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The Great Vancouver vs. Seattle Debate

Is the civic grass greener on the other side of the border? Two urban experts each make the case for the others' home town.
Seattle, seen from the Pike Place Market.

Seattle, seen from the Pike Place Market. Sue Frause

Arbutus Walk, an eco-density project in Vancouver, B.C.

Arbutus Walk, an eco-density project in Vancouver, B.C. Hughes Condon Marler

Two of the region's civic heavyweights squared off at the Seattle Public Library on June 18 to settle the issue about which of Cascadia's two biggest cities has the best built environment, Seattle or Vancouver, BC. It was a rematch of a debate conducted earlier in the week in Vancouver, sponsored by VIA Architecture, which has offices in both cities.

Making the pro-Vancouver case was Seattle's Peter Steinbrueck; arguing for Seattle, Vancouver's Gordon Price. Both are devoted sustainability advocates, both have spent years on their respective city councils. Steinbrueck is an architect who has taught at the University of Washington; Price heads up Simon Fraser University's City Program and writes and lectures about urban planning. The shorthand introduction that Seattleites could relate to: "Gordon Price is the Peter Steinbrueck of Vancouver," said moderator C.R. Douglas. Let's just say the debate was between two apples arguing about which town had better oranges.

The debates focused on the positives of each city, and tended to prove the adage that the grass is always greener on the other side of your neighbor's fence. Instead of rehashing (you can find one or both debates on Twitter feeds, a webcast and the Seattle Channel), I thought I would digest it by providing a list of the "pros" for each city that came up, with Steinbrueck mostly speaking for the Vancouver side of the equation and Price for the Seattle side. And then a couple of summary "con" comments on major downsides.

The gist for architects, planners, policy-makers, and citizens is that, as Robert Burns said, seeing ourselves as other see us is a gift that helps us question cherished assumptions.

Seattle urbanophiles, for example, love to tout Vancouver's skinny towers as the end-all of downtown living and something to emulate. Price, on the other hand, found much to envy in Seattle's risk-taking architecture and individualistic neighborhoods, and much mediocrity in Vancouver's look-alike high-rises.

On the other hand, Price touted the wonders of Seattle's hills and having a city that lives in three dimensions. But, as Steinbrueck points out, the flatter Vancouver core is better for walking and biking. It's an easier city to get around in. And what aging baby boomer wants to hike Seattle's steep slopes as they glide into the twilight years?

A couple of other non-conventional-wisdom opinions were offered. Price praised Bellevue (and was seconded by Steinbrueck), saying he thought it was doing a better job than Vancouver reshaping itself as a true urban center. Hearing praise for Bellevue anywhere in Seattle is usually a conversation-stopper. When was the last time you heard, say, Greg Nickels praise Bellevue as a model for Seattle?

Price praised Seattle as a "great American city," which made folks in the audience laugh, apparently thinking the word "American" was a qualifier, as "great for an American city." But Price, wearing an American flag tie, quickly corrected the impression. Vancouver, he said, has not nearly had the impact on Canada that Seattle has had on America, or Canada for that matter. Boeing, Microsoft, Amazon, Starbucks, Costco: these are Seattle originals that have been widely influential in a way Vancouver is not and never has been.

On the other hand, Steinbrueck rates Vancouver much higher on the livability scale, in part because the city's more consistent and integrated planning has resulted in a denser, more people-oriented city that is more family friendly than Seattle and has a larger slice of its middle class living in the core. In short, for all of Seattle's protectiveness on livability, Vancouver is doing a better job.

At any rate, what follows is a short list of good things about each city, remembering that the discussion is mainly about the built environments.

Vancouver, BC is great because it has:

Stanley Park

Real townhouses

No auto court six-packs

31 miles of mass transit

Consistent, visionary planning

More downtown residents

Skinny Towers that don't block views


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Comments:

Posted Mon, Jun 22, 6:38 a.m. Inappropriate

Personally I think that Vancouver has a hideous skyline, if the esthetics of skylines count for anything. Seattle's is much more interesting architecturally. Vancouver has a more dramatic physical setting, yes, but its skyline is composed of the same white and glass boxes again and again and again.

Vancouver also has more sidewalks than Seattle. Seattle hasn't just given up on families in the urban core, Mr. Steinbrueck. In north and south Seattle families can't safely walk to schools or parks because there aren't any sidewalks. Vancouver doesn't have that problem at all.

smacgry

Posted Mon, Jun 22, 9:08 a.m. Inappropriate

Boring!
Resting on one's accomplishments is a backwards way to approach a city's quality of life. One must start at the bottom, so to speak, and judge one's community on problems unsolved And that would focus on the compassion and democratic process of getting to equal and free. Such things as social services, human rights, quality eductation, crime rate and catagories, amount of recreationsal space and facilities, civil liberties, affordable housing, jobs, deteriorating infastructure, strengthening and preserving neighborhoods, and making the city for ALL not just the wealthy and tourists. I could go on.

Get off the aesthetics as a way of judging and comparing cities. How could we put that in a higher prioriety with there being so much to do that expresses our humanity, compassion and mutual goals or lack thereof?

Start over and reexamine your priorties.

I'm glad I didn't attend!

Art

Posted Mon, Jun 22, 12:07 p.m. Inappropriate

The event was specifically about the physical urban form, and not about human services or culture.

The built form is massively important to every aspect of environmental protection, from using less land to using less energy. It's a big factor in the economic and funcational viability of a city. Along with transit, which was also discussed, I'd argue that the built form is about as important to the poor and underrepresented as social services. For example, walkability, density, and transit allow poor people to function, while sprawl forces them to spend their money on cars or spend too many hours on buses.

I was surprised that Steinbrueck was severely mistaken on Vancouver's inclusionary zoning practices (Price shot down his statements), when Steinbrueck has long used Vancouver as an example Seattle should follow. Kind of a "you've got to be kidding" moment.

mhays

Posted Mon, Jun 22, 7:19 p.m. Inappropriate

Vancouver has some other positives: it has no limited access highway; its electric trolleybus network has good service frequency; and, the harborside trail is grand. Seattle neighborhood markets are a nice addition. On the eastside, Kirkland deserves more praise than Bellevue: it has more population density; it treats pedestrians well; and, it embraces the lakefront.

eddiew

Posted Mon, Jun 22, 7:54 p.m. Inappropriate

Matt, with all due respect, Vancouver DOES apply consistently a stringent form of inclusionary zoning-- they just don't call it that. That's why over 22,000 units of family friendly affordable housing has been built in the urban core over the last decade. It didn't happen by accident! In virtually every major development project, affordable/family friendly housing is obligatory. It's part of the "discretionary" zoning process of negotiation with developers that the Vancouver planners use to "extract" public benefits in exchage for development rights.

Posted Mon, Jun 22, 8:32 p.m. Inappropriate

Price was pretty clear that Steinbrueck was mistaken. I'm apparently getting some of the specifics wrong.

If you're talking about the Downtown Peninsula, where I vaguely recall something like 22,000 units (or 30,000?) is the TOTAL increase in the last decade (an incredible number), it sounds implausible that 22,000 were