New ideas of livability key to quality of life as urban density increases
Tracy Sherlock, (THE VANCOUVER SUN) — What makes a livable community?
The affordability of the houses or the walking distance to the nearest grocery store? The social spaces, parks and amenities such as libraries, health services and schools?
It’s all of the above and more.
The Washington, D.C.-based organization Partners for Livable Communities says “livability is the sum of the factors that add up to a community’s quality of life — including the built and natural environments, economic prosperity, social stability and equity, educational opportunity, and cultural, entertainment and recreation possibilities.”
The bedroom community suburbs that defined the Lower Mainland’s growth through the ’70s and ’80s are the antithesis of this definition, but new developments in those same communities are striving to change that.
Thomas Mueller, president and CEO of the Canada Green Building Council, said a livable community includes environmental, health and social factors in its design. The social aspects include affordability, with options for people to stay in the same neighbourhood throughout their lives, and a sense of community.
“Nowadays, people are very isolated, they don’t talk to each other,” Mueller said. “It’s very lacking in Vancouver.”
He said some neighbourhoods work better than others in terms of connecting people, such as the West End, which is a community that a developer in Coquitlam is trying to emulate.
The Beedie Development Group is developing Fraser Mills, a 20-year, 36-hectare (89-acre) project planned for the waterfront in Coquitlam using some livable community ideals.
The project was approved by Coquitlam council in 2008, but delayed by the faltering economy. Beedie has gone back to council with a revised plan — modelled after Nob Hill in San Francisco, Las Ramblas in Barcelona and Vancouver’s West End — calling for more density and more open spaces.
“I spend a lot of time in the West End,” said Dave Gormley, vice-president of land development at Beedie Development Group. “To me, that’s quite livable. You can park your car, you can do your grocery shopping, conceivably you could work right there.”
Although Fraser Mills is not within walking distance of Coquitlam’s downtown core, the developers are trying to minimize driving.
“Suburbia is car-oriented, but we’re trying to minimize that,” Gormley said. “We’re trying to bring an urban component to suburbia.”
The plan calls for mixed-use — residential, institutional and industrial — and a variety of building types, ranging from 18-storey and taller highrises to low-rises along a main street. The concept of a livable community includes the idea that people should be able to live, work, shop and play within their own neighbourhood, with convenient access to public transportation.
The new plan calls for many open spaces, including a large waterfront park along a kilometre of riverfront, an urban plaza and a pier structure.
Mueller said open spaces are vitally important to creating a livable community and they are lacking in Vancouver.
“We really don’t have very good neighbourhood parks in Vancouver,” Mueller said. “People in Vancouver think of Stanley Park or the beaches as our parks, but downtown Vancouver is very dense and people need a place to get out of their condo unit, sit on a bench or under a tree and connect with nature and other people.”
Mueller also said the parks throughout Vancouver are not very useful — he suggested they should be more diverse and have things like community gardens, places to sit and play areas instead of just lawns.
At Fraser Mills, there is a main street concept, and the community is planned to resemble how a naturally matured neighbourhood would grow over decades, with a mix of low-rise, mid-rise and highrise buildings with stores, restaurants and open spaces.
“There will be a linear park that runs the entire length along the waterfront, then, of course, there is the plaza in the middle of the site on the waterfront,” said Gormley. “Along the west side there is a place for an elementary school, if there is enough demand for it, and beside that there is space for a waterfront park. And there will be other amenities like sports courts and playgrounds.”
Transit today is closer than a 10-minute walk, and it is hoped that eventually it will be even more accessible.
Another livability consideration is that a community have housing options that will suit residents throughout their lives. For instance, a community should have apartments that are affordable for people moving out of their parents’ homes, starter homes for young families and homes where seniors can comfortably live. Mueller said this is one thing lacking on the west side of Vancouver for people who have lived in single-family homes, but want to downsize and stay in their own community.
“There are very few housing options for them. Where are they going to go?” Mueller asked.
Fraser Mills does not have any single-family homes planned, but the development does include a good variety of home sizes, including three-bedroom townhouses.
“We’re trying to bring an urban component to suburbia.”