A render of the Vancouver Innovation Center, in East Vancouver.

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Rethinking Community at a Historic Milestone

February 07, 2022 by Esther Liu

It would be an understatement to say that the ongoing global pandemic—now approaching its third year—has created sweeping changes to many of our societal “norms.” We have seen an uncanny acceleration in technological adoption, workplace transformation and hospitality considerations. Couple this with the wave of growth in Vancouver, and it becomes clear that we have reached a historic milestone of change. This makes the following question become all the more urgent: what shape do we want our city to take?

In Clark County, we hold the region’s most extensive selection of land available for development. Inherently a nonrenewable resource, land is one of our most valuable assets and should be viewed as a treasured canvas. As a community, we have an obligation to paint a beautiful and lasting vision of our collective future. We truly have only one opportunity in a lifetime to get it right. 

When we contemplate our future and the land around us, the following three trends are worth considering. If we harness and implement these concepts, we can create a connected, environmentally conscious and community-oriented city. While none of them are brand new, out-of-the-box ideas, it has taken a period of forced change during the pandemic to push many in the design and planning world to envision fully implementing them.

Adaptive reuse

Demolishing and rebuilding new structures every generation is, at times, an unnecessary burden on the environment and a waste of resources. A greener solution is adaptive reuse, or repairing and upgrading an existing building that is currently in disrepair.

In a city like Vancouver, we have a range of historic buildings that could be repurposed to eliminate dead spaces within the city’s grid and activate neighborhood pockets. Adaptive reuse is making an investment in our own neighborhoods, which are doing a fantastic job developing their own identities. When the community sees the redemption of an old space, people can feel a palpable momentum. Adaptive reuse can also directly enhance and support targeted growth in urban and commercial cores. Preserving iconic buildings and neighborhoods has proven to promote revitalized interest and new activity that spans from commercial to retail business enterprises, associated amenities and housing. 

Open spaces of varying sizes

Readjusting the way we live and work during the pandemic has proven that people can do just about everything from their homes. In response, we are compelled to design cities that invite people to get outside. This means a push toward creating open spaces of varying sizes within urban settings. Think of meandering pathways with green spaces and corridors punctuated by living walls. Think of pocket parks. Think of trails and viewpoints. As architects, we already know the mental health benefits of biophilic design, which is designing with a connection to nature. By harnessing and integrating nature into the places we shop, work and mingle, the city itself mimics the places we seek out to recharge.  

For any city, access to open spaces in and around the built environment enhances overall community health, livability and connectivity. These essential pockets provide relevant connections between distinct buildings, districts and zones. They can also increase property values, enhance pedestrian and bicycle access, preserve and (sometimes) add urban wildlife habitat and improve surface and groundwater quality. 

Rethinking the work-life split

The continued use and refinement of remote-working technology has given today’s workforce permission to live anywhere they choose rather than the pre-pandemic model of being bound to live near where we work. Currently, we are experiencing a post-COVID trend of people moving to smaller cities where workers find a stronger sense of community connection and lower housing prices adding up to a generally higher quality of life.

One idea that supports many of the current trends and predictions is the concept of a 15-minute neighborhood, which some call the 20-minute city. In short, this means that all people living in an urban area have access to all their residential and basic needs within a 15-minute walk or bike ride. This includes everything from housing to fresh food at a local grocery store to healthcare and community workspaces.

By imagining a walkable, bikeable city offering a wide range of experiences and services that meet a diverse set of needs, the cityscape becomes a vibrant hub where safely getting from A to B is all a part of a daily adventure. Data shows that integrated and intentionally connected communities also provide measurable regional economic benefits. This includes higher aggregate income and associated employment, more competitive and vibrant retail commerce as well as economic agglomeration. In large part, this is thanks to density, increased property values, and overall savings of public dollars supporting capital, maintenance and replacement costs for critical infrastructure.

Key to the idea of a hyperconnected community is the availability of housing that accommodates a range of budgets, family configurations, needs, and lifestyles in addition to creating housing options that eliminate inequitable barriers. 

The acceleration of this trend makes Vancouver and its surrounding communities in Southwest Washington ideal case studies for how this trend will play out.

Design matters. What and how we build right now will determine the shape of our lived experience in Vancouver for decades to come. When we place people at the center of all we do and we imagine a place where community, open space and our history are lifted up and valued, we will ensure a generative and viable future for us all.

*This article was originally published in the 2022 Clark County Economic Forecast. Download it here.


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