Urbanville - Generative Urban Design in Vancouver's False Creek South

Master's Thesis // 2017 - 2018

Cities are characterized by change and subject to a variety of dynamic forces. These forces come both from within the city and from elsewhere. With so many factors affecting the growth and transformation of cities, shouldn’t our urban design strategies be able to react and respond appropriately? 

The constantly changing array of parameters that urban design faces led Brent Ryan, Professor of Urban Studies and Public Policy at MIT, to develop the concept of plural urbanism. Declaring independence for urban design from its sister building arts (architecture, landscape, sculpture, art), Ryan identifies five dimensions to plural urbanism: scale, time, property, agency, and form. 

The concept of plural urbanism can be applied to the redevelopment of Vancouver’s False Creek South neighbourhood (FCS). Located within walking distance of downtown, FCS was developed in the 1970s. It represented an experiment in urban design, largely based on the principles Christopher Alexander articulated in his book, A Pattern Language. As applied, these principles created a beautiful, walkable community with a mix of housing types and tenancies (social housing, housing co-ops, condo corporations, and market rental) on land over which the City of Vancouver maintains 80% ownership. Forty years later, the City is facing expiring land leases, pressure for increased density, a community that is largely disconnected from surrounding neighbourhoods, and a province-wide affordable housing crisis. Together these factors make FCS ideal for redevelopment – and a great test case for new approaches to design and planning. 

Based in public engagement and iterative design, Urbanville explores design strategies that can be applied to any site. The application of these evolving strategies to False Creek South generated an extraordinary number of combinations and permutations for the community to consider. There is no right or wrong combination; each variation embodies different means and reflects different priorities. Ultimately, the site will transform in tandem with – and subject to – the vicissitudes of the surrounding communities and Vancouver as a whole. 

While this thesis draws on key concepts, strategies and academic sources, the project deployed design as the primary mode of research. Interactive installations were constructed to engage the public, and multiple design iterations – informed by feedback from colleagues, Ben Gianni, and those that interacted with the installations – proved to be invaluable as a form of research. In effect, this thesis represents the search for a method – both for research and for urban design. 

In great part, Urbanville reflects my brief experience working in the field of urban design. As my schooling up to this point has been entirely in the field of architectural design, it may seem both presumptuous and disingenuous to speculate on new (and better) approaches to planning methods at the community or urban scale. By way of grounding the process and limiting the scope and aspirations of the endeavour, Urbanville focuses on the design of a specific community. It became a test case for a set of strategies that I was ultimately able to bring to the community for further testing. 


To view the thesis in its entirety, click here.

 

False Creek South

“The FCS land is a unique city asset in an exceptional location that has the ability to continue to deliver affordable housing and amenities to the benefit of residents, as well as all citizens of Vancouver.” 


General Manager of Planning. False Creek South Planning: Terms of Reference. Vancouver. City of Vancouver. May 16, 2017.

 

Catalogue

To understand what can and should be done, one must understand what is already there. Cataloguing the existing urban elements within False Creek South will help stakeholders to identify what might be lacking and what might be in excess. Organizing this information into cards encourages quick and easy understanding, not only for design professionals, but also for the average resident. It also aspires to a development process characterized by incremental change rather than by cataclysmic overhaul, as individual cards could be removed and replaced with new development possibilities rather than a complete overhaul of the site. 


For the purposes of this project, urban elements were grouped into 4 categories: Housing, Public Space, Infrastructure, and Transit. Each of these categories has its own five metrics by which it was evaluated.

In addition, each urban element was given an overall ‘urban score’ to allow for comparison across categories. 

 

Urbanville 1.0

Urbanville 1.0 explored how urban design could be developed through a generative process. A hypothetical ‘game board’ with a 5 x 3 grid and no context was created. The board was accompanied by a set of 9 cards that each had a unique urban design element as well as a set of rules. The board was set up at a busy thoroughfare in the Azrieli School of Architecture & Urbanism and numerous people interacted with it over a 24-hour period.

Metrics were assigned to each respective urban design element. Adjacency clauses were also included to give more of a structure to the process. A high-rise apartment, for example, must be played adjacent to a public space and infrastructure card. This initial iteration was meant to be extremely generic, thus no context was added.

The intention was for one person to play one card and then move on, forcing the next person who interacted with the board to respond to the card already on the board. This process was essential to the goal of this installation, investigating a generative process. If one person completed the whole board, they would already be looking 2, 3, perhaps 4 steps in advance while placing their first card. Urbanville 1.0 saw one person place a card with the intention being that they would not think further ahead than that specific card. The next person to place a card would have to assess their decision based on where (and what) the first card was. 

