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Boston Society of Architects

Port Feature

In other ports
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False Creek in Vancouver

Photo: Karen Lee Photography, 2015


Iterative, and a bit impish

by Bryan Irwin AIA

Walk the waterfronts of Boston and Copenhagen and one cannot help but think that at a thanksgiving gathering of the world’s port cities, Boston would be the fusty uncle correcting everyone’s table manners while Copenhagen would be the favorite aunt out back playing touch football.

What to make of Copenhagen, that once gritty port city alongside The Sound that now tops many of the world’s “best of” lists, from best restaurants to most bicycle-friendly to world’s happiest citizens? It was not very long ago that Boston and Copenhagen were more alike than different: similar geographic constraints, city cores choked with automobiles, and waterfronts rimmed with aging and abandoned industrial infrastructure. How did these two cities end up in two very different places?

One feels barely tolerated when walking Boston’s waterfront. The entire fabric of the experience is the result of weaving together two threads of thought: accommodate the automobile and give developers the largest parcel size possible. Whatever is left, well, the pedestrians and bicyclists can have that. Open space consists of a patch of lawn here, a widening of the sidewalk there. Walking along the water’s edge is an urban version of Newport’s Cliff Walk—one is left clinging to the edge, crowded out by moneyed interests in inscrutable, scaleless buildings.

Copenhagen, on the other hand, is a much more egalitarian and gracious experience. The water’s edge is a promenade, not a sidewalk. The buildings and automobiles defer to pedestrians and bicyclists. Perhaps most important, Copenhagen has managed to create urban theater: The waterfront is a stage set for improvisation and dialogue, and the citizens are the actors.

The story of Copenhagen’s transformation from industrial relic to next-generation waterfront experience is a story of incremental experimentation, critical self-assessment, political compromise, and a healthy dose of don’t-let’s-take-ourselves-so-seriously. This improvisational attitude toward reclaiming its waterfront can be traced back to 1971, when residents spontaneously appropriated Christiania, an abandoned military base east of the urban core, as a playground for their children, creating the renegade neighborhood that became known as “Freetown Christiania.”

What set these two cities on very different trajectories is the political framework within which they operate. For Copenhagen, this framework is defined by the historical fact that for more than 100 years no single political party has ever maintained an absolute majority in Parliament, resulting in a culture and working methodology that values coalitions. Meeting each other halfway is the endgame, compromise is the way forward. Key appointments are spread across parties. This has defined a political arena of passionate debate—parry and thrust— but ultimately a consensus around a middle ground. Contrast this with Boston, a political framework that begins and ends in the neighborhood —a city where for 21 years during a critical time that defined much of our water­front, the late mayor Thomas Menino almost single-handedly guided every significant decision, from the parcel configurations of the Seaport District to the shapes of the tops of the city’s high-rises; a city that only recently has had its City Council representation accurately reflect the diversity of its population.

But it goes beyond politics. A city’s personality is the result of a rich amalgam of geography, economy, politics, and social history. For Copenhagen, precariously situated among economically and militarily stronger neighbors, this has resulted in a collective psyche that is at once feisty, scrappy, inventive, and a bit impish. It is not at all coincidental that architects such as big and 3xn are rooted in Copenhagen, nor is it accidental that the experience of walking the waterfront will take you from the Royal Library to a floating hot tub in just a few short steps.

The point is not “Why can’t we be Copenhagen?” Now that the dust from the planning and construction is settling, there is a strong consensus in Boston that the Seaport, the Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy Greenway, and the waterfront itself have not lived up to everyone’s expectations — but all is not lost. Here is what Copenhagen can teach us:

Great cities are created through continual, engaged dialogue with broadly diverse participants. For Copenhagen, planning is a continual conversation, an iterative process with broad participation. For Boston, while the current 2030 masterplan process may ultimately bring about a more inclusive planning approach, the Seaport District in particular is evidence that the recent history of creating public space is transactional, hinging on negotiation between private developers and city officials.

Be both bold and incremental. Those in the trenches during the heyday of Copenhagen’s transformation are proud to claim there was no overarching masterplan; rather, many of the big moves were the result of incremental testing and assessing. Copenhagen’s transition to a more pedestrian and bicycle-centric core is a good example. Don’t spend years developing a comprehensive transportation and parking masterplan. Instead, slowly (and covertly) remove 2 percent of the parking spaces from the core of the city each year. During the month of August, the traditional vacation time when the city core is sleepier, test new traffic patterns.

Think of the city as a laboratory. Don’t overplan. Don’t over­analyze. Toss out ideas, and see what works. When development was proposed for Paper Island, the historic center of Copenhagen’s printing industry, there was a nagging sense that the proposals were lacking in character and inspiration. The city called “time-out” and for five years allowed start-ups and artists to homestead in the old warehouse buildings while they rethought the development strategy. The result was a vibrant, funky pop-up neighborhood in the core of the waterfront district.

Don’t be so serious. Have a sense of humor. Embrace the seasons. A prominent element along Copenhagen’s waterfront are public swimming areas with playful, inventive board­walks that twist and wind, embracing the harbor and creating places for people to sunbathe and—for those who dare—leap from the highest elements into the harbor. big’s Amager Bakke Waste-to-Energy Plant, nearing completion along the harbor, contains a ski slope on its roof, a climbing wall, and a 406-foot-tall chimney that puffs water vapor in the form of smoke rings to remind citizens of their carbon footprint. (Copenhagen is on schedule to be carbon neutral by 2025.)

