Saturday, October 22, 2022

How Ken Sim can speed up Vancouver's Development Approval Process

Like no doubt many of you, I have spent the past week discussing the election results with friends and colleagues. One of the questions that I was most frequently asked was whether Ken Sim and his ABC majority can really improve the development approval process. 

I may be responsible for prompting this question since at the end of last week's CTV Television coverage I was asked to respond to Colleen Hardwick's accusation that Ken Sim will NOT be able to do much about the approval process. I disagreed, adding the current timeframes for approvals in Vancouver were so bad it would be impossible not to improve them. This prompted much laughter from some of the CTV panel, especially Mi-Jung Li, Dianne Watts, and George Affleck, although I'm not sure if this was caught on air.

So, what should the new mayor do? Based on his radio and newspaper interviews over the past week, following his inauguration I doubt the new mayor will behave like a rash and impulsive Donald Trump and start telling city staff what to do. But there are some things I can recommend. 

Firstly, he should read the 2012 report prepared by Olga Ilich and then Mayor Gregor Robertson's Affordable Housing Task Force. It offers a particularly good analysis of the obstacles to the delivery of affordable housing in the city, including suggestions on how to improve project delivery. I chaired a sub-committee to the Task Force and submitted a report that highlighted the need to deal with oftentimes conflicting requirements from the various city departments. The planners asked for changes that conflicted with the engineering department requirements, or the sustainability manager's requests, or the arborist's request, and so on. 

To address this situation, I proposed that the city consider appointing a Housing Affordability Ombudsman who would review the various departmental requests and make a decision that was in the best interest of affordable housing. I still think this would be a promising idea. No, I don't want the job!

The mayor should also review the recent Regulation Redesign Review. I wrote about this in March 2020 and again in June 2020 since I had a particular interest in seeing the city change its regulations regarding the installation of retractable glass panels to make balconies more useful. 

Some ABC councillors including Sarah Kirby-Yung, Lisa Dominato, and Rebecca Bligh may recall my awkward and disjointed on-line presentation since there was a 10 second time lapse between advancing my slides and when they appeared on the councillors' screens!

While some changes are forthcoming there is a need for many more. 

Since many existing city planners may be reluctant to offer suggestions on how to improve the process, I recommend that the mayor and his colleagues invite recently retired city planners to offer suggestions. They usually know what needs to be done and will be less reluctant to offer practical and effective ideas!

While one approach is to hire more planners and plan checkers, I disagree with this approach. Instead, I think the city administration should rethink who should be responsible for the appropriateness and accuracy of applications given applicable zoning. Instead of just relying on city staff, I think the Certified Professional program could be expanded to apply to both Building Permit applications and many development permit applications. 

I also think the city should revive an idea from a former city planner Kaye Krishna who proposed the city should have the equivalent of a NEXUS Lane for applicants who have a proven track record and allow them to go through an abbreviated process. 

Finally, (for now), the city must reduce the number of projects that must go through the Public Hearing process. For example, even though Council approved a comprehensive Cambie Corridor Plan with detailed design requirements for each block, every subsequent development application has had to go through a lengthy, and expensive rezoning process. It's completely unnecessary and nuts, since virtually every project was approved. Eliminate the need for these rezonings for applications that conform with the plan.

There are many other things that should be done. For example, we need to review the role of the Urban Design Panel. I have twice served on the panel but too often members offer highly subjective and personal views that conflict with the direction provided by zoning and staff that can take a lot of time to resolve. Also, planning staff don't need to take so much time to prepare such lengthy reports (sometimes more than 100 pages for a project) that some councillors rarely take the time to fully read. 

I'll have more to write later, but I hope these ideas demonstrate to Colleen and others that there is not only much that should be done, but also much that can be done to speed up the approval process.

Friday, October 21, 2022

Rotterdam: A photo album

From Wikipedia: A major logistic and economic centre, Rotterdam is Europe's largest seaport. In 2020, it had a population of 651,446[10] and is home to over 180 nationalities. Rotterdam is known for its university, riverside setting, lively cultural life, maritime heritage and modern architecture. The near-complete destruction of the city centre in the World War II Rotterdam Blitz has resulted in a varied architectural landscape, including skyscrapers designed by architects such as Rem KoolhaasPiet Blom and Ben van Berkel.

