District Development Down by the River: Vancouver’s new River District

Vancouver has been steadily increasing in popularity the world round, and as a resident of this wonderful city, it’s easy to understand why. It’s becoming a place well-known for its beautiful and picturesque waterfronts and mountain vistas. Waterways like Burrard Inlet and False Creek, and beaches like Kits and Jericho, as well as the ever present English Bay and the North Shore mountains are all notable natural features that attract many to the city. These are elements we Vancouverites very much value, so much so that view corridors are important natural aspects to consider and preserve when proposing a new high-rise. These natural features that characterise Vancouver today haven’t always been valued for their aesthetics. Historically, however Vancouver’s waterfront was a productive industrial zone where the rich natural resources of the region, most notably harvested wood from an intensively exploitative logging industry, were consolidated and shipped out.  For many decades, this was Vancouver. Since 1986 when the city hosted the World Exposition – known as Expo 86 – Vancouver has undergone an incredible change along the shores of its waters, dramatically transforming them into a variety of public spaces, amenities, businesses and high price housing developments. While large areas continue to be geared towards commerce and shipping, this shift in development is an ongoing phenomenon.

As a student of geography, I have many interests that are essentially about how human socieities spatially organize themselves. I realise this is a somewhat simplified description, as it doesn’t address just how loaded a discpline geography is, nor does it identify the embeded biases I undoubtedly have acquired as a budding academic. Nonetheless, geography provides a unique and useful perspective on all things related to humans in (geographic) space. One area of interest is how urban land use changes over time and space within cities based on demographics, economics and social shifts. Vancouver has been going through a rather dramatic change over the past 30 years that is hard to ignore, especially for the forlorn young residents who feel cast aside by a global economy having significant impacts on a very local housing scale.

Vancouver generally doesn’t feel like a city by a river because most of us are most familiar with the waterfronts I mentioned above, especially because they are so easily accessible on foot. Nonetheless, at the city’s southern-most boundary is where the Fraser River flows. In this part of town we find a mix of residential developments, a mix of single family detached homes, townhouse and co-op housing complexes – most of which are located in the Champlain Heights area – as well as commercial and light industrial activities. When driving along Marine Way, only blocks from the city’s border with Burnaby you can see the beginnings of Vancouver’s newest large scale urban development which has be aptly named the River District.

White Pine Mill
White Pine Mill

Just as the other water front areas of Vancouver used to be used for industrial activities, so too did this stretch of river front. It used to be the site of the White Pine Mill, which was in operation for nearly three quarters of a century processing logs for British Columbia’s once booming logging industry. As this industry went through a precipitous decline, the site became obsolete for milling, but in turn has provided for an opportunity for creating a new urban neighborhood. This brownfield development aims to reclaim and rehabilitate the former industrial land and bring more ecological and social qualities to the otherwise vacant and unproductive land.

The significance of brownfield developments must be understood within the context of the myriad of challenges facing cities today, and Vancouver is no exception. Issues like climate change, energy consumption, pollution, habitat loss, housing availability and affordability, as well as mobility are all pressing concerns for urban settlements. These challenges do not exist independently of each other as they are quite significantly tied to one another which means which means by tackling one we are able to address another.

First, consideration needs to be given to issues of climate change and resource depletion through a more compact, energy efficient and ecologically-minded built environment. That means more green buildings and infrastructure, denser patterns of development and the enhancement of natural features. The added benefit of addressing these concerns is the reduction of urban sprawl while accommodating continued regional growth.

South East Vancouver - River District Site
South East Vancouver – River District Site

Another area of concern for Vancouver is the housing affordability and supply. River District is still under construction, and so far the only units built and under construction are townhouses. The anticipated developments will be composed of more compact high-rise buildings in addition to a number of community amenities aimed at promoting and supporting a diverse and complete community. A complete community is one that provides people with their daily needs within a short distance of where they live or work. In order to achieve this, designing a neighborhood that can accommodate all age groups, and has grocery stores, shopping, learning, public space and recreation within walking distance would be most ideal. Cycling and transit options should be accommodated as well if the distances are longer for some residents. In my opinion, designing a new neighborhood around the primary use of the car would be the least desirable if a development is aiming to create a complete community.

Nonetheless, there are already well established neighborhoods relatively close to River District that would require the use of a car to access its planned amenities and services. The residents of these surrounding neighborhoods, mostly notably from the West Fraserlands and Killarney, have raised concerns about the impact River District will have. Generally speaking, the issues are about various dimensions of sustainability in the area. For instance, the environment is an important aspect, in all its components like fish habitat, beavers, water quality and so on. The social aspects like access to housing, parks and amenities, as well as the economic elements, like jobs and affordability have also all be expressed as concerns neighborhood residents would like to have addressed by the River District development.

