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Todd: Vancouver is following Asia, not Europe, on highrises

Opinion: Metro Vancouver and other Canadian cities have become ground zero for the battle between Asia’s high-tower approach and the go-low attitude of much of Europe.

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“A city shouldn’t have low-rises. It should have highrises. I know some people like the freedom of living at ground level, but I like a view. It’s like a real city.”

That’s the perspective that Mike Wong — who grew up in a conglomeration of apartment towers in China — expressed last year about the new cluster of highrises at the corner of Cambie and Marine Drive in Vancouver.

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Wong, 31, is among the many people drawn to the massive new residential-tower hubs being rapidly erected in Vancouver’s downtown, False Creek and Oakridge; North Vancouver’s Lonsdale; Burnaby’s Brentwood and Metrotown; Surrey Central and elsewhere.

In the past 20 years Asia has become the out-and-out winner of the race to see who can build the most and highest skyscrapers. Meanwhile, Europe lags far behind, out of choice.

Canada has been a middle ground that is, in a sense, turning into a battleground. Metro Vancouver, plus Toronto, Calgary and to some extent Montreal, are ground zero for the conflict between the high-tower approach to housing, seen in East Asia and West Asia (the oil-rich Persian Gulf states), and the go-low route, still taken across much of Europe.

metrotown
High-rise residential towers in the Metrotown area of Burnaby. Instead of skylines packed with towers as we now see peppered in Metro Vancouver, European cities have created zoning regulations leading to more ground-oriented buildings. Photo by Jason Payne /PNG

Perhaps the Vancouver area’s prime example of the competition between highrises and medium-rises is the future of Point Grey’s Jericho Lands. That’s where the MST Corporation is promoting an ultra-high-density 50-tower project, which the city supports. Meanwhile, the Jericho Coalition citizens group has produced a video spelling out an alternative medium-rise option, based on cities such as Paris.

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Why does Europe generally favour residential buildings that are low- to medium-rise?

The Second World War has something to do with it. After a foreign army destroyed the cores of many great European cities, the citizenry responded by diligently re-creating their historic museums, churches, palaces, houses, legislatures, apartments and neighbourhoods.

“The restoration to pre-war architecture was seen as a way to preserve cultural identity and rebuild a sense of community after the trauma of war,” says architectural writer Pragya Sharma, who specializes in tall structures.

Europe is now home to only about 400 skyscrapers, which are usually defined as towers over 45 storeys. That compares to about 1,000 skyscrapers across North America (where they began in New York and Chicago) and more than 5,000 throughout Asia.

Instead of skylines packed with towers as we now see peppered in Metro Vancouver, European cities have created zoning regulations leading to more ground-oriented buildings.

“Brusselization” is the term used in Europe to counter widespread demolition of historic buildings for the construction of highrises. It refers to the 1960s and ’70s, when politicians in the city of Brussels thought massive concrete towers were superior to traditional buildings. Critics pointed out many towers were not only sterile and alienating at street level, but environmentally unsustainable and carbon-intensive.

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Why have China, South Korea, Malaysia and the Gulf states gone so radically upward in the past 25 years? (Indian cities are more likely to avoid tall buildings.)

One big reason in China is that a half-century ago one out of five people lived in the countryside. Now more than three of five people are in cities, fuelling incredible urban growth.

For decades, China’s Communist leaders handed incentives to developers who built faster and higher, to the point that China now has most of the tallest buildings in the world. Yet many worry the novel and even strange skyscrapers were turning into show-off vanity projects.

Official attitudes have recently changed in authoritarian China, as they are wont to do. In recent years the country’s leaders realized too many tall towers were catching fire, shaking and turning into health hazards.

In 2021 Beijing decreed it would ban “ugly buildings.” It also forbade cities from building higher than 45 storeys if their populations were under three million. (For what it’s worth, Metro Vancouver’s population is about 2.7 million.) China’s fixation on shooting for the stars is petering out.

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Euro
New low- to medium-rise buildings like this in Europe are being promoted by Vancouver’s Jericho Coalition as an alternative to the ultradense, 50-tower proposal the MST Corp. has for the Jericho Lands.

Where do the inhabitants of Metro Vancouver fit in on the different approaches to tall towers?

As architect Michael Geller says, B.C. developers and their political allies favour highrises because they tend to be cheaper to build per square foot, thus more profitable.

And a lot of people like the panoramas.

Metro Vancouver historian, illustrator and author Michael Kluckner notes Vancouver was one of the first North American cities to push residential highrises. It did so in the West End in the 1960s, until then mayor Art Phillips decided the neighbourhood had become dense enough.

Kluckner believes prestige is also a factor in luxury skyscraper projects, like downtown’s 57-storey Butterfly tower and Oakridge Park’s super-dense 14-tower cluster, which will include a 55-storey skyscraper. Both are being marketed to well-off international buyers.

The author of the upcoming book Surviving Vancouver also believes many younger residents of Metro Vancouver prefer highrise living, in part with the hope it’s less unaffordable. Kluckner says highrise rental buildings, even if they’re bland, seem to catch the “modern ethos” of many young adults.

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“I think Vancouverites love to travel to Barcelona or Paris but aren’t necessarily interested in living like that. Hey, we’ve got the views, right?”

Metro Vancouver now has more than 1,400 buildings with more than six storeys.

While definitions vary on what exactly constitutes a tall building, Kluckner, a heritage specialist, says, “My oversimplified rule of thumb is: If you can’t recognize someone walking by on the street, you’re in a highrise.”

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