I first visited Rotterdam in 1969. I returned in 2012 and again a few years ago with Richard Henriquez and our wives. While many parts of the city haven't changed, most have. Here are just a few of the photos I took while travelling around the city.

Rotterdam is a city full of interesting architecture. However, few buildings rival this new building by MVRDV architects. Known locally as the pot, I'm told the design was inspired by an IKEA cup. It is a Depot for the collection of the Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen which is undergoing an 8-year renovation. (This might remind you of The Royal BC Museum proposal)

When I studied architecture, I was encouraged to learn how to do more with less. This door is an example of doing less with more. Yikes!

Just some of the very interesting and oftentimes provocative work being stored until the museum opens

A look inside the building

Just some of the thousands of paintings being stored

From the roof deck there are fabulous views of the city

I was surprised to see some of the new very tall towers in Rotterdam.                They certainly weren't there the last time I visited the city.

One of my favourite buildings in the city is the central train station. Here's a         view of it from my hotel overlooking the station.

another view from my hotel window of new buildings in the city centre

The view looking out from inside the station

Some of the interesting new buildings just outside the station. I'm not a fan of what Ray Spaxman calls 'wobbly buildings' like these.

I'm not a fan of this either, but a lot of people like this sort of thing.

however, the view from in front of this building is quite lovely

While there are a lot of great buildings in the city, they're not all great. I suspect these buildings have small windows since the Dutch are much more conscious of energy use than we are. But I may be wrong. (The Dutch consume 1/4 the energy per capita compared to Canadians.)

This is the hotel I had originally planned to stay at until my friend Olga Ilich, who's from Rotterdam, suggested the one outside the train station. She was probably right. I will be interested to see how this building is regarded twenty+ years from now. 
As everyone who has been to the Netherlands knows, the bicycle path          network is often separated from and more extensive than the vehicular road network!

Walking along a street to the Metro I came across these containers.                          I suspected that they were not for garbage.....

and I was right. I'll be curious to see how long it takes before something similar is installed on Vancouver's streets, taking up parking spaces.

In Rotterdam there is considerable interest in architecture and design. I came across this wide selection of books in The Netherlands Architecture Institute, a cultural institute for architecture and urban development, which comprises a museum, an archive plus library and a venue for lectures and debates. It's across the road from the Depot.

From Wikipedia: Cube houses (Dutchkubuswoningen) are a set of innovative houses built in Helmond and Rotterdam in the Netherlands, designed by architect Piet Blom and based on the concept of "living as an urban roof": high density housing with sufficient space on the ground level, since its main purpose is to optimise the space inside.

I like herring and remember buying it on street corners in Amsterdam. However, I couldn't find it in Rotterdam so went into a supermarket, only to be told they didn't have any. They recommended the fishmonger up the street. While they didn't have the trays of pickled or schmaltz herring I was seeking, they did fillet this fresh fish for me before my eyes, added some onions and invited me to sit down and enjoy it. 2.5 euros!

Gin can be distilled from any raw material, while genever is always made from grains like rye, malted barley and corn. No wonder genever producers often describe it as a cross between gin and whiskey. I enjoyed a small glass at every opportunity!
If you are in Rotterdam, this Tourist Information centre features a model of the city and very good display of contemporary architecture.

I couldn't help but compare some of Rotterdam's subway stations with                  the Canada Line stations!

Travelling around the city I came across many large murals on the sides of buildings...

I also noticed a lot more solar panel installations compared to here. Wind and solar farms are quite common. The Dutch are also experimenting with solar roads and solar highways where solar panels are installed in sound barriers.

As an architect and planner, my visits to the Netherlands are always inspiring. The Dutch are quite different than any other nation I have experienced. They are creative, open minded, and willing to try out new ideas. As one of my friends from the Netherlands once joked. "If you're not Dutch, you're not much."                        I'm ready to return! 

Wednesday, October 19, 2022

IT'S ABOUT TIME: 10th Architecture Biennale Rotterdam

Throughout the world, architects and planners are exploring new ways to combat climate change through better city planning and building designs. This is particularly true in the Netherlands, a country which historically has learned how to do more with less and provide its citizens with a more sustainable way of life.  

