Category: Urban Planning

For a long time, my mental model of urban planning was basically “there are written rules about what you can build, and to build something you just follow the rules.” Unfortunately, this is not an accurate way to think about Vancouver.

I get alerts for new rezoning+development applications (using a small tool I wrote), and this little snippet shows up over and over:

…the application is “conditional” so it may be permitted. However, it requires the decision of the Director of Planning.

You can see this on virtually any type of housing proposed in Vancouver, here’s a selection:

I’ve been tracking rezoning+development applications for about a year and a half, and my data set has 599 items with the words “Director of Planning”.

OK, but… why? Doesn’t the Director of Planning have better things to do than approve individual houses and small apartment buildings?
I’ll defer that question to a senior planner at the City of Vancouver:

You might have already seen Jens von Bergmann’s interactive map of Vancouver which integrates a ton of different data sets. It’s really useful for looking up zoning, year of construction, tax data, and even the estimated amount of floor space in buildings. I find it essential for understanding the city.

It has also has a great feature that many people don’t know about: the ability to filter data for better visualization through the use of a query parameter in the URL. With Jens’s permission, I’ve compiled a list of ways to use this.

Basics

Say you want to see the impact of Vancouver’s early building boom, circa 1905-1914. Just add a years_1905_1914 filter to the URL like so: https://mountainmath.ca/map/assessment?filter=[years_1905_1914]:

And those are just the buildings still left standing! It’s pretty wild how Mount Pleasant, Grandview-Woodland, and Shaughnessy all sprung into existence in a decade.

If you wanted to see all buildings with an estimated floor space ratio (FSR) between 0 and 1, add a fsr_0.0_1.0 filter: https://mountainmath.ca/map/assessment?filter=[fsr_0.0_1.0]

Filters can easily be combined with a comma. If you wanted buildings that were built between 1900-1940 and are between 0 and 1 FSR, the URL would look like this: https://mountainmath.ca/map/assessment?filter=[fsr_0.0_1.0,years_1900_1940]

A few years ago, this short piece by former Vancouver councillor Gordon Price made a big impression on me.

The Canadian Institute of Planners had decided to celebrate Vancouver’s West End neighbourhood by giving it their 2015 “Great Neighbourhood” award. Price noted that this is ironic given that during its most recent development boom, the modern West End was widely regarded as a terrible planning decision:

…this neighbourhood of old converted single-family homes was largely bulldozed to create the Great Neighbourhood of today. The West End, during the boom era of highrise construction in the 1960s, was considered a concrete jungle – what most Vancouverites didn’t want anywhere near them: everyone’s best bad example of urban redevelopment.

Impossible to do that today. Imagine taking a square mile anywhere south of 16th Avenue and rezoning it for the kind of development that characterizes the West End.

This really surprised me as someone who moved to Vancouver in the 2000s. Nearly everyone loves the West End now! It’s got a lot of relatively affordable rental apartments, it’s close to all kinds of natural amenities, and it’s a short walk from downtown.

Fast-forward to late 2017, and I’m digging through old newspapers at the VPL for Abundant Housing Vancouver. When I get to the 1960s, I find out that Price is right: many people really hated the modern West End when it was being built. Here are just some of the articles I found.

I recently built a web tool to solve a simple question that comes up often in urban planning: after taking setback requirements into account, how much of lot can be built on? The answer is often surprising: for example, Vancouver’s most common residential zone only allows houses to cover about 28% of the land.

It was a fun weekend project, and a few weeks later I decided to upgrade it on a long plane ride. It’s now a neighbourhood-level simulator with many more parameters:

Alt Text

These are mobile and desktop-friendly, and the visualization is entirely done in the browser. Here’s how it all works.

headshot

Cities & Code

Things that don't quite fit in 280 characters.

Top Categories

View all categories