Prince Charles draws the sustainability crowd to SFU

Post by Mike Klassen in

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The "experimental" town of Poundbury in the UK, a European example of new urbanism

It's been a busy week around CityCaucus Tower, so this is my first opportunity to share my reflections on last weekend's event at the SFU Centre for Dialogue that brought out Metro Vancouver's A-list urban sustainability crowd. It had been announced by the media earlier in the week that Prince Charles would be attending, and it was a sterling group that assembled and an interesting discussion that ensued that Saturday afternoon.

The Prince arrived late in the proceedings to provide a few remarks, which Michael Geller documents well on his blog. Charles was predictably charming, especially for someone who had been whisked across the country, and a half-dozen destinations since the start of the day. It's a credit to him that he not only has devoted himself to the promotion of new urbanism through his Prince's Foundation of the Built Environment.

The CEO of that foundation, Hank Dittmar, provided the keynote address. Dittmar spoke with pride the work done in Poundbury, on the outskirts of Dorchester, UK. He described it as a "lifetime" neighbourhood, with housing and services for a range of age groups. The mixed use community featured at least 2 major employers, assisted living for seniors, and up to 30% "affordable" housing. Under Dittmar, the foundation uses "practice-based learning" to teach "timeless" principles of urban planning and design. Many of Dittmar's slides from Saturday are found in this presentation from the foundation's website.

To me, if anything about the afternoon felt out of place it was the Prince's embrace of an almost sentimental and pastoral view of city life. I was sitting beside Vancouver's Director of Planning during the event, and during a video showing Poundbury I leaned over to Brent and said, "where is the diversity?" This model UK community looked like an episode from Coronation Street, or an Olde England scrubbed clean of Eastern or African cultures.

I also felt a few squirms in the room as one of the interview subjects talked about being able to "park wherever you want" in Poundbury. He made the point of how the town's narrow roads promoted more respectful driving, but few restrictions on parking. Indeed, a study of the first phase of Poundbury's development showed driving had increased in spite of goals to increase walkability.

There were other speakers who followed Dittmar, including Patrice Pratt of VanCity and many representatives of SFU who spoke with pride about UniverCity, the model development located at the top of Burnaby Mountain. Perhaps in order to keep the speeches brief, none of the others provided any PowerPoint illustrations of their work despite the room having a first class media facility, which is a shame.

It was when the dialogue was turned over to the rest of the room for questions and comments that things started to get more interesting. Gord Price stuck his hand up first and set the tone with rhetorical question about how governments always seem to have lots of funds for freeways and bridges, but never for rapid transit.

Phil Boname asked why not more consideration for the arts in city planning, and the economic and social benefits that flow from them. I can't paraphrase Bill Rees' comments exactly, but he reminded us of the urgency of climate change. Speaking with him during a break I described a conversation with someone who planned to commute from Squamish because he wanted a single-family house. Rees commented, "well, that will all be over in two years." I wasn't sure if the remark was meant to be overly optimistic, or foreboding.

Patrick Condon hinted at his own frustration with the slow pace of change. Everyone in this room knows how this stuff works, he suggested. What will allow us to stop talking and get on with it?

Of all the presentations the one that triggered many questions for me was that of Peeter Wesik, Chairman of Wesgroup Properties, who has been steadfastly working on the East Fraser Lands (EFL) development in the southeast corner of Vancouver. He painted a rosy picture of a brand new community built from scratch. New schools and shopping amenities, places to work, and even a songbird strategy to retain the natural qualities of this neighbourhood along the Fraser River. Wesik mentioned that he had also collaborated with the Victoria-Fraserview-Killarney (VFK) vision implementation group for additional local buy-in.

While I salute the effort, and the considerable spending by the developer to make EFL happen, my gut tells me that this future community of 10,000+ people will have a hard time disconnecting from car commuting. This plot of former industrial-zoned land has several natural barriers, little transit service, and it's placed along a major arterial. I'm pleased about the songbirds, though.

Instead of building a new community from scratch in EFL, I wondered, why not devote the same effort to building up one of Vancouver's neighbourhood centres? I realize it's probably easier to start with a clean canvass, nonetheless Vancouver needs to answer the question of where it will add density outside its downtown core, and it's probably shortsighted of us to be using industrial land for this.

After the Prince's departure a reception took place with delicious appetizers and glasses of wine. I was able to make the acquaintance of several of the region's sustainability leaders, and thanks partly to the wine, engage in a little more free-flowing chat. Altogether one of the most enjoyable Saturday afternoons for me in recent memory.

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