Considering the scale and scope of the River District development, it is only right for them to be cognisant of the needs and desires of the existing communities, not only as an obligation, but also as an opportunity to create a better community that isn’t bound by the boundaries of the development. The potential benefits to the entire area would be significant and likely immediate because of the number of people that already live in the vicinity. Impressively enough, River District has already been hosting farmers markets and drive-in movie events throughout the summer. These activities certainly help to create some buzz around the development within the existing community and around the city at large.

A sign outside of Romer's Restaurant for a Farmers Market
A sign outside of Romer’s Restaurant for a Farmers Market

As mentioned, the bulk of River District has yet to break ground. The construction that has occurred and is currently underway is for the larger condo and townhouse portions of the development. So, for the moment, when walking around this area of River Side, it looks like it doesn’t deviate significantly the typical pattern of housing development. One positive addition, however, is the inclusion of community gardens along the stairs ways leading between the housing levels. It’s an excellent way to facilitate building community and is creative break from mundane landscaping. I quite liked the variety of edible plants as well as several varieties of plants that supported bees.

The project as a whole has won several awards for its planning and development process, but these are exemplary of the preliminary stages and do not necessarily translate into the built environment. That’s not to say River District doesn’t have all the potential to be an exceptional development, because based on its awards, the plans are in place to make this happen.

Nonetheless, when I visited the development and had a chance to walk around, some concerns arose as to the current direction the development is taking. For one, I would not consider the development to be more walkable than he average residential development. The distances between the various housing developments – particularly the current townhouses – and the future site of the planned amenities and services are quite far. It feels as though the development has been designed around the automobile. Of course, along the river there is a gravel path where people are able to lackadaisically stroll for recreation, but for practical reasons I don’t think people are able to access amenities with any degree of ease or convenience unless they were living at the high rise development where amenities are located.

Anticipated layout of the completed development
Anticipated layout of the completed development

Walking and cycling seem to be treated as recreational and not as actual modes of mobility because accessibility doesn’t seem to be designed with those in mind. This is subtly reflected in the accessibility of the pedestrian paths from the residential side as there is lack of flow between the two sides across the road. This suggests that it’s not safe to cross the road (I noticed cars moving quite quickly along the roads) which runs contrary to the notion of walkability. The benches and bike racks I encountered seemed to be orphaned, begging the question why anyone would sit or lock their bike in the spots they were situated. It was like they were using a cookie cutter design and arbitrarily placing features in order to check them off a list.

As for the accessibility of River District using transit, it leaves much to be desired. Granted, this is not necessarily the fault of the development, but it certainly highlights the lack of coordination between developers and transit authorities. As a public transportation enthusiast, I often think how useful it would be for Translink to be more proactive in communicating with developers for the sake of promoting more transit orientation with mixed residential and commercial developments. The presence of public transportation not only improves the quality of living for residents with more transportation options, it also has the added benefits of reducing transportation pollution, as well as increasing the value of the property.

A seemingly abandoned park
A seemingly abandoned park

There are also some issues with site activation, which refers to elements of place’s design that invite and promote its use by people. Playgrounds and parks are built so people can use them, but the design has a significant influence on whether people want to go there and linger. River District, like so many other developments, construct open spaces that seem to be meant for people to use, but have failed in designing a place that people want to actually use. One park in particular has been designed in such a way that makes movement within it unnatural and inconvenient. The park is terraced into three levels, but moving between the levels was not easy and required to much unnecessary movement into out of the way areas. I was frustrated with the design, mostly because it was obviously just how little it was being used, but also because the way I instinctively wanted to move between the levels wasn’t not possible. Instead of climbing up the centre of the park, the stairs were located at the edges. A seemingly small detail that I believe has had a significant impact.

Even though there are areas where River District could have done better than the status quo car oriented design, there are examples of where it is doing well. For instances, for anyone driving by one of the parcels of land where future amenities, like a daycare and community centre, will be built, large signs have been erected to promote those plans. I thought this was an excellent way of providing context and creating the beginnings of a narrative to the undeveloped sites. This technique is effective in helping people imagine how the finished development will play out on the landscape. It also a way of getting a sense of the distance between the various amenities and places people are and will be living.

Future Sports Field
Future Sports Field

One of the more impressive infrastructural elements of River District is the proposed district energy utility. River District Energy is advertised as the only publicly regulated developer-owner district energy utility in British Columbia. Space and hot water heating will be provided for through a centrally gas fired boiler system located on-site and subsequently distributed throughout the River District development. It isn’t clear, however, if existing housing units are included in the DEU system, or if it only applies to future developments.

Vancouver has seen a lot of development and the creation a several new neighborhoods and communities. It will take time for neighborhood communities to develop and grow. River District is the most recent and one of the largest developments, and as I mentioned above, is still in its infancy. Although the built environment and types of amenities and spaces available to residents can provide an avenue for some future insight into the development, giving a clear and concise judgement of the quality of the proposed features is a difficult task indeed. In the end, as is the case with any significant development, only time will tell.


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