Copenhagen is far from perfect. It continues to grapple with issues of traffic, parking, affordable housing, and the privatization of the public realm. But walking its waterfront one realizes that debates over these issues are inclusive, lively, optimistic, and accompanied with a wink and a giggle.


Transparency, social and structural

by Amelia Thrall AIA

Vancouver’s Science World sits twinkling over False Creek, reminding residents of the excitement of a summer 30 years ago, when millions of visitors came for the spectacle of a world’s fair along a two-mile stretch of waterfront. Bruno Freschi’s landmark building served as the welcome center for Expo ’86, its abstracted snowglobe form embraced by Vancouverites justly proud of the city’s snowy mountain views. The three-quarter geodesic dome echoes the Expo ’67 US pavilion in Montreal—a collaboration between Cambridge Seven Associates and Buckminster Fuller—but with an exoskeleton communicating through symbolic use of colored lights. It remains an identity marker for the tourist-friendly city: Here we held the first international gamelan festival, here we brought Soviet and American space technology together peacefully, here we waited in line for thrill rides and stopped for lunch on the McBarge.

The theme of Expo ’86, “The World in Motion, the World in Touch,” marked three centennials: incorporation of the port city of Vancouver, completion of Canada’s first transcontinental rail line (thanks in part to thousands of laborers from China), and arrival of the city proper’s first imported goods — tea from China — though the region had been exporting logs, beaver pelts, and gold for years. A fire razed most of Vancouver’s early structures in June 1886 — a fourth centennial unheralded in 1986 but equally important to the city identity, for it established Vancouver’s pattern of defining itself and then promptly reimagining its future. As a node connecting London and Montreal to the Far East, Vancouver’s success was secure despite the destruction of its physical presence, and its popu­lation of 1,000 inhabitants shot upwards.

When it came time to auction off the 204-acre postindustrial waterfront property in 1988, city planners issued “False Creek Policy Broadsheets,” setting clear expectations for development of the former Expo site — parameters that could be instructive for the remaining development of Boston’s Seaport. They include a 25-foot-wide continuous waterfront path separating bicyclists and pedestrians, residential densities targeting 50 to 80 units per acre (with 20 percent to be affordable), phasing of community facilities with population growth, and 45 to 50 acres of public open space (with two 10-acre parks) not including plazas, lobbies, or paths. The document prioritized views, sunlight, imageability, and integration with existing neighborhoods. District thermal energy was added later, as temperate Vancouver determined to reduce its climate impact.

Selling the entire site to Concord Pacific Developments for $320 million in 1988, planners strived to extend rather than divide the city. Collaborative weekly meetings between municipal staff and development team members, followed by public presentations, led to the release of the official False Creek development plan in 1990. This delineated neighborhoods, each with a specified location for an identity-defining public-realm element within grouped towers reaching up to 300 feet. The city bore the cost of addressing contaminated soils abandoned by industry, while the developer carried all infrastructure and amenities except the main boulevard.

Planners wanted clusters of towers with individual textures, rather than cookie-cutter repeats, to support community. First Nations people had inhabited communal longhouses, each home to roughly 100 people, in the region for thousands of years. (Suffering heavy losses during epidemics brought by Europeans, the last tribal settlement was pushed away from Vancouver in the 1910s.)

In 1989, city planners set 26 protected view corridors that were not to be obstructed by the proposed 47 new towers. This was achieved with a podium-tower approach—a minimum distance of 80 feet between high-rise elements, paired with a larger floor plate for the first three stories for a continuous, comfortably-scaled streetscape—that had already been tested elsewhere in the city. Often featuring balconies to add visual interest, and skinned with light blue or green glass, this form and its relationship with the outdoors (prioritizing daylight, views, and open space) came to be known as “Vancouverism,” admired for its success in creating livable density.

It’s not surprising that this striving young city has fostered original thinkers, including Douglas Coupland, the author of Generation X, a novel shaping a cohesive identity for North Americans born between 1960 and 1980. Coupland, an artist in a Vancouver family of athletes and riflemen, spent long stretches living abroad, honing his artist-as-anthropologist, identity-seeking compulsion. In 1992, as cranes started popping up around the former expo site, he reestablished a Vancouver residence.

Coupland’s frequent travel forced him to absorb the city’s rapid changes afresh with each homecoming. In his 2002 Vancouver guide City of Glass, he writes with a mixed tone about local acceptance of the “see-throughs.” Even with a layer of cynicism, though, Coupland sensed that these towers symbol­ized “a New World breeziness and a gentle desire for social transparency—a rejection of class structures and hierarchy.”

In the 16 years since Coupland’s optimistic expression in City of Glass, residential unit values have escalated significantly. Although the development’s unit count increased by 2,000 to a total of 11,500, the number of affordable units did not. The city allowed the affordable percentage to drop down to 11 percent but maintained the 20 percent affordable require­ment for subsequent developments.

As of 2016, 6 percent of downtown Vancouver housing units were unoccupied; it is reasonable to guess that at least 10 percent of False Creek North apartments are owned by investors, since most established neighborhoods have low vacancy rates. In response, Vancouver adopted an Empty Homes Tax in November 2016, taxing owners of unoccupied units 1 percent of the assessed value.

False Creek residents continue to shape their new identity. Borrowing a move from nearby Science World, they protested the delayed start of a long-promised park by displaying lit green bulbs at balconies and windows. And as part of a citywide reconciliation effort, Vancouver’s staff and park designers are discussing park planning with aboriginal representatives. As Coupland observes in a recent collection of essays, “That’s what makes Vancouver Vancouver—every ten years it becomes a totally different city.”