While the windmills of yesteryear have been replaced with more sophisticated technologies, bicycles remain the primary means of transportation for many. For this and other reasons, in 2020, per capita annual energy consumption in the Netherlands was a quarter of that for Canadians. (3.37 vs 13.67 exajoules).

Ten years ago, I was invited to participate in a Dutch government sponsored Mediatour of sustainability initiatives around the Netherlands. During our tour we visited Rotterdam, a city with much in common with Vancouver. There we attended the 5th International Architecture Biennale Rotterdam (IABR). The first biennale was held in 2001 with the conviction that architecture and urbanism are of public importance since they shape how we live. The 5th edition addressed how best to make the city of tomorrow. Some of the ideas I discovered are set out in this 2012 blogpost:

Just some of the things we need to stop doing.

Two weeks ago, I returned to Rotterdam to attend the 10th biennale. IT'S ABOUT TIME. As stated in the program, it "presents a plea for radical, systemic transitions of our built environment." 

Fifty years ago in 1972, the Club of Rome published its ground-breaking report The Limits to Growth which outlined the possible consequences of an exponential increase in population, industrial and agricultural production, extraction of raw materials, and pollution. Around the same time, the first UN environmental conference took place. Both resulted in limited new public actions, initiatives, and policy proposals. But they spawned films, television series and comic books offering a prophetic view of the future. 

One of these films Soylent Green, takes place in a dystopian 2022 New York City impacted by the cumulative effects of overpopulation, pollution, and climate catastrophe.  (I am tempted to watch it again to see how sadly accurate it might be.)

While the Club of Rome report and UN conference resulted in a new environmental awareness, they also caused worldwide controversy. Consequently, too many of the warnings were not acted upon and today the world is suffering many of the forecasted consequences.

This year's 10th Architecture Biennale is being held in The Ferro, an abandoned former gas storage facility near the waterfront - 'a ruin of the fossil economy'. It offers an audio-visual timeline highlighting key events that have occurred over the past 50 years since the Limits to Growth report was published. 

If you do attend the biennale, make sure to take in a tour by one of the curators. This clever lady was responsible for the Timeline exhibition.


These include Margaret Thatcher's inspiring speech to the 1989 UN General Assembly during which she clearly set out the growing threats to the global environment and how we must resolve them before it's too late. It's a surprising speech coming from Margaret Thatcher, and well worth listening to or reading.

Even before the Club of Rome report, Greenpeace was urging the world to start addressing climate change. This display includes an original Greenpeace poster. No doubt some of you still have one too.

Other displays illustrate how, even before the 1970s, pioneering architectural designs had been projecting how we could enjoy a more sustainable future. They included experiments in renewable materials, solar energy systems, geodesic domes, and communal ways of living. However, continued economic growth and globalization, including colonial exploitation, were too often seen as the way to go forward, while assuming technological innovations would be the solution to most problems.

As noted in the exhibition handout, the timeline highlights "the interplay between growing environmental awareness and design experimentation on the one hand, and skepticism and short-termism on the other."

The biennale also presents the work of designers, architects, researchers, artists, and others exploring how we must work together towards a more ecologically healthy and equitable world. It contemplates three alternative approaches: those wanting to be effective in the short term, labelled the Activists; those choosing to focus on the mid-term, labelled the Accelerators; and those believing it's more important to take actions now that will have long-term results, labelled Ancestors.

The clock is ticking...
A model of an urban planning approach by one of Netherland's top architectural firms MVRDV illustrating how we should be planning our cities with greater consideration to sunlight and shadowing.
This hourglass is a commissioned piece of sculpture to draw attention to just how much demolition waste we are creating in our cities.

In an area known as the 'Transition Arena' a variety of displays demonstrate how we can design a world that uses reduced amounts of land, energy, and resources. It explores how construction can be truly regenerative, circular, equitable, and sustainable, with less demolition and waste. Participants are invited to imagine an architecture of change. After all, it's about time.

This display illustrates 199 patents taken out over the decades to help create a more sustainable future.

In addition to the main exhibit, a secondary exhibition features projects by architects and designers from around the world. While many are modest, some are very inspiring.

A display highlighting the opportunities for 'gentle densification' of single family lots. 

The Biennale continues until November 13, 2022. For more details go to If you haven't been to Rotterdam recently the biennale is a wonderful excuse to visit one of the world's most creative cities.