Vancouver Sun

Reflection­s on city’s inaugural Urban Design Awards

Teething problems: Celebratio­n of projects is commendabl­e, but some tweaks to categories are needed

- LANCE BERELOWITZ Lance Berelowitz is an urban planner and award- winning writer on urban issues. He is the principal of Urban Forum Associates and can be reached at urbanforum@ shaw. ca

Urban design is as much about urban fabric as it is about monument, and how background buildings, open space and infrastruc­ture work together to create a coherent, functional and elegant public realm.

Welcome to The Urban Forum. This is the first in a series of occasional Westcoast Homes columns that will focus on planning, urban design and architectu­re. We live in one of the most rapidly changing urban centres in North America, and this can be both exhilarati­ng and threatenin­g. As our city and region grows and matures, we are all affected by the changes to the built environmen­t around us. This column is directed at those who care about this city and region, and is intended to stimulate a discussion about where it is heading.

The City of Vancouver recently held its first Urban Design Awards, with the winners announced at VanDusen Botanical Garden last month.

It is good to celebrate our design successes, and it’s commendabl­e that Vancouver is finally and formally acknowledg­ing urban design achievemen­ts.

Our city has a rich heritage of urban design innovation and is home to some of Canada’s most talented designers. The city’s Urban Design Awards are given out to projects that demonstrat­e design excellence in Vancouver, in several project categories. They will be presented every other year. In this inaugural year, the winning projects included a single- family house, mid- and highrise residentia­l buildings, a beachfront restaurant, a school addition, an entrance canopy, and a beachfront park, among others.

However — perhaps understand­ably — the first of these awards was something of a mixed bag, and there are teething problems with the program that need to be addressed.

Firstly, and perhaps most importantl­y, while there were many admirable, even exemplary, architectu­ral projects on display at the event, some had little to do with urban design. There is a significan­t difference between urban design and architectu­ral design, and it is important for the program organizers to understand it, given that the terms were used interchang­eably.

Urban design may perhaps best be defined as “the design of the city” or “the conscious design of the space between buildings” — with building facades acting as walls that define the resulting spatial patterns. It is not so much about individual stand- alone buildings, but about context, the design of built ensembles that contribute toward a memorable urban environmen­t.

Urban design is as much about urban fabric as it is about monument, and how background buildings, open space and infrastruc­ture work together to create a coherent, functional and elegant public realm.

So perhaps the awards should be renamed the Vancouver Design Awards. That way, there would be less confusion, and exemplary stand- alone architectu­ral projects could continue to be chosen as part of a more inclusiona­ry program.

Alternativ­ely, if we really want these to be Urban Design Awards, the evaluation criteria and categories should be revisited for the next cycle to better define what kinds of projects are eligible and what the jury should be looking for.

For example, include such categories as Small Scale Residentia­l ( primarily meaning singlefami­ly homes), Sustainabl­e Design and something called Urban Elements ( loosely defined as comprising street furniture, lighting, canopies, artwork or pieces of infrastruc­ture) stretches the definition of urban design beyond usefulness, however laudable these categories may be in another awards program context.

There is also a problem with giving an urban design award to a landscape project that is essentiall­y anti- urban. A re- naturalize­d beachfront shoreline and park, charming as it might be, really celebrates something quite different from urbanism. Conversely, noticeable by their absence, were any urban design master plans, precinct plans or site plans that might contribute toward the city’s emerging urban form. Presumably, this was because the city required all eligible submission­s to have received an occupancy permit after Jan. 1, 2012, which by definition precludes such plans and seems like a strange eligibilit­y criterion for an urban design award.

Finally, why not loosen up the submission requiremen­ts to encourage others beside developers ( and their architects) to submit? Independen­t urban planners, designers, landscape architects and others could also be permitted to submit. This will generate both more diverse and more appropriat­e projects, and broader interest and buy- in by Vancouveri­tes.

All Vancouveri­tes surely wish the program well, and I commend the city for this inaugural effort. At the same time, let’s hope the program will be modified in future to address some of these issues.

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