 

Urbanville: FCS

FCS was divided into 13 districts for the purposes of this exercise. The boundaries for these districts were based on existing roads as well as the architectural and tenancy characteristics of ensembles of buildings. A total of 7 redevelopment proposals were devised for each of the 13 parcels: two each for each of the three ‘ideological’ positions identified in the previous chapter plus an “existing” option that preserves the existing conditions. The two plans per position per parcel correspond to maximums and minimums. In the case of the maximum, for example, existing buildings might be torn down to accommodate new, higher density construction, while in the minimum iteration, more modest interventions would be made while preserving some or all the existing fabric of the parcel in question. 

All told, all the process resulted in 91 different individual proposals: 7 permutations for each for the 13 parcels. The various propositions for each parcel can be swapped into and out of a larger site template like pieces in a jigsaw puzzle. 

The intent of this approach is to improve stakeholder participation in the design process and enhance flexibility with respect to the transformation of the community over time. Together, the 91 pieces represent different ways to achieve the same goals and/or the flexibility to respond to changing goals, needs, possibilities, and priorities as the community evolves over time. At 60 hectares, FCS is a substantial parcel of land. Breaking the site into sub districts allows the urban design to be completed in smaller increments that can be built out more rapidly. This enables the ramifications of any one development decision to be assessed before determining whether to proceed as planned or change course. Each and every intervention has the potential to change the terms of reference for subsequent decisions – related to the evolving needs and goals of the community and to inevitable changes in the economic and political climate in which decisions are made. 

The final makeup of the FCS should not be able to be predicted largely because it’s impossible to predict how the city – and the myriad actors and forces that produce it – will change over time. Cities are dynamic, organic entities. Urbanville FCS embraces this. 

 

Individual Proposal Example 
Olympic Station District - Rezone and Sell Maximum

+1,006 Housing Units 
+15,960m­­2 GFA Office Space

Olympic Station district has been completely developed to high density. Height is kept to the west buildings to fit within the City of Vancouver view cone restrictions. The tallest tower is 34-storeys and has commercial in the podium and offices above. All other buildings are residential above commercial. Additionally, two new connections are made to the site from West 6th Avenue. 

The topic for this thesis grew out of concerns with the way contemporary urban design is undertaken and, in particular, the emphasis placed on the masterplan. Having worked at a leading urban design/planning firm, I was able to observe the way in which many projects are handled. Clients frequently commission a masterplan with little input from stakeholders such as residents or nearby businesses. Designed to address the short-term aspirations of the client, such plans are frequently unable to adapt to the ever-changing physical, social, and economic context.

As an approach to urban design, Urbanville addresses the need for greater flexibility and more effective community engagement in the master planning process. It provides stakeholders with immediate visual feedback on a range of alternatives. Urban planners frequently use text and statistics to describe proposed development projects. Residents with little planning or design experience can find this difficult to interpret. And while architects are able to translate data and targets into built form (often in the form of a masterplan), these visualizations are often presented to the community as a done deal. Intentionally or not, many masterplans suggest a single possible outcome for a community in transition. By contrast, the 91 permutations comprising Urbanville: FCS take into consideration the aspirations of a range of stakeholders, recognize differences in the existing fabric (depending on the location of parcels within the site and in relation to each other), and take account of the dynamic political, economic, and social context in which communities evolve. At no point in the Urbanville process is a single outcome anticipated. Rather, it deploys a solution set where multiple permutations and combinations can be used to respond and react to a larger – and evolving -- set of goals, targets, and possibilities.

While people may be disappointed with the Urbanville process to the extent that it is elusive and somewhat indeterminate, this is precisely the point. It provides communities like False Creek South with a plethora of redevelopment options – a range of approaches to its transformation. More importantly, it emphasizes the need to approach redevelopment in an incremental fashion.

Interactive installations were used throughout the thesis to engage the community and solicit feedback. Knowing that Urbaniville:FCS would be presented in person to stakeholders in Vancouver, it was important to use analog strategies such as cards and models. The opportunity was there multiple times throughout the project to transition to digital parametricism however the decision was made to continue producing very analog representations. Indeed the 91 model pieces were thoroughly used both by participants at the thesis defence and at the community presentation in Vancouver.

The next step in Urbanville:FCS would be to further refine each of the proposals for the thirteen parcels under consideration. While an enormous amount of time and consideration went into the design of each of the 91 options, there was simply not enough time to get into any detail. And while, from a community participation and engagement perspective, the analog components worked well, the process would benefit from a dynamic (digital) display that kept tract of various metrics as different options where placed into or swapped out of the model. For example, if one placed a “Rezone and Sell” piece into the one of the parcels, the screen would dynamically compute how many new housing units were added, how much new retail space was added, change in overall density, number of units, UPH, PPH, GFA, FSI, amount of open spaces, leasable retail area, etc. Immediate access to such data would enable stakeholders to better assess the implications of a given set of decisions in relation to larger goals for the community. 

Using Format