houses. With many being built over or beside shopping centers, with very small rooms, no local I know is interested in them. They are obviously being built for those who see them as an investment. When a 37 story high rise over a shopping center that won't be completed for 4+ years sells out in 4 hours, we know it's got to be speculative buying."

These comments are in an article on Vancouver's real estate bubble:

"It’s a problem when Vancouver condos sell, but the lights stay off",
Special to The Globe and Mail,
Friday, Apr. 12 2013

This article is in striking contrast to your understanding of Vancouver:

"If the data released during a panel discussion at Simon Fraser University two weeks ago revealed anything, it’s that empty condos point to a city of speculators and investors. And it doesn’t matter if those investors are from Mainland China, Iran or Ladner. They’re pushing up property prices by using Vancouver real estate to store their money as if it were one giant “safety deposit box,” to quote one of the panelists."

“The issue is speculation; that was the heart of my presentation,” says Andy Yan, an urban planner and statistics junkie who works for Bing Thom Architects. Mr. Yan gave a presentation that showed a substantial number of condos in downtown Vancouver are empty, and his new report made headlines."

“The empty condo thing is a bit of urban mythology busting, but does it really matter?” asks Mr. Yan, over coffee a few days later. Mr. Yan, who’s a third-generation Vancouverite, received his masters in urban planning at the University of California. He’s spent the last several years digging deep into Vancouver’s real estate market."

“How about the fact that, oh, 50 to 60 per cent of condos are investor owned? And what the economic situation of that does for a real estate market?”

Here is another article on Vancouver:

"Nearly a quarter of Vancouver’s condos are empty, but Gen Y still can’t afford to buy in"
By Steve Mertl, Daily Brew, Thursday, 21 Mar, 2013:

"They're called Generation Y, aged 19 to 33, and the Y could stand for "why can't I afford to buy a home?" A survey conducted for the real estate firm Royal LePage shows most want to own their own home at some point but a majority worry they'll never be able to afford one as the gap between house prices and their earning power widens."

"Interestingly, 66 per cent of Baby Boomers in the poll — which had an error margin of plus or minus three per cent 19 times out of 20 — also worried about home affordability. The affordability issue is especially acute in British Columbia, where about one in five Gen Y respondents found renting preferable to home ownership, compared with less than 15 per cent nationally, and almost 40 per cent said they expected to rent their next primary residence."

"In Vancouver's bustling downtown, where a forest of condo high-rises has sprung up over the last 20 years, the number of empty units equals 35 towers, each 20 storeys high, the Globe said. Vancouverites have debated the effect of foreign — mainly Chinese — involvement in the city's real estate market for years, and Yan's analysis contradicts claims made previously that the phenomenon is not distorting the market."

"While it's impossible to know exactly why so many condo apartments are empty, Yan said the data indicates Vancouver is creating neighbourhoods that appear dense but actually aren't because they don't have an active full-time population, the Globe said."

This comment by west side observer, March 21st, 2013, at sums up the enormous problems of Vancouver:

"Mr. Yan discussed downtown condos, but my sense is that the same situation prevails, & is perhaps more extreme, in some neighbourhoods in Vancouver Westside. Every year, West Pt. Grey more closely resembles a ghost town. The irony is that laneway houses are now popping up, which are also unoccupied."

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By Observer (anonymous) | Posted April 18, 2013 at 01:46:57

"Vancouver overall has a much higher rate of empty apartments and houses than other Canadian cities, with a rate closer to places like New York and San Francisco at the height of their mortgage crisis in 2010. Downtown, the rate is so high that it’s as though there were 35 towers at 20 storeys apiece – empty."

“The problem is vacant units since that’s demand for real estate without housing people.”

See Map of this vacancy:

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