Friday, July 17, 2009

Vancouver or Seattle: Who's greener?

The two cities have plenty in common, particularly their enthusiasm for sustainability

By Michael Geller, Special to the Vancouver Sun July 17, 2009

Last month, two stimulating debates took place in Vancouver and Seattle to decide which city has the better-built environment. Sponsored by VIA Architecture, which has offices in both cities, the debates featured former Vancouver Councillor Gordon Price, who heads the City Program at SFU, and architect Peter Steinbrueck, who also served as a Seattle politician.

But what made them so fascinating and entertaining was the fact that the two speakers switched their normal roles -- Price spoke in favour of Seattle, while Steinbrueck defended Vancouver.

While each admitted that it was difficult being a booster for a competing city, these two urbanists had little difficulty identifying the shortcomings of their hometowns.

Steinbrueck thought Vancouver was better because of its absence of downtown freeways, its extensive SkyTrain network, more downtown residents (especially families), thin high-rise towers and podium townhouses, more public waterfront access, walkable neighborhoods with bikeable streets, and history of visionary planning.

Price praised Seattle for its Pike Place Market, unique neighborhoods with distinctive characters, downtown ferries, streetcars and free downtown buses, more varied and risk-taking architecture, beautiful downtown office buildings, major medical and research complexes and better cultural institutions supported by more generous civic patrons.

Each also highlighted his city's negatives. Steinbrueck noted that Seattle doesn't try to accommodate families in its new inner city communities, and Price criticized Vancouver's homogenous highrises and lack of architectural variety.

Recently, I was invited to Seattle to speak to a group of Urban Land Institute professionals from Portland and Seattle. These under-35 architects, planners and developers are Cascadia's future leaders in urban planning and development. Over a day-and-a-half, the Vancouver/Seattle debate continued, with the Portland delegates making the case for their wonderful city.

I talked about the mayor of Vancouver's desire to be the greenest city in the world, and while the American delegates did not laugh, they did smile, since both Seattle and Portland are considered the two most sustainable cities in the United States.

But there are similarities. As Vancouver gets ready to start its rapid transit line from the airport to the downtown, today Seattle is opening its long awaited 23-km, $2.3 billion light-rail line that will connect its downtown to Tukwila. An extension to SeaTac airport will begin later this year.

I was surprised to discover that there are striking similarities in our housing initiatives. When I mentioned that Vancouver City Council would be holding a public hearing next Tuesday, July 21 on laneway housing, Diane Sugimura, Seattle's director of planning and development handed me a brochure promoting backyard cottages, their version of laneway housing.

This summer, Seattle City Council will consider a proposal to allow homeowners across the city to build cottages in their backyards. In 2006, the city considered allowing detached cottages to be built citywide but instead approved them only for southeast Seattle as an experiment. Since 2006, just 17 have been built, but a city survey indicates neighbours either like them or do not notice them. The new proposal would limit the number to 50 per year and require the homeowner to live in either the main house or the cottage for at least half the year. Cottages cannot be added to homes that already contain a basement or 'mother-in-law' suite, and there are very specific guidelines for building height and area that vary depending on the width of the lot.

Not surprisingly, as in Vancouver, the concept has generated both supporters and critics. While I can see advantages and disadvantages to each city's approach, I think there are lessons we can learn from Seattle, and vice versa.

We can also learn from another Seattle initiative which encourages the redevelopment of single family lots with small infill cottages. Sugimura directed me to the corner of 16th and Jefferson where I found four attractive detached single-family homes that had replaced a larger older home. While one had an enclosed garage, the other three shared a surface parking area in the rear.

Each home was less than 1,000 square feet, but provided more than ample living space. On-demand hot water systems eliminated the need for bulky hot water heaters, thus freeing up more storage space. Sarah Bernstein, one of the residents told me that each home was individually owned without the need for any strata corporation.

In neighbouring Kirkland, on a quiet neighbourhood street, I discovered Danielson Grove, a delightful collection of small houses designed by Ross Chapin and developed by The Cottage Company.

This award-winning neighborhood offers sixteen one-, two-, and three-bedroom homes, each on a private lot, arranged around lavishly landscaped garden courtyards. Parking is provided in individual garages on the periphery of the development. Danielson Grove was built under the City of Kirkland's Innovative Housing Demonstration Program.

As Portland, Seattle and Vancouver struggle to accommodate growing populations, I believe that innovative ideas such as laneway housing and cottage homes can provide new choices for those seeking smaller and more affordable housing, but not wanting suites above commercial spaces or large downtown apartment buildings.

I would encourage all municipalities to establish demonstration programs to encourage architects and developers to explore innovative housing ideas. In so doing, we will help ensure that Cascadia remains at the forefront of sustainable living in North America. And Vancouver may one day become the greenest city in the world.

Michael Geller is a Vancouver based architect, planner and property developer and president of Laneway Cottages Inc.
© Copyright (c) The Vancouver Sun


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