Larry Beasley’s Simple Plan

December 1, 2008

The call to prayer startles everyone as it comes over the loudspeakers. For a full long minute, as the recorded keening fills the hall, we sit looking meditatively through the room's glass walls out to the fading dusk. Finally, someone locates the Off switch. As silence returns, we come back to the moment-in the United Arab Emirates Embassy in Washington, D.C., where the presenter picks up his explanation of the very new-century Arab city that will materialize in Abu Dhabi over the next two decades.

We've already seen the animated video of men and women in robes and traditional headdresses striding along shaded sidewalks, of strollers pushed through parks and along canals, of trams and trains and water taxis gliding silently through compact urban neighbourhoods that look both modern and traditionally Arab. Now, Michael White explains, we must understand the overarching goals for the new Abu Dhabi: to be green, to celebrate diversity, to respect the local culture and environment.

And with that, in this doubly foreign setting and among an international audience from the U.S., Canada, Australia, South Africa, the Emirates, and Europe here for the annual Capitals Alliance conference, I feel a tingle of familiarity.

White, a senior planner in Abu Dhabi, talks about community-input meetings and transit-oriented neighbourhoods and a central business district surrounded by dense residential districts. The map on the screen behind the podium is colour-coded to show parks and schools and mixed-use main streets. The language, the graphics, the choice of colours, and even the title-Abu Dhabi 2030-make me feel like I've been transported back to Committee Room 1 at Vancouver City Hall. Substitute Southeast False Creek or East Fraserlands for Abu Dhabi and I could be listening to yet another meticulous presentation in front of Vancouver's urban-design panel, albeit one on a vastly more ambitious scale. The déjà vu is not surprising. Until 18 months ago, White was Vancouver's second in command for EcoDensity; now, he finds himself one of the displaced "Vancouver planning mafia."

The capo, Larry Beasley, watches approvingly from the audience. Vancouver's former co-director of planning, Beasley has become emblematic of Vancouver's new image as the 21st century's utopian city, an image that is now one of our prime exports. In Dallas, for example, a prominent activist has gone all out to bring a Vancouver touch to its massive riverfront redevelopment. Gail Thomas, president of the Trinity Trust, brought Beasley down to Texas to give a public talk last October. She helped raise money to send a group of city managers and developers here in June. Over the summer, she raised more money to send the heads of all relevant city departments. "If we try to implement this Vancouver model," says Thomas, whose work restoring historic areas has earned her the sobriquet of public entrepreneur, "everyone will need to understand how it works-the engineers, not just the planners." And, she adds, even that may not be enough.

"We're not naïve enough to think we can do all this. We don't have the waterfront. We don't have the cruise ships. We don't have the Asian population." And, the city may not even get the needed public support.

Thomas's observations underline the real complexity of re-creating Vancouver. Smart people get that it's more than just buildings that has made this city. It's even more than just good urban design. Vancouver got dealt the perfect hand: a group of bright, idealistic planners led by an innovative import from Toronto, Beasley's predecessor, Ray Spaxman; a council in the 1970s that encouraged a new kind of city planning; an influx of cash from Asian investors, which created a hothouse for development; acceptance from developers that they had to chip in for schools, day cares, and parks; and approving consensus from the public.

Few cities have all those cards. Beasley says that for every question he gets about how to design cities, he gets another about how to convince parties to buy in.

We in Vancouver often have a hard time comprehending that others see our city as an urban paradise. What about the vertiginous real-estate prices? Or the Downtown Eastside, our outdoor mental asylum that it seems no one can do anything about? The kaleidoscope of constant history-erasing change? The property crime? The parochial obsession with being world-class?

Told that it's our city fabric and urban design that people especially love, we roll our eyes. It's not so great. All those bland new buildings downtown. It looks like Blade Runner. It feels like a vertical suburb. And the rest of the city, well, it's no Paris (or Barcelona, or Berlin, or London). But like it or not, we are Paris to a far-flung collection of fans. More precisely, Paris 2.0, a template for developing or redeveloping cities that are looking for a way to build a contemporary version of the City of Light. Our transformation in only 20 years into a mini-Manhattan of almost 100,000 people downtown, our capacity to attract families and suburbanites, the sense of liveliness in our parks and on our streets and seawall paths, even our success in convincing grocers to move into the central city-all of that in a young western city at the edge of sprawl-loving North America produces awestruck and frequently wistful admiration.

