Wednesday, April 8, 2015

Opinion: From Paris with love for city planning Vancouver Courier March

I spent the last two days exploring Paris with a former Vancouver city planner. We were looking for ideas to improve our city. We found some. We also discovered some good things about Vancouver that Paris needs to copy.
Since the transit plebiscite is top of mind, there is no doubt that Vancouver could learn from Paris when it comes to public transit. Their Metro system is extremely comprehensive, with many connections between the different lines. The stations are attractive; the service is frequent and efficient.

There is also an expanding tram system that in some locations runs along a grass corridor. We thought this would look wonderful along Broadway Avenue.

The big idea that we both focused on was the benefit of large scale comprehensive planning. Anyone who has been to Paris cannot help but be impressed with the grand tree-lined boulevards and master-planning so evident throughout most of the city.

I say most since we spent our time in the city centre. Once you get outside of this area, the Parisian suburbs are not much better than the suburbs of most Canadian cities. Indeed, they are often worse.
But the city centre, with its grand edifices and carpet of beautiful mid-rise buildings, constructed from the same stone, is magnificent.

There are highrise buildings, some of which are completely out of place, but most are concentrated in La Defense, the city’s business centre. While many of these buildings are impressive and shout out “look at me,” at night the area is deserted.

French planners need to visit to Vancouver to see how we mix commercial and residential developments to maintain a more vibrant city centre during the day and night.

While Vancouver deliberately did not copy Paris, which destroyed many neighbourhoods in the 19th century to create its grand streets and neighbourhoods, there is something to be said for a more coherent approach to city planning.

Over the past few years, Vancouver has approved new neighbourhood plans along Cambie Street, in Marpole, and the West End. However, we have been very shy when it comes to master-planning the city with established design guidelines.
My colleague noted that we simply do not have an overall vision for the city. However, we have often been spot-rezoning when it has been financially advantageous to do so, and applied a network of somewhat arbitrary view corridors resulting in some ugly new buildings.

He asked, do we really still need to see the Lions from the mid-point of the Granville Street Bridge?
While views are very important for Vancouver residents, he thinks it is probably time to reconsider the view corridor policies that most Vancouver residents know nothing about. I agree.
Another thing in Paris is its historic focus on celebrating the arts. This is evident in the number of museums and artists and art vendors on the streets. Sadly Vancouver, like most Canadian cities, does not hold arts and culture in such a high regard. Our artists struggle to find affordable studio space and living quarters, and the city struggles to fund an art gallery and museum.
While Vancouver will never be Paris, we need to do more to celebrate the contribution of art, artists, and other forms of culture to the life of a city.

Another noticeable difference is the landscaping and gardens. Yes, we have Stanley and Queen Elizabeth parks and many beautiful residential streets. But just look at the condition of Kingsway or Broadway or the new median at the south end of the Burrard Street Bridge filling up with weeds.

One area where Vancouver is far ahead of Paris is graffiti control. Like so many European cities, Paris is suffering from graffiti abuse in a most disgusting way. It’s tragic. Hopefully local officials will realize it’s time for something to be done. They can learn from Vancouver.

As we walked around Paris browsing the many street vendors, we could not help but think they too offer lessons for Vancouver. Yes, we now have food trucks. But there’s so much more we could do to enhance our street life and pedestrian experience. 

Hopefully one day Vancouver will become a bit more like Paris. And Paris will become a bit more like Vancouver.

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