Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Multiple municipalities in Metro Vancouver is a good thing

For the last ten days, I’ve been on a bit of a whirlwind train trip across North America. My trip took me to Seattle, Chicago, New York, Montreal, and Ottawa. Besides taking a holiday, I was also interested in seeing the development patterns of regions that I stop at to compare them with Metro Vancouver.

One of the things that I noticed about many of the regions was that they all looked similar at the edge. Power centres, business parks, single-family homes, and even apartments, all surrounded by surface parking. The sad thing was that none of these areas were walkable. You could pick the edge of the Chicago, Seattle, Montreal, and even Ottawa region, and be hard pressed to tell the difference. My first impression when coming into the Montreal region via the South Shore was that I was coming into a French version of Calgary. The only exception seemed to be the New York region, likely due to the fact that the region was defined and is still defined rail transportation. Metro Vancouver also seems to be an exception.

One of the things that makes Metro Vancouver different is that it has walkable centres all over the region. Within our 22 municipalities, you could live in many walkable areas that are connected by transit.

I’ve been thinking about what makes Metro Vancouver one of the most livable places in the world. The skeleton of our region was built by interurbans and streetcars. This played an important role in building walkable nodes that are still with us today. Of course the ALR, US border, and mountains play a large role in keeping our region compact, but I have to wonder if having 22 municipalities plays a role too.

One of the things that I’ve noticed is that most cities have walkable cores that become less so, the further out you get from the centre. I’ve spend time in Calgary, Edmonton, and Ottawa which are all regional cities. Even some municipalities in the Montreal region were merged together to form a larger city.

While all cities invest in building livable, walkable cores today, it seems that they are also quite happy to allow auto-oriented sprawl along their edges. I even see this in Metro Vancouver within all its municipalities. The big difference is that most all of the Metro Vancouver municipalities are also trying to build walkable cores at the same time. These walkable cores give a unique identity and soul to each community which is why I think that most municipalities still try to protect their walkable cores. The Portland region is very similar to Metro Vancouver; with multiple cities and multiple walkable cores.

I have to wonder if Metro Vancouver had less municipalities, would we see more sprawl. Would someone in the Commercial Drive area really care about walkability in Langley City? Would they fight to building walkable nodes in the South of Fraser or focuse on petty "us vs. them" politics like in Toronto?

Besides having 22 municipalities building walkable cores, one of the results of a large amount of municipalities in a region is usually the formation of a regional governance body which is also key to building a livable region. I’ll talk more about that tomorrow.

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