The love affair with our city is most visible in places that have tried to paint-by-numbers a replica Vancouver. There's the Beijing suburb called Vancouver Forest that's filled with Dunbar-style houses made of wood and stone. Dubai has faithfully copied the seawall and towers of north False Creek on its waterfront, down to the last handrail. To San Diego and Orange County, Vancouver builder Nat Bosa has exported what's seen as the city's signature building: the skinny tower on a podium of townhouses. In Portland, the city and developers have copied wholesale the concept of a downtown condo district (without hiring Vancouver builders).

Those are only the most obvious manifestations of the world's crush on Vancouver. They are also frequently the kinds of development that most exasperate the Vancouverists-that elite group of architects, planners, and urbanists who make a living in whole or in part from their association with the Vancouver model. Of Dubai, Beasley sniffs: "That is just a copy of the buildings. That has nothing to do with what Vancouver is about. When we saw it, we started to laugh and cry at the same time." Bing Thom sighs over one of the new condo neighbourhoods in Portland, where the local developer asked him why they aren't as successful as Vancouver's. "He didn't really do the Vancouver model," says Thom. "He just put in the condos, but not everything else."

But for every Vancouver fan who's content to simply copy the exterior, there are many more who admire the "everything else"-that intangible quality that is less about buildings and more about how buildings, streets, places, parks, and people are brought together.

In Washington, at the marble-pillared National Building Museum, Larry Beasley gives the closing address for the Capitals Alliance conference. The event attracts a small but dedicated group of professional city lovers who gaze attentively at his slide show of downtown Vancouver. In high motivational-planning-sermon mode he urges them to be brave in their own cities.

"Knowing is not doing. Those of us who are planners and managers of cities now have to shift our emphasis from polemics to implementation," says Beasley, wearing his usual impeccable suit, with an emerald-green tie to complement the conference's theme of sustainability.

After the speech, people line up to have a word with him. Stacie Turner, a young realtor who is the mayor's appointee to Washington's National Capital Planning Commission, wants to talk about an immediate application of Vancouver ideas to a sector of Washington that's being redeveloped. Jeff Soule, the international director of the American Planning Association, points out that it's not just downtown Vancouver that people admire, though it gets the lion's share of attention. "We consider the Greater Vancouver region a laboratory for interesting stuff," says Soule. "It seems to us Vancouver's always trying things. Certainly Vancouver is very much on any planner's radar screen."

Also in the audience is Roy Knight, an architecture professor and former dean of architecture in Tennessee and Florida, who came to hear even more about Beasley and Vancouver than he already knows. "To me, it's the model city in North America," says Knight, the picture of a southern academic, with his cream-coloured suit and white hair, as he waits to speak to his urban-planning hero in person for the first time. Knight has been coming to Vancouver every year since 1971, and his students get exposed regularly to his ever-expanding library of Vancouver slides and videos. "There are so many lessons to be learned about how high-intensity can be highly livable. It's dense, but it's adjacent to the waterfront and Stanley Park and there's always breathing room, even around the individual buildings. This mix is extremely rich."
People arrive constantly to study the Vancouver model on the ground. In October alone, groups from Dallas, Denver, and Portland were in town, studying how the city is put together. "You could make a living just showing tour groups around," says development consultant Michael Geller, only half joking. Geller has his own share of Vancouverist fame, having developed Simon Fraser University's UniverCity on Burnaby Mountain.

Once they've seen the reality, fans hire Vancouverists outright. Beasley's former co-planning director, Ann McAfee, consults in Australia, New Zealand, Ukraine, and the Philippines. What people Down Under are fascinated by, says McAfee, is our success in decreasing car traffic while increasing population.

Thom, known here as an architect, has been asked to do planning work everywhere from Tulsa, Oklahoma, to Dalian New Town, China. James Cheng, also regarded here primarily as an architect, is working in Beijing, Shenzen, Calgary, and Edmonton on large mixed-use developments to which clients look for him to bring a Vancouver touch.

"What they like is our urbanism and mixed use," says Cheng. "We take it for granted, but the more I travel around, the more I understand what has made Vancouver unique. It's not so much a style we have here. It's an attitude. Other cities go for grand settings. In Vancouver, it's people-centric."

