How a Vancouver Urbanarium might help us build a better city

Post by Mike Klassen in


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.


Good idea, I would imagine that this could be done fairly easily using a computer-generated-image rather than a physical model. It would then be accessible to all with a computer and you could run multiple simulations easily etc.

Google may be the ones to go with. I know they're in the area doing similar stuff because I was walking to work through East Van yesterday and out of a back alley popped a truck with a tall black stack of cameras rising off the roof pointed in every direction and the truck said "Google" on all sides. They must be doing a Street View of Vancouver.

That's amazing. A "Google Truck" driving around taking 3D imagery of our city? Part of me relishes this, another part makes me think "have I cut the grass?" Seriously, it's interesting that Google is forging ahead with this despite some initial privacy concerns.

If anyone else has seen the Google Truck, let us know.

Hi CityCaucus - Not everyone loves the Google truck - check out what this affluent English village did when the truck showed up:

Personally I love Google Earth and hope the truck makes it all round our city. It is the new Urbanarium.

BTW Shanghai has an impressive Urbanarium but impossible to keep current.


The Google car (not a truck) was spotted headed northbound on Granville St - coming out of Marpole! - earlier this week. Big brother? Or valuable new tourism/marketing tool for cities?

Someone notified us that there already is a 3D model in Google, and that a scale model was available at the Concord Pacific showroom. We were aware of both of these assets, and while they are cool they fall far short of being an "urbanarium" experience.

Concord's model, for example, is not allowed to be photographed by the public. The Google Earth's 3D model of the downtown is a good starting point and by adapting Google Sketch-up plus a cinematic experience such as in the Planetarium, we may have the foundations of a digital Vancouver Urbanarium.

More info here:

It would be great to model Marpole (thanks, Claudia) and other Vancouver communities besides the Downtown.

As I read this morning's post I was afraid you were suggesting another physical scale model. But RELIEF arrived as I saw the word digital. Yes, a Google street view would be helpful to planners, developers and the interested public. The road to a solution would pass through Google's development offices if you wanted to do it fast and cheaply. They have done the ground work with the street level view. The birds eye view should not be too much more of a challenge for that crew. Sight lines, and shadow patterns are important requirements for planners and that would be easy with the street and birds eye views. Good suggestion--keep at it. It is too good an idea to drop.

Check out!

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