Conversational Cuts on teaching and learning in False Creek Flats, Vancouver (CA)

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Conversational Cuts on teaching and learning in False Creek Flats. Reflecing on our undergraduate student excursion (F02-Projekt) to Vancouver (CA) in February and March 2020

By Robin A. Chang with Ned Jacobs, 06 April, 2020

Experiencing and exploring contemporary conundrums with urban and industrial lands

A most unusually unsexy topic for planning is that of industrial lands. The re-design and re-use of buildings and lands that are most stereotypically associated with pollution and nuisance, however, are soon if not already a challenge for many metropolitan areas.

This is a point that I, along with seven other undergraduate students and a community colleague would better come to understand during a two-week excursion from February 24th until March 11th, 2020 to study urban, industrial lands in Vancouver. Through our visits and interviews, we confronted a changing reality for what we traditional conceive as industrial activities. The grating noises, intrusive smells, and rough surfaces still exist, though toxic emissions are much reduced. Moreover, they co-exist now with glassed laboratories, FOB accessible open-plan offices, smartly branded breweries, and discrete fab-lab storefronts. The emerging and parallel existence of these functions fall under an outdated category of industrial land use zoning. In the meantime, development pressures, especially for multi-family housing, increasingly encroach upon these uses.

In the city of Vancouver, as well as the surrounding Metro Vancouver region, this is the no-longer invisible elephant in the room. Since 2018, the region and its municipalities have been slowing tackling this priority by exploring and introducing new land use and planning measures to protect and evolve with new industry demands.

At the local level in Vancouver, the Employment Lands Review is an ongoing process that will produce policies to align with a new Regional Industrial Lands Strategy, which Metro Vancouver intends to finalize by summer of 2020. The relevance of these initiatives are undoubtedly clear, but also reflected in the history and urban fabric of the neighbourhoods surrounding the False Creek Flats site – our focus area for the excursion. Indeed, parts of Strathcona and Mount Pleasant to the north and the south of the Flats, were not only locations for heritage homes and tenement clusters from the late 1800s up until the mid 1900s; these urban districts were also transition areas bridging blue-collar employment lands with working-class homesteads, as local experts John Atkin and Ned Jacobs shared with our group on different walks through the neighbourhoods. A still standing but converted steel furniture production workshop in Strathcona and historical accounts of tanneries, slaughter houses, brewers and train station in Mount Pleasant demonstrate both tangible and intangible industrial legacies that are now shadows to Vancouver’s urban growth pressures.

The garage behind this heritage home at 615 East Georgia Street housed the family-owned and operated, Stoves Repairs Shop. This business later became a metal furnitures manufacturing company, Pelzman & Sons Ltd., which ended up employing 12 people in two locations by the 1950s. While the family business no longer exists, the building envelopes and original structures still stand within the Strathcona neighbourhood of Vancouver. Louis Pelzman resided here from 1923 to 1964. Photographed by the author.

Still, ahead of all these overwhelming insights are the planning and development challenges built on the backs of historical policies, which for the sake of relevance and future effectiveness require fundamental rethinking and redesign. How then do we adapt the planning toolbox to reconcile the changing confrontation of uses and evolving nature of urban industry?

One experimental approach that the City of Vancouver and the Metro Vancouver region is considering is the re-articulation of uses within industrial zones as activities. This change, which facilitates the permission for, and reconfiguration of compatible activities in specific hubs for development is not only a potential work-around for zoning and form-based codes, but also a much needed spotlight on how regulatory and statutory instruments in planning and building are continuously out of date.

Ned Jacobs, for one, emphatically recognizes these considerations through suggestions for performance zoning that are akin to the activity-based articulation proposed by the City of Vancouver. This consideration for change reflect an ethos and complexity of how particular mixed-use districts, such as contemporary industrial lands, are evolving. Zoning and form-based codes are the outcomes of historical developments such as the industrial revolution or New Urbanist sensibilities for how physical and material design should improve the built environments. Time and technology are changing ways of residing and working, even for industrial activities.

