Urbanarium in Beijing - Phil Boname photo from Price Tags
The idea of a Vancouver Urbanarium, essentially a 3-dimensional scale model of downtown Vancouver and False Creek, has apparently been in limbo for decades after originally being proposed by revered former Vancouver Director of Planning Ray Spaxman. Planning Consultant and former City Councillor Art Cowie has a good short summary of the genesis of the Vancouver Urbanarium concept:
An urbanarium is an idea that Ray Spaxman and a group of private planners and architects conceived in the early 1980's that was unfortunately never followed through. The idea was to build a scale model of downtown Vancouver, including False Creek and extending to the East False Creek Area. When a development is proposed, the applicant would be required to replace the existing scale buildings on the model with the new proposal so everyone could see the context. ... The model extending along the Cambie Street Corridor would be very helpful as development is proposed over the next few years.
Just googling the phrase Urbanarium Development Society gives me the impression that the idea of ever actually producing a scale model of this sort has been put way on the back burner. I can only speculate that a true champion for it does not exist at this time. This is a shame, because I think as Vancouver moves into the next critical growth phase, a truly modern Urbanarium experience may help us resolve some of our arguments over how to grow our city.
Take for example the debate that has been kicked up between Vancouver's Planning Dept., specifically Kevin McNaney & Brent Toderian, and developers Chuck Brook and Michael Geller on the matter of Phase One recommendations of the City's Metro Core Jobs study.
During my time at the Planning Commission I received briefs on the Metro Core Jobs review, and heard from both McNaney and Toderian regularly. They are both fastidious and thoughtful members of our city's public service and I know they are seeking the right course to balance the increasing cost of real estate and the imperative of growing employment in Vancouver.
On the other side there are Geller and Brook. I know them and admire these two civic leaders unreservedly. They also have the best outcomes in mind for the future when proposing more mixed-use development in Vancouver's downtown. So who's right?
Wouldn't it be great to envision what either side is proposing in an Urbanarium? Better yet, why make it so small, or even make it out of plastic and wood at all? Wouldn't a digital visualization of Vancouver's changing face have more resonance for both planners and lay people alike?
How would Vancouver's CBD look in 25, 50 or 100 years hence as a pure commercial district, or a mixed-use community?
The problem with a scale model is that it quickly becomes dated. For example, look at The Panorama in New York built during the 1960s. If this is what it looks like today, I bet it's not drawing big crowds. New York of 1964 is nothing like today.
The Vancouver Museum with its ceiling projector Planetarium almost could be crafted into a digital Urbanarium where we could re-imagine all parts of our city as wildly as we want. Add some density in Dunbar? We could see visual implications from street level. Or how about our industrial zones - and trying to picture them in a 21st Century economy.
Think of it as Google Street View on steroids. Maybe build part of Vancouver's Urbanarium as an imagineering station, where young people can use building blocks to re-invent the single-family neighbourhood and save a digital copy for sharing online.
We may have saved ourselves five days of EcoDensity public hearings if we could have helped stakeholders imagine a denser, more sustainably developed Vancouver with an immersive experience.
Perhaps the delay in building Vancouver's long sought after Urbanarium is fortuitous. Maybe technology needed to catch up first to create an amazing tool that would help all of us realize Vancouver's future.
UPDATE: I should point out that the "building blocks" idea raised above was conducted with great success during the Planning Commission's Youth Challenge last September. I recommend those who are interested check out the videos.