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Renowned city planner reflects on Squamish

Retired Vancouver City planner Larry Beasley shares his opinions on where Squamish is at in terms of eco-design.
In most North American cities, we often don’t accommodate — legally — multi-generational living, says planner Larry Beasley.

Walking, driving or cycling around Squamish, it’s likely most locals don’t think much about how the community was and is being planned, and those who do may wonder if there is a method to what they see as the madness of our current development boom. 

The Chief caught up with well-known urban planner Larry Beasley to find out what he thinks of how our community is evolving. 

Beasley is the retired co-director of planning for the City of Vancouver. He currently teaches, writes and advises on eco-design — creating cities that are sustainable for people and the environment — and urbanism.

What follows is an edited version of our conversation. 

Q: You visited Squamish most recently during the launch of your book Vancouverism (UBC Press). How are we doing here in regards to following the eco-design principles that you advocate for? 

A: I have a lot of time for Squamish. I think it is a really interesting developing city. It is very contemporary in the way it is looking at development. I am very positive about it. For example, the careful and I would say fairly gentle densification downtown — the fact that you have maintained your main street and I noticed a lot of local independent retailers that are probably doing better now because they have more customers nearby; developing more of your parks. You are creating a lot more opportunities for people to get out of their cars for more of the trips they take. The more we can do that naturally, the better it is. I like that it is keeping its character and its feel within its natural landscape. It has a lot of things going for it. 

Q: You often talk about the importance of getting the public on board with developments. Here, the backlash from some residents has been quite extreme against the amount of development happening. Can you speak to that? 

A: There’s always a tension — whether a city is densifying or replacing itself over time, or renewing itself — between our natural inclination to have affection for existing places, the need for new things and the need to accommodate growth.

What I have noticed in many cities is that the quality of growth speaks for itself. If it is well-done,  if it is thoughtful, if it emphasizes the human needs of a place, it starts to be discovered organically by people. Yes, some folks will lament some losses; some people will lament the way it was X number of years ago, but many, many people will quite naturally start to see the benefits also. 

That tension goes back and forth over time. What is key is to keep the conversation going and actually embrace those opposing views because they really help you to do the job better. Rather than become defensive and fall back on your old ideas and old models, you become embracing and say ‘OK, I need to add more. I need to diversify. I need to listen closely to what we have been missing.’ 

There was a change in Squamish I think about a decade ago, where I started to see much more thoughtful development in town. 

One thing we know to capture people’s hearts, as well as deal with their functional needs, is that you have to really enhance the quality as you intensify. You can’t just throw up a building. That is one of the messages of mid-century Vancouver: it just threw a lot of buildings down and they weren’t very good and they didn’t make much of a contribution to the public realm. 

What we learned was that quality really matters and you have to listen to people, not just as citizens, but as consumers, and I just firmly believe that as you do that, you will find more and more people who are adherents to the kind of place you are trying to create. 

People start to see the nature of the tradeoffs rather than seeing changes that are victimizing them. They start to see that there are benefits also. 

Q: We have a lot going on at the same time, so that may be playing into the backlash, too? 

A: That is also a really big thing. At the height of the inner-city transformation in Vancouver, which I led, a lot of times there was just so much going on that people were naturally anxious. They were wondering, ‘How is this going to turn out? Is it going to be overwhelming? Are they going to start forgetting the subtleties?” 

As a planner, you want to keep your eyes and ears open to that because it helps you to stay focused.

Q: Looking at some of the examples of eco-design, say in Vancouver, there’s a financial strain for towns like ours to do those things. We don’t have the tax base, arguably. Can you speak to this? 

A: Something I discovered about 35 years ago, and it has served me very well wherever I have worked in the world, is that there is huge wealth in the redevelopment process itself. Some communities let wealth be bled off completely, leaving them to cope with problems from the public purse. Other communities negotiate a part of that wealth to be reinvested in their community. That is what happened in Vancouver at about the turn of the century. We started saying, ‘Look, it is a privilege to develop in our city. We know you are going to make profits.’ 

And we started to calculate the numbers and realized just how big those profits were. We told developers they had to contribute back to the city and then we codified what those contributions had to be. 

If you start to do the numbers, project after project, you start to realize there’s plenty of profit to be invested in your community and it really does help you to stay true to the vision you conjure up when you work with people — those qualities, those amenities. Squamish is, right now, at a time when the community has the upper hand in terms of development. If someone doesn’t want to do the kinds of things you want to do in your community, just say goodbye and hold out for the people who do. All around the world, I have noticed that those communities that hold out for quality are the ones that are going to get it.

Almost any developer I know would think there is a great opportunity for development in Squamish and in the region, all the developers understand that they really do have to make a contribution. Most won’t make it by themselves, but they will make it if the community itself says they have to. 

Q: Can you speak to your ideas around social and economic diversity in terms of eco-design — so that communities don’t end up with ‘poor’ areas versus ‘wealthy’ areas of town? What is the value of having all the groups living together

A: I have found here in Vancouver and around the world that diversity is an essential concept for success in cities. The great urbanist Jane Jacobs was a friend of mine and I asked her what was the essence of what I needed to do as a planner to create successful cities and she said, “Larry, it is all about diversity.” She said inspiration can come from the natural environment, which is constantly including and throwing off diversity and then finding the balance, and you can look at any urban area that is successful and what you will find is a lot of diversity. The old-fashioned system where we zoned everything separated — housing away from commercial and industrial — is really old-fashioned and it didn’t lead to good cities. Now we know that diversity is a good thing.

If you don’t have social diversity, you don’t have all the people to do the jobs in your community; you don’t have people to populate all the non-profits in your community.

You need any diversity you can get because that adds new ingredients, new ideas. 

Now, I do not believe that you take a successful sitting area and randomly start to wipe it out and destabilize it. But I believe in carefully and gently working with people to talk about what is missing in your neighbourhood — a way to accommodate multi-generational families, for example. 

In most North American cities, we often don’t accommodate — legally — multi-generational living. And yet, we are a [country] of immigrants who often come from societies where grandparents and grandchildren live together for economic reasons and social reasons, family reasons and love reasons.

I am a proponent for gentle densification and diversification. You allow laneway housing, you put apartments over the shops in the little local commercial area, you add a corner store. Another thing we have learned — that is being debated currently across the country — is that you don’t have to get very dense to have really sustainable communities. It doesn’t take a lot. You may hear that to be sustainable, we have to get really dense. Actually, you don’t. We are learning that there’s a sweet spot for density — and I think downtown Squamish is really near that — where you get all the benefits of sustainability without the disbenefits of hyper-density. 

Q: What do you think is misunderstood about planning cities? 

A: Many city halls don’t understand the economics of development and therefore either they are hands off or they layer on requirements that are not economic to be handled by development. That can be one of the blind spots of city government — understanding economics. Everywhere I work, I advise organizations to put their staff through proper training to understand the economics around development.

But on the other hand, citizens often don’t understand that the job of the government is to manage that change carefully and deliberately. Sometimes that means that choices have to be made. Suppose we all acknowledge that the government is going to help make this change with as low a negative impact as possible while maximizing the positive impacts. In that case, you have a better chance of coming out with a good result. I really must say I see that in Squamish — and I work with a lot of communities. 


Editor's note: This story is a companion piece to What is eco-design, and how is Squamish doing with it?

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