Has Vancouver lost its soul?
Can Vancouver create the great waterfront a great city deserves?
We love Vancouver. Bordered by mountains and bays, it is a city of immense natural beauty that also boasts world-class arts, culture, and innovation. We have visited Vancouver more than any other North American city in our more than 40 years at Project for Public Spaces as global Placemaking leaders. We held a major international conference and led a developers forum on multi-use destinations on Granville Island; we also did a recent plan to upgrade the central areas on Granville Island. This is all to say: We've spent some quality time in Vancouver and care about the future of its public spaces.
We've seen very clearly that Vancouver is no longer a small city. With a population of around 630,000 people in the city, and 2.5 million in the metropolitan area, the Vancouver region has the highest population density in Canada: more than 5,400 people per square kilometer. Which means that this incredibly diverse place is the fifth-most densely populated city in North America, behind New York City, Guadalajara, San Francisco, and Mexico City.
We care about Vancouver’s future, both from the perspective of visitors and that of Placemakers—which is why we are asking these questions and opening this timely dialogue: Has Vancouver lost its soul? And can Vancouver create the great waterfront a great city deserves?
Question 1: Has Vancouver Lost Its Soul?
Davie Street is one of the best streets in Vancouver: It's messy, vital and you can find everything you need... plus it leads to English Bay. It is 0ur preferred street for walking in Vancouver. Early on in our Placemaking work, we used the podium buildings on Davie Street as an example of how to add density while also creating and preserving street life. There, the tall buildings are complemented by human-scaled amenities and activities.
But that type of community-friendly building did not translate around the north side of False Creek, where a “dead zone” has taken over much of the iconic waterway. There, most of the new super high-rises completely ignore the basic human need for congenial spots to gather and play. With the addition of these buildings, attention to the human scale has been pushed to the wayside.
This contrast is a shame, especially in a city known around the world for its beauty, dynamic cultures and tradition. Its waterfront is revered as a wonderful place to walk and bike. Even though many other cities have learned valuable Placemaking lessons from Vancouver, some of its wisdom now seems forgotten.
In the city that showed us how to do tall buildings right, what went wrong?
The density along the north side of Vancouver's False Creek waterfront is way greater than any of the continent’s other major cities, including San Francisco, Los Angeles (Venice Beach and Santa Monica), Portland and Seattle, meaning that it's a huge opportunity. Yet the available public space attractions, with the exception of Granville Island, are of a lesser quality than those found in any of those other cities. These newer “place deserts” stand in stark contrast to the vibrant Granville Island, just across the water.
Along False Creek, public spaces amount to a waterfront "path" with a bike lane—or what often feels like a bicycle highway where walking is interrupted, creating a potentially hazardous experience. It is nothing like what we've seen in cities that are defined by their waterfronts, such as Paris, Porto, Stockholm, San Francisco, Washington, DC and even smaller cities such as Halifax, Nova Scotia, or Otranto, Italy. These newer developments, along with the spaces around them, do not fit with what we had come to expect of Vancouver.
The new buildings prioritize large drop-off circles and wide parking ramp entrances over all other public uses. Any social or playful activity here can occur only in vehicle spaces, heavily landscaped areas, or limited scraps of open space.
The limited public spaces that do exist on the north side of False Creek are woefully underused. Boulders placed throughout grassy areas may accommodate sunbathers, but stymie more active uses like soccer, making it boring for many families and young people. Nearby townhouses and towering apartment buildings prioritize green space in their surroundings, but not active space—meaning that these are aesthetic choices that do not meaningfully support social life in the area.
With the density that Vancouver currently has, these public spaces are inadequate. False Creek is a key example of a public space that occupies the center of a large population, but is working with with minimal appeal and little to do. To us, as frequent visitors, we find Vancouver to be underperforming compared to other cities around the world. This begs the questions: Has Vancouver fundamentally lost its soul through senseless and ever-expanding development? And if so, how can Vancouver regain a sense of place, people, and community?
Question 2: Can Vancouver Create the Great Waterfront a Great City Deserves?
(And can False Creek be that waterfront?)
One could say that False Creek is a "pond" in the center of a potentially great city. Creating False Creek as the "Central Place" in Vancouver, similar to Central Park in New York City, would redefine Vancouver fundamentally.
The density on the north side of False Creek has grown substantially in the past 20 years and similar growth is being projected for the entire eastern end, as well as for parts of the south bank. And while Vancouver now sits among the most dense of North American cities, its current waterfront works for a city one-tenth its size.
How can Vancouver make the most of its population density and diversity, so that it continues to have accessible, thriving public spaces along the waterfront?
In contrast, Granville Island is a global treasure. It easily exposes the failings around False Creek by offering one of the best destinations in the world. But the fact remains that, beyond Granville Island, Vancouver lacks significant destinations. It has a lot of secondary places, but a city this size needs multiple destinations to support and draw visitors both local and beyond. We often use the concept of 'Power of 10"—the idea that places thrive when users have a range of reasons (10+) to be there. One could say that Granville Island has the Power of 50 and Olympic Village the Power of two.
