Efforts to reinvent the Heights District in central Vancouver call to mind a proverb from ancient Greece: “Big results require big ambitions.”
As city officials move forward on plans to redevelop 205 acres anchored by the former Tower Mall site, the scope of the project can obscure the basic reasoning behind it: To reimagine a portion of the city that long has been neglected.
In so doing, officials are wise to take a holistic approach to the endeavor by including affordable housing, walking and biking paths, parks and retail spaces. But they also must be cognizant of concerns from local residents and must effectively address traffic and parking issues.
The basics of the preliminary designs are impressive. As explained by Columbian reporter Carlos Fuentes: “The project will bring hundreds of residential units and commercial spaces to the area, and the city is making sure it will create housing and economic opportunity for low-income families and small-business owners.”
The idea is to create a “20-minute community,” which the city of Vancouver website describes as an area “where residents can walk, bike or take transit to meet their daily needs.” In other words, there will be easily accessible space for pharmacies, medical offices, dry cleaners, coffee shops, parks and other amenities that help define a community.
Desires to reduce vehicle traffic have helped promote the idea of 20-minute communities in cities throughout the world. One reason is the demonstrably negative effects of gasoline-powered cars; if somebody can walk five minutes to a pharmacy rather than driving 20 minutes to one, that is better for the environment — and for their health. Another motivation is to reduce congestion in urban areas and ease the paths of travel. And still another is to enhance the feeling of community that comes with neighborhood businesses, promoting enclaves that create a sense of place.
Critics argue that governments are engaging in social engineering out of a desire to get people out of their cars. But urban planning always involves social engineering; once upon a time, cities constructed vast freeway networks that led to suburban housing construction. In contrast, reducing single-passenger traffic has positive effects both socially and environmentally. There is nothing wrong with creating neighborhoods that reduce the use of fossil fuels and are welcoming to both residents and visitors.
There also are benefits to focusing on affordable housing and providing incentives for its development. As Patrick Quinton, the city’s director of economic prosperity and housing, said at a city council workshop: “A lot of redevelopment activities in the past have done substantial harm to particular communities, so part of the process of moving forward in an equitable way is to acknowledge that and understand that we have to do things differently than we’ve done in the past.”
That helps define the thinking behind equity in community development, a phrase that some people use as a pejorative. But housing for a mix of income levels is necessary in our community — or any community. The impact of ignoring the need for affordable housing can be seen in a crisis of homelessness facing urban areas.
Still, it is understandable for residents near the proposed development to have concerns. Many owners of nearby single-family homes have been in the neighborhood for decades, and the Heights District development will be disruptive.
Balancing those concerns with the need for effective development will be difficult. But nobody ever said big results were easy.