But the leader of the Vancouverist pack is Beasley, now that he has liberated himself from city employment to spread the Vancouver gospel. Beasley is the first to acknowledge that he did not invent the Vancouver of today. The groundwork was laid by people before him (especially his predecessor, Spaxman, to whom he refers frequently), made possible by councils that demanded developers give something back to the city, and carried out by dozens of other planners around him.

Beasley became the crown prince of the new Vancouver because he was the one who oversaw the transformation of what had largely been a suggestion-let's create more downtown neighbourhoods like the West End-into reality during the years when the city's megaprojects were developed and its other downtown areas saw a flood of condo-building. He orchestrated it all with a meticulous attention to what he calls "experiential planning": designing streets, buildings, public spaces, and neighbourhoods with an almost obsessive focus on what they would feel like to a typical citizen experiencing them block by block.

He was also a genius at telling the Vancouver story, with slides and slogans and a spiritual-sounding passion for describing the impact of a beautiful crescent of townhouses or a safe-feeling park on quality of life. That compelling salesmanship, the unique result of his American upbringing (he was born in Georgia 60 years ago) overlaid with 37 years of Canadian modesty, sometimes attracted criticism inside City Hall. Beasley was warned occasionally that, as a bureaucrat, he was too public, too visible. But those days, of course, are behind him; today he's free to go wherever he wants and preach his core message, which is that cities have to take back control from developers if they want to create beautiful spaces.

"You have to move away from just being a policeman," he tells everyone he meets. "The city must build the city. The city must be an agent." That means demanding that developers give back in the form of parks, cultural spaces, walkways, and more. Sometimes, he says, all people want to hear about is how Vancouver convinced councillors to be brave and got developers to contribute to amenities.

That wasn't a problem for the people who came looking for him from Abu Dhabi. They were already prepared to be bold, and they had far more wherewithal than most cities to demand the best.

At the end of the night in Washington, the head of Abu Dhabi's urban-planning council, Falah Al Ahbabi, sits down at a cleared-off banquet table to give me the history of his country's romance with Vancouver. It started shortly after the sheikdom opened up its land in 2006 to private development and found itself instantly overwhelmed.

"Before we had this plan, we had so many developments happening around the city without any vision. It was a free-for-all market," says the articulate, 32-year-old Al Ahbabi, who went to university in Arizona for management studies. "We decided we wanted to have a plan and that we would learn from others. So we contacted the best players."
In June 2006, Al Ahbabi came to Vancouver. He went to cafés, strolled the streets, and found he could walk to meetings with Beasley and others. It was a revelation. "Everything was in close proximity, which made it easy to live. I never walked like that in other cities."

Shortly afterward, Beasley was appointed special adviser to Sheik Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, the British-educated prince who has emphasized that he wants to create an environmentally sustainable city. Since Beasley started, Abu Dhabi has been infiltrated by his disciples. At least eight Vancouverists are working for either the planning council or developers, and Beasley has imported planner Joe Hruda of CIVITAS Urban Design, architect Peter Busby, and sustainability consultant Mark Holland to help design master concepts. Ironically, everyone working there prefaces every conversation with a reminder that they are not in Abu Dhabi to replicate Vancouver. That sort of cloning, they say, is not what Vancouverism is about.

o what is it about? How do you take the big idea of Vancouver and apply it in all sorts of different geographic and political and cultural settings? "I show them an underlying frame of principles," says Beasley. "One of those is that the form has got to suit the people, the environment, the circumstances, the tradition."

And so he and his team have determined the flat skyline of Abu Dhabi should be preserved. As should the dusty colours typical of Arab architecture and the grand rows of trees along major streets, even though they suck up so much water. Greenways don't work, though; they just become dumping grounds. Nor do large parks-not part of the culture. Buildings need to be lower in the residential areas, because that's what people are comfortable with. Mosques must be at the centre of neighbourhoods.

"They have some design elements right now, but they haven't put them together in an urban place," says Beasley. "The city needs to feel organic. That's what we help with."

And so it goes, as Beasley describes this city he's overseeing, detail after detail, working out what combination of streets, trees, heights, widths, landscaping, plazas, and gathering places will make people feel good, but not as though they're in a foreign place.

Which, when you think of it, is how people from all over the world feel about Vancouver.

Get the Newsletter

Own your city with Vancouver’s thrice-weekly scoop on the latest restaurant news, must-shop hotspots and can’t miss events. Rest assured your email is safe with us.