Last week I had an incredible opportunity to travel to Vancouver to spend 48 hours on the Downtown Denver Partnership’s (DDP) 3rd annual Urban Exploration trip. I had the chance to get to know an entertaining and energetic group of business and community leaders including David Kenney of the The Kenney Group who received the 1st annual Fellowship of the Explorers Award because of his creativity, tenacity, curiosity and longevity, as well as the fact that he hobbled through the entire city with a broken ankle and a smile on his face. As a group, we shared a great deal of caffeine, a few Band-Aids from the long walks and a greater appreciation for the staff of the DDP who managed to herd an extraordinary number of cats around an international city in the midst of a few rain showers.
We were prepared to get a behind-the-scenes look at a number of Downtown Vancouver projects that coincided with a few of the priorities of the Downtown Area Plan and the 2027 committee. “Downtown residential” is the mantra for urban vitality in the new century and we were there to see the city that has often been described as a living example of a successful and vibrant residential downtown. Yes, they had a boost from EXPO ’86 and the 2010 Winter Olympics, but the city did not disappoint.
As a newbie, I walked away understanding more about this beautiful downtown than I do the city I grew up in for the first 18 years of my life. I was struck by Vancouver’s confidence in setting – and maintaining – its priorities. “Living First” has been the strategy for growth in this city since the 80’s. It seems to have a formula that works. A few things to note…
1.) Pedestrians are first. Cyclists are second. Cars? A distant 5th.Vancouver limits the amount of commuters into downtown. There is no freeway system into downtown (which was a surprise) and therefore it forces multiple modes of transportation throughout the city that are all linked together.
2.) The city creates complete neighborhood units. Yes, they have schools, daycares, grocery stores and parks smack in the middle of the places people work and sleep. I considered moving to Downtown Denver several times and the only major reason that I decided against it was because of the lack of families. This is a wonderful goal for our city to continue to keep in mind as it grows.
3.) It creates a rich housing mix of residential and commercial. City planners and developers have also focused on “third places” where people gather after home and work to create a neighborhood. Cafes, art districts, street performers, all make up the mix of living vibrantly.
4.) The use of public space is unsurpassed. The city puts resources into their sidewalks, street art and unique lighting and signage. The sidewalks serve as living rooms. The open space is developed as carefully as the towers and townhomes and the water’s edge is always dedicated to the public.
There are nearly 87,000 residents that live in Downtown Vancouver (compared to Denver’s 10,000) and 40% of those residents walk to work every day. It is no wonder that its carbon footprint is one of the smallest in North America. More than 25% of its residential spaces are designated for families. They have schools, day cares, urban markets, dog parks, bicycle paths and its own gum removal machine (for $5,000 you can have one for your house too!). One of our presenters said, “If you offer residents clean, green, safe and schools, you can give them everything they get by going to the suburbs. They just don’t have to commute.
We left the city impressed by its unique urban design, sustainability efforts and generous hospitality. We will bring back ideas that will be turned into action as we continue to build an even more vibrant Downtown Denver. The best part? We live, work and enjoy a downtown that rivals Vancouver. Our strengths are different, as are our challenges. However, both downtowns share a passion of continuous improvement where, as Tami Door said as we departed, “our people come first.”