Saturday, October 3, 2015

Lessons from St. Petersburg, Russia Vancouver Sun October 3, 2015

City could take a cue from Vancouver on sustainability, but its planning is worth a look
Geller: Lessons from St. Petersburg, Russia

St. Petersburg is one of the most beautiful cities in the world. Often referred to as Venice of the North, the city has more than 400 bridges and a historic city centre that has been designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

I recently spent a week in St. Petersburg, participating in a conference entitled Cities and Territories of Tomorrow: Tools for Positive Change. Organized under the auspices of the Moscow Urban Forum, it aimed to share international strategic planning experiences to find solutions for improving the quality of life in Russian cities.

I was invited to speak on two panels: one looked at how to encourage the private sector to invest in the renovation of heritage properties, and the other looked at how to best prepare a master plan for the city.

Ironically, while I was there, two debates were taking place in Vancouver on similar topics; namely, the appropriateness of designating Shaughnessy a heritage conservation area; and whether Vancouver should have an overall city plan to guide future planning and development, and prevent what many see as ad hoc zoning decisions.

While listening to the conference deliberations, I realized there is much Vancouver can teach Russian cities like St. Petersburg about planning and development. However, their planners and developers may also have lessons for us.

Vancouver is striving to become the most sustainable city in the world by 2020. We are transforming from a typical North American car-dominated city to one where people walk, cycle, and increasingly use public transit. Many younger residents join car-share programs, rather than own cars.

By European standards, St. Petersburg is not a sustainable city. (Indeed, my translator had a difficult time translating the word.) While Uber is popular, car-sharing is unheard of. Cycling and bike-sharing are gaining popularity, although it can be dangerous to cycle, especially in the city centre.
However, St. Petersburg has an excellent public transit system, which includes buses, trams and the Metro subway system. The Metro transports 2.2 million people every day, equal to approximately 45 per cent of the population. A trip costs 31 rubles, or about 60 cents, regardless of distance travelled.

The Metro has been operating since 1955. The stations are deep, and feature magnificent designs and artwork. My station, Admiralteyskaya, was 86 metres, or approximately 30 storeys, below ground.
When it comes to development and heritage preservation, I noted that while Vancouver architects are good at designing “green” buildings, the most sustainable building is often one that already exists, one that can be reused, rather than be demolished.

The audience was interested in the measures Vancouver has created to encourage the private sector to protect and preserve heritage buildings.

I described our heritage revitalization agreements, which are negotiated between the city and heritage property owners to protect and renovate properties in return for development incentives. These can include granting additional or bonus density which can be used on site, or transferred to other sites around the city. If a developer cannot use the bonus density, he can sometimes “bank” it to be sold to another developer at a later date. I did note, however, that this clever program has been less successful than initially hoped.

While in the past, most Vancouver developers avoided heritage properties, the density bonus programs have become successful and some now seek to restore heritage buildings for the additional density.

We discussed how best to deal with St. Petersburg’s historic city centre. Many local activists now want to freeze development, so that the area will look the same forever. They do not want to see any building additions, even within the 40-metre height restriction, or other exterior changes.

While I understood their concerns, I suggested this attitude will likely prevent essential renovations to portions of the buildings away from public view, including the “door” or typical courtyard, and building interiors, many of which are in serious disrepair.

I reported that a similar problem may be developing in Vancouver, where zoning regulations prevent the redevelopment or alteration of older rental buildings. While this protects the low-income tenants, as is the case in Russia, many fear that over time, some of these buildings could also become uninhabitable.

On the topic of city master planning, their government officials and planners were interested in knowing what they might learn from Vancouver. Unfortunately, I had to tell them that the city of Vancouver does not have an overall master plan.

Shortly after my return, in a speech to the development industry and various media interviews, Vancouver’s outgoing general manager of planning and development repeatedly argued against the need for an overall plan, noting there is a plethora of policies and neighbourhood plans already in place.

This was certainly not the sentiment of government officials and planners in St. Petersburg. They thought it important to establish an overall planning framework that includes physical, social and economic planning considerations, such as green space standards and where future parks should be located.

They wanted to know how best to determine school classroom and child care provisions to meet a growing population. I had to respond that in Metro Vancouver, we generally build schools and daycare only after a population of children moves in.

On the related topic of housing design, while many of St. Petersburg’s new suburban tower blocks appear much too large, many of the smaller renovated and new apartment developments are attractive.
Two features they often offer are structural designs that allow a high degree of interior layout flexibility, and opportunities for a purchaser to buy an unfinished shell space, which can then be customized to an owner’s tastes.

These are just two St. Petersburg ideas that could appeal to many Vancouver homebuyers. In future columns, I will offer more.

Michael Geller is a Vancouver architect, planner, real estate consultant, developer and adjunct professor at the SFU Centre for Sustainable Community Development. He can be reached at

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