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Innovation – The Imperative of Our Global Future

Within a relatively short period of history, we have settled into an often unquestioned framework of community building, especially in North America. Against this comfortable but failing paradigm, we must spur ourselves to vigorous innovation – reaching out beyond the traditional practices and bylaws to set new precedents for generations to come. Facing and overcoming the fear of change and challenging the established protocols within which planners, engineers, designers and builders have become so constrained, is critical to developing a new framework – the dense, livable, resource-efficient and socially robust sustainable community.

Driven by a recognition that change is both essential and urgent, those who would remake our community models are searching collectively for the new paradigms in which community life can flourish in the context of a changing environment and the rapid diminishing of the earth’s limited resources. Beyond mere survival, these innovators also embrace new societal structures that reflect an emerging commitment to equity and social balance within our community relationships.

Southeast False Creek (SEFC) has offered the opportunity for such innovation. Led by an emerging vision of a “better way”, the City Council of the day provided the challenge and the designers, authorities and builders found themselves exploring planning principles and approaches to neighbourhood and infrastructure development that are in some ways completely new, and in others, cast backwards to a richer earlier time – reminiscent, as Mike Harcourt mused in Chapter Two, of the medieval city.

Given what was an almost vacant waterfront site, encumbered only by the past devastation of its environment, the SEFC precinct provided its designers and builders the opportunity to explore new approaches and multiple innovations. They evaluated and refined the integration of public space infrastructure with the sustainable character of the neighbourhood. They sought to develop a community that would address social and economic issues as well as protect the environment. They challenged established protocols of road design, parking, amenity allocations, child-friendly environments and the relationship between social well-being, density, livability and public amenities. They celebrated the immediacy of the transportation connections to the heart of the city while creating a village community clustered about its own commercial centre with animated public spaces to encourage social interactions and inspire a sense of serendipity. They aimed to foster spontaneous neighbourly exchange and build social relationships across a broad spectrum of cultures and life interests.

SEFC challenges us to adopt a significant shift in vision and to rework our conventional “textbook” solutions, for we are in a world where conventional solutions will not provide a future for our children. Our new world lies where collaboration and innovation command the day to ensure sustainability is the precedent of tomorrow.

Chapter Three Overview

Making a New Place


Artist’s rendering of the waterfront at Southeast False Creek showing Habitat Island (far left), the “Canoe” bridge (centre), and mixed shoreline including seawall, boardwalk, and areas for pedestrian water access.

Striking a balance between past and future is the particular challenge facing those who attempt to create landscapes and amenities that will inform and create community. Too much of the past and the space may feel museum-like, failing to inspire new thinking. Too little, and the place may be flat, inauthentic, neutral.

In this chapter, we explore the question of place and its particular relevance in building sustainable communities. From questions of heritage to solutions coupling stormwater management with play space, from the way the land is treated to the way people interact, this chapter brings forward stories about public areas, infrastructure and heritage. We also learn of the phenomenal effort required to ensure the new community’s environmental integrity by cleaning up the toxic residue of its past.

The story is one of commitment – to history, collaboration, to pride of place – and to designing with an openness that recognizes the place will ultimately be made by those who live there. This idea is best captured by the SEFC Art Master Plan:

Southeast False Creek has a view of the future. A future of sustainability is all its contexts – social, economic and environmental. It’s a view of future generations living and working in a truly sustainable urban village. It’s a viewpoint shaped by urban planners, politicians, public and private developers, scientists, engineers and artists. Ultimately it is a view shaped by each and every person that will call Southeast False Creek their home. Each day they will deliver on the promise of the place. – SEFC Art Master Plan 2007

Chapter Three of The Challenge Series sits at the transition from plan to process, from discussion to design and development. If the people who come to live in the new SEFC community will ultimately “deliver on the promise of the place,” this Chapter explores how the promise has been made.

Global Voices

Larry Beasley

I travel for work all over the world. And everywhere I go, whether I meet planners, architects or urban designers, people know about Vancouver. They love what they see and they want to know how we do it. That’s why I know there is going to be extraordinary interest in Southeast False Creek.

The main thing that Vancouver is known for is a humane, beautiful, high-density urban environment. It’s revered; people come here to study it. Second, there’s an expectation about the attitudes we take to the problems of the day. We’re expected to be urban design trendsetters, with cutting-edge policy, expertise and implementation.

We are recognized for knowing how to govern at the municipal level. In most of North America, there’s a power struggle between the public and private sectors, and the public has been losing for 25 years. What we’ve done well, I think, is to take the best of the expertise, skills and inclination of each sector, and combine them into something better. People are shocked when I say it was my job to help developers make more money – but if they made more, they invested more on fine design and the public realm, because our system caused one interest to feed the other. The net effect is that we have millions of dollars of public equities that other communities can’t even expect.

This project also illustrates that Vancouverism isn’t just one form, tower and podium; it’s a way of life, with many forms. I call this “experiential planning” – designing to meet people’s experiential expectations. It’s about love, it’s about an emotional reaction, it’s about the positive things you don’t see in modern cities, which are just machines for living. What we’ve tried to do with Vancouver urbanism is to develop an experience that you will find fulfilling, in a place – high density – where you least expect it. The SEFC form is going to generate genuine community, because its design causes people to interact with one another. It will be studied and copied around the world.

Of course, you have to be critical even as you celebrate. I feel SEFC doesn’t provide enough architectural diversity. And we need to diversify how we subdivide land for development – the subdivision pattern of SEFC is pretty standard.

We also haven’t done well on creating a social mix – we must do better on genuine middle-income affordability. When the NPA Council led by Mayor Sam Sullivan pulled back on one-third, one-third, one-third [an even balance of market, “modest market” and social housing], that was a patently bad, retrogressive step, not in the interest or philosophy of the City. We saved some of the social mix, but it was supposed to be cutting edge in every way, and it won’t be.

In the grand scheme of things, however, this project is going to be revered. I hope the City convenes a symposium to look at what we’ve achieved, and how to improve it in the next phases of SEFC.

Larry Beasley
Former Director of Planning, City of Vancouver
Distinguished Practice Professor of Planning, UBC
Founding Principal, Beasley & Associates Planning Inc.

Detail from illustrative plan of the waterfront at SEFC.
Source: PWL Partnership Landscape Architects Inc., 2008.