Future False Creek developments need to take a page out of Granville Island’s playbook. It is Canada’s biggest visitor destination after Niagara Falls — thanks to a stunning array of cultural facilities, markets, play areas, water activities, restaurants and waterfront views.
The Rest of False Creek's South Side
The contrast between the north side of False Creek and the more humane south and east sides is striking. For example, the south side of False Creek is a case study in how a variety of public space types can become a resource for a community, with its mix of low- and mid-rise developments.
However, there remains a need for slower-paced spots to linger: The waterfront is dominated by cyclists, and does not offer much for folks who are looking to have a relaxed stroll.
Sadly, newer developments along the south side miss the mark: For example, when the Olympic Village was built, that could have been a signal of a future centered on Placemaking ended up being a missed opportunity. Developed for the 2010 Winter Olympics, it turned into another example of a designer-led, limited-use public space where the design elements are the attraction, rather than programming and activity. It was a weak attempt to create a community gathering place and has very awkward settings without a strong reason to be there. A lot of silly "design elements," most of which don't work, along with an outsized art piece, give it an unreal experience. It is not the gathering space that is needed as the primary central plaza along the south bank of False Creek.
In fact, one place to start could be to replace these design elements with some brand-new activities: It could even be an LQC ("lighter, quicker, cheaper") improvement that evolves over time.
In North America, Vancouver's False Creek waterfront is not alone in under-serving its population: Toronto, Montreal and even our own New York City (including Brooklyn Bridge Park), are in the same league. On the west coast of Canada and the United States, Vancouver ranks along with San Diego and Portland as offering the most limited waterfront experiences with the most need and potential.
As we look to the future of Vancouver, it is obvious that the city badly lacks human-scaled, interactive places to go. Our suggestion of activating the False Creek corridor through the key tenets of Placemaking (including the Power of 10, and Lighter, Quicker, Cheaper) are imperative to creating a place for and by people, not just for soulless buildings and inactive public spaces. The first steps can be simple, but we know that they will be transformative.
As a source of inspiration, we have provided a case study in Paris, below, and other resource posts on a successful global examples of a waterfront activation could be used as guiding principles for Vancouver.
Paris's New Waterfront Transformations:
A Model For Vancouver
Paris is a perfect example for how to begin the needed transition toward the future waterfront Vancouver needs.
Takeaway: Creating Iconic Places
The Paris Plage, along the Seine River, is a series of destinations that all focus on creating an iconic place, not on fancy designs. A sandy beach and pop-up restaurants changed the whole feel of the Seine—at first during the summer months, but now all year thanks to a permanent promenade and play areas. Numerous family-friendly activities today make the river seem like a zipper, uniting the Left and Right Banks. False Creek could serve the same function for Vancouver.
Takeaway: Multi-Use Destinations
Vancouver badly needs multi-modal, multi-use destinations along its waterfront. In Paris, a series of mini-destinations along the Seine, each with their own distinct identity, gives people a reason to stay, play, and recreate. The Paris Plage enhances social life through smart use and placement of seating, cafes, public art, games, and shade. Vancouver must do the same in order to attract people to a dynamic destination.
Takeaway: Pop-Up Waterside Restaurants
Upriver from Notre Dame Cathedral, the riverfront has been animated by seasonal restaurants and bars that remain hopping into the early hours of the morning. These cafe structures are relatively simple to construct and afford ample opportunity for people to stop and organically engage in the social scene. This kind of ingenuity wouldn't be hard to copy along False Creek in Vancouver.
Takeaway: Public Art
Paris's use of public art creates opportunities for surprise, creative engagement, and new uses of previously empty public spaces. Interactive pieces like a giant chalkboard also encourage everyone to participate in the collective co-creation of the space.
Vancouver is a large city with world-class art; turning the art scene inside-out and onto the street through interesting, people-oriented installations would give new life and imagination to its dreary waterfront.
Takeaway: Seating for People
Put a good bench in a public space, and people will find unique ways to sit, lay, nap, sunbathe, and chat on it. The benches along the Paris waterfront are not only well-placed, but also feature interesting designs which encourage creative uses and accommodate many people.
Seating is one of the easiest and cheapest ways to activate a space and is one of the most clear-cut ways to follow Paris's lead. It always helps when there are activities, sights, and people to look at while sitting down... but if Vancouver starts with seating, the rest is all the more likely to follow.
Takeaway: The New Plage Serves All Parisians
Paris has done a wonderful job of extending its waterfront activations from the city center to outlying neighborhoods, a process made possible with active waterfronts that connect to the Seine. How? By focusing on activities that attract people of all ages and backgrounds: swimming, water sports, dancing, table games, and of course, great seating.
Where else can Vancouver extend its waterfront programming? What other parts of the city are primed for a revival of social life other than False Creek? Let Canal St. Martin be Vancouver's guide!
Other Resources for Better Waterfronts:
To read more about the Paris Plage, read our article:
To read more about other great waterfronts, read our article:
To read more about successful use of waterfront dining, read our article:
To read more about a hidden gem waterfront in Italy, read our article:
To read more about waterfront do's and don'ts, read our article: