Steven Dale on ‘Salvaging projects’ – Vancouverism or Tower Renewal?

Tower Renewal concept from ERA Architects.

When you read D&L there are numerous moments where Jacobs seems uncannily prescient. So often I find myself basically living through what she forecasted 50 years ago and I shake my head wishing that stock analysts and weathermen were as accomplished in their careers as prognosticators.

Of course I recognize this isn’t actually the case – at least not all the time. Skeptically and objectively, one has to trust that Jacobs inspired future events more than she predicted them.

That’s where I found myself at the end of Chapter 20: Salvaging projects.

After my first read-through of the text I couldn’t help but feel as though Jacobs ideas and concepts were visions of two fast-moving urban trends: Vancouverism and Tower Renewal. It would be foolish, of course, to say that Jacobs predicted either Vancouverism or Tower Renewal. She didn’t predict them. But she clearly inspired them. And inspiring action in others, I believe, is far more important than predicting them.

A curious product of the last generation of planners, Vancouverism is an architectural and urban design philosophy developed in Vancouver, Canada whereby density is concentrated in so-called point towers that sit atop 3-5 story podiums of mixed-use retail, commercial and residential uses. It is to the early 21st century what New Urbanism was to the 1980’s and 90’s and Radiant City was to the 1940’s and 50’s.

Tower Renewal, meanwhile, is very much a product of Toronto, Canada. In Tower Renewal schemes, post-war high-rises developed on the Radiant City model of planning are terraformed in such a way that they meet the ideals espoused in a Vancouverist tower-and-podium design.

As far as I know, Tower Renewal concepts never explicitly invoke Vancouverism, but the end result is clear. At a very basic level, it’s about (at least in part) turning this:

Post-war apartments in Toronto built to reflect Radiant City principles. CC image by flickr user vipez.

. . . into this:

A condominium/townhouse design in keeping with Vancouverist principles. CC image via flickr user Concert Properties Ltd.

As you read chapter 20 you’re basically presented the blueprints for both. While the tactics presented are explicitly a prescription for reweaving torn Radiant City neighborhoods back into the urban fabric, one can read it as instructions for how to prevent the damage in the first place. It’s like being told that exercise cures obesity. Looked at from another angle, it’s also a a lesson in how exercise also prevents obesity.

Vancouverism is nothing more than the act of preventing the need for Tower Renewal in the first place. That’s not meant to demean Vancouverism. As the old cliché goes, an ounce of prevention beats a pound of cure and that’s no less true here.

Vancouverism and Tower Renewal are two concepts bizarrely joined-at-hip that present an urban surrealist’s analogy for what makes Vancouver Vancouver and Toronto Toronto; two very similar and very different cities both at the same time.

In Toronto’s case, we have an older city struggling to reach an ideal by transforming the mistakes of its past through Tower Renewal. In Vancouver’s case, we’re presented with a much younger city unencumbered by the inevitable mistakes history brings with it. Vancouver, after all is Vancouverism.

Both cities strive to a similar ideal but one has the advantage of starting with a clean slate.

The unfortunate thing about Tower Renewal, however, has been its relative lack of rigorous interest in and application of the tactics Jacobs presents in chapter 20. Most Tower Renewal programs (at least those that I’ve encountered, so please correct me if I’m wrong) focus on the rehabilitation of the existing buildings from a building materials and environmental-stewardship angle.

Issues of walkability, place-building and urban design are superficially addressed, but appear to the outsider to be little more than lip service with the typical plannerspeak of things like “improved pedestrian connectivity,” “upgraded public space,” and “picnic tables.” As though more picnic tables were somehow going to transform our post-war tower slums into thriving and bustling neighborhoods.

Consider the city of Toronto’s Tower Renewal Implementation book. In it, they state “walking is an important part of living in a city, as Jane Jacobs so often pointed out.” Within that 100 page book that is the lone mention of Jacobs, and Social/Cultural Objectives (their words, not mine) are given a mere 4 pages of attention.

Most egregiously, when the book discusses matters of job creation it focuses purely on developing and exporting a Tower Renewal industry. There is no mention of creating jobs for those people living in the towers themselves through renewing the neighborhood such that it’s capable of creating and maintaining jobs from within. Instead the residents are offered typical “labour market information; placement and referrals; and links to existing employment supports.”

As I discussed in my first book club post, the co-opting of Jacobs’ persona coupled with the wholesale dismissal of her ideas is as common to planning practice as flour is to bakeries, but rarely have I seen Jacobs’ name invoked in so condescending and dismissive a way.

In fairness to the Tower Renewal movement, there is no reason they need to be bound by Jacob’s writing. Tower Renewal, after all, is mostly about renewing towers. If the concept was dubbed Empty Space Around Tower Renewal I might have the right to kibitz, but it’s not called that. Nevertheless, kibitz I will.

Tower Renewal without Space Renewal is at best a temporary fix. Without the necessary street level improvements won’t these buildings decay in much the same way they did before? To maintain the buildings long-term there needs to be a committed groundswell of people dedicated to making these areas their homes for the long term. And that means improving the street level to such an extent that it is safe, vibrant, diverse and bursting with jobs.

Most importantly, as Jacobs points out, they must “be capable of holding people by choice.”

You can upgrade those water pipes and install solar panels all you want, but those aren’t the things that make people take ownership of a place. Furthermore, those pipes you install are still going to corrode and need replacing a generation from now. With the the proper level of community development, those pipes get fixed in a jiffy. Without, they’re just going to require Tower Renewal 2.0 a generation from now.

That might be great for a Tower Renewal industry, but terrible for the neighborhoods that industry purports to want to help.

Random Thoughts

  • Tower Renewal is a big, big topic. I’ve intentionally simplified my discussion of it due to space constraints. Generally speaking, I’m positive on Tower Renewal and ERA Architects of Toronto – commonly thought of as the movement’s originators. I’m just not big on Toronto’s application of it. You can read ERA’s treatise on Tower Renewal here.
  • My favourite part (for all the wrong reasons) of Toronto’s Tower Renewal Implementation Book is where they unironically state that “the following improvements to (a) park would encourage residents to use the park more often: Seating areas, e.g. benches; picnic tables; shelters or gazebos; trees, bushes, shrubs and flowers; plant containers; playground; mural project.” Aren’t those the very things most post-war housing slums possess in droves?
  • Perhaps the most unfortunate part of the whole Tower Renewal situation in Toronto is that the vast majority of the infill development around towers is not going towards mixed use retail and commercial but instead towards residential condos. Further complicating matters is that most of these developments are occurring in areas with above average wages, thereby suggesting that the communities most in need of genuine Tower Renewal aren’t getting it. A report by the city of Toronto called Infill on Apartment Sites in Toronto documents the problem entirely. Sadly, that report doesn’t seem to actually acknowledge that this is a problem.
  • I genuinely love Vancouver and think Vancouverism is great. There are two things, however, that I don’t like about Vancouver. One: The word “Vancouverism.” Obnoxious to anyone but a Vancouverite. Two: The tendency of Vancouverites to consistently tell visitors that the reason Vancouver is so great is because “you can go skiing in the morning and golfing in the afternoon.” It’s practically the city’s motto.

One Comment Add yours

  1. You are right on target with how feeble “tower renewal” is, in terms of the kinds of things Jacobs calls for — especially small scale retail and commercial uses, which isn’t easy, as Jacobs points out. “And that means improving the street level to such an extent that it is safe, vibrant, diverse and bursting with jobs,” puts it very nicely. Not big supermarkets, as Rosanne Haggerty mentions for Brownsville, but grocers and hair salons. This sort of land use change is so radical for most planners and politicians that they would probably just roll their eyes. But it’s far less radical than those high rises were in the first place, standing all by themselves in their magnificent irrelevance to the rest of the city.

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