On a typically rainy day in Vancouver, Ned Jacobs reads from his mother’s book, The Death and Life of Great American Cities, as this group of ‘Jane’s Walkers’ takes cover under a Main Street convenience store awning. “Cities need old buildings so badly it is probably impossible for vigorous streets and districts to grow without them… not old buildings in an excellent and expensive state of rehabilitation—although these make fine ingredients—but also a good lot of plain, ordinary, low-value old buildings, including some rundown old buildings. If a city area has only new buildings, the enterprises that can exist there are automatically limited to those that support the high costs of new construction… As for really new ideas of any kind—no matter how ultimately profitable or otherwise successful some of them might prove to be —there is no leeway for such chancy trial, error and experimentation in the high-overhead economy of new construction. Old ideas can sometimes use new buildings. New ideas must use old buildings.” Photographed by the author and posted with permission of Ned Jacobs, Mara Mennicken from World of Walas.

Not only is there a priority to play catch up with policies, but it is key that all fields impacted by these changes find common and equivalent language to communicate and discuss these changes. John Atkin’s experiences in working with heritage conservation and development highlight how gaps in maintaining this common language, or developing equivalencies both in jargon and policies, further fragments progress in implementing planning and building policies. The lag from professional standards for building and planning in following changes to form-based codes in Vancouver often results in variations in feedback and undue financial burdens for property owners and developers who might have the progressive intent to pursue multiple goals including heritage and development.

Entrance to the creative hub ‘The Arts Factory’ based in the northwest quadrant of the False Creek Flats development area. This hub provides over 20,000 square feet of workshop-oriented studio or office and common spaces to the creative community in Vancouver. Photographed by the author.

If this is the case with smaller site-scaled projects, imagine the extent of misunderstanding and conflict that could await district-area sized initiatives such as False Creek Flats, which bring together increasing numbers and complex configuration of stakes. An example in False Creek Flats, is that of connectivity, which must take into account infrastructural corridors that must consider logistics from distributors within the 450 acre district, goods transport connecting the harbour of the Vancouver Port Authority as well as train lines that horizontally bisect the area. In considering the stakes for improving connectivity, however, it is not only those of the major industrial actors that matter, but also those of the students, business owners and workers, as well as the residents who traverse or cycle through the area. Other instances of complex collaboration involved with developing False Creek Flats include elaborate foundation entities for educational institutions such as the Great Northern Way Trust in addition to the many technological start-up or successful firms who co-locate in new offices spaces such as AxiomZen, Toby, ZenHub, Dapper as well as Hammer & Tusk. Let us also not forget the established creative organizations such as the Arts Factory Society with their more studio and workshop-oriented approach to co-locating work in comparison to the technological hubs.

Industries such as those that integrate technology, creative and manufacturing sectors are demanding more from economic and labour markets in cities such as Vancouver. Their demands are not only social, but also spatial as their building footprints and housing needs for their teams grow. With locational demands that are comparable to technology parks of the past, these emerging industries differ in that the lifestyle demands and the characteristics of the work environments meld better with creative and hands-on manufacturing industries. Naturally, this affects how urban planning can prepare for and re-conceptualize the industrial lands upon which many of these new businesses are landing. A key and additional difference is the demand for accessibility to amenities that the hip and flexible lifestyles determined by the employees of these industries might demand. Moreover, a complete demolition of these sites to build new, innovation parks is constrained by the fiscal budgets and planning for both public and private stakeholders. At best, a dexterous and resourceful approach that takes into account re-use is most sensible. Some international organizations such as World of Walas are at the forefront of such initiatives by creating centres to bring relevant stakeholders to discuss better and more sustainable practices for the adaptive reuse and redevelopment of existing industrial lands and building stock. For details on how our group’s engagement with World of Walas, visit their post on our walk here or check out the post on our group’s presentation at the Vancouver Economic Commission here.

In short, the upcoming challenges we came to understand for urban industrial lands are not wholly new. They mirror changes we have experienced in the past, but demand adjustments to the instruments and processes for planning and development with which we have become comfortable. The uncomfortable task now is to endure and thoughtfully re-conceptualize the utility of our statutory and regulatory instruments. Industrial lands may not be so sexy. What is sexier, however, is an enduring readiness and committment to grappling this metropolitan challenge as part of the journey to evolving societies and sustainability.

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