The Building Blocks of A City
The ongoing pursuit of modern architects and planners is to mediate any tensions between individual buildings and the entire city, and to understand how to affect change that benefits both. The social and economic fortunes of a city rarely shift due to one well-designed building. Instead, they come to life by moving the pieces of individual building blocks of the city. Those building blocks? Neighbourhoods.
Think for a moment how your neighborhood establishes a sense of belonging. While living in these communities we begin to — often subconsciously — see urban design as a part of our social identity. This evolves the fabric of our cities, and gives rise to the desire for true placemaking.
When we think of ‘local,’ it is the place’s various neighborhoods we reference.
The Science of A City
The Urban Genome Project (UGP) is a multi-disciplinary effort to develop a science of cities, exploring how and why they ‘emerge, coalesce, transform, and dissolve.’ The UGP categorizes the fundamental components of city systems into two groups: hard and soft. The hard components relate to the physical makeup of a neighbourhood: identifying infrastructure and architecture. The soft components are less tangible, with a focus on the economic and cultural.
Vancouver has a diverse range of neighbourhoods that are characterized by a combination of hard and soft components. To help understand the evolution of these communities, three placemaking models define the city’s building blocks: organic adaptation, proactive growth, and hybrid placemaking.
Thoughtful Expansion of Neighbourhoods Through Organic Adaptation
Organic adaptation refers to the slower growth that has occurred in lower density, more historic neighbourhoods — think Commercial Drive, Gastown, Chinatown, and Kitsilano. These areas are relatively compact communities with strict planning regulations designed specifically to temper aggressive growth. Each neighbourhood follows a more organic, European model of expansion, designed to encourage the existing local character. New buildings are typically smaller and are designed to fit into their surroundings, a process defined by the UGP as urban adaptation. The urban fabric becomes informed by the unique culture of a place, defined by the wants and needs of the community.
Proactive Growth & Rezoning Land
Vancouver’s rapid growth over the last 20 years is almost unprecedented in North America. Although the growth of the city is due to many factors, a key aspect is the proactive rezonings of large areas of land in and around the downtown core. This allows for increased densification and thus the creation of new neighbourhoods, while also defining a unique purpose-built sense of ‘local’.
Olympic Village and the False Creek Flats are examples where new buildings were designed as catalysts to help shape the growing neighbourhoods around them. The accelerated evolution of these communities is achieved through the integration of strong infrastructure, appropriating prescribed building forms with rapid transit connections.
A Hybrid Form of Placemaking
Some neighbourhoods evolve through more randomised patterns of growth, experiencing sharp injections of densification through large scale individual buildings. This is seen in neighbourhoods like Coal Harbour or the West End, where new planning policies are interwoven into established urban communities. The results are decidedly mixed.
Coal Harbour experienced rapid densification during the ‘90s and is today characterized by dense tower forms. Unlike the commercial lineages of Davie or Denman Street in the neighbouring West End, Coal Harbour is not defined by any ground-oriented spaces of significance, and so the neighbourhood suffers from a deficit of ‘soft’ cultural components.
Neighbourhoods like Coal Harbour ask the question of whether the hard component of architecture can single-handedly respond to the social needs of a collective community. Should tower forms be viewed as efficient high-density building blocks, or simply as individual micro-communities autonomous in function and character?
The tallest, densest towers in the city often occupy a street-level footprint smaller than that of a modest scaled low-rise development and, therefore, their subjective contribution to the urban environment is often disproportionately limited.
The Desire for Local
It is important to try and understand which of these typologies lends itself best to the definition of ‘local.’ What is the purpose of these neighbourhoods within the evolution of Vancouver as a city? Is it an organised society where people can successfully live, work, and interact? Or, is it merely a physical entity within to build a city?
The concept of neighbourhood in architecture shouldn’t be viewed as a means to fulfill objective needs in the planning of a city or a community. Instead, the concept should be seen as ever-evolving, with the needs of the people who inhabit these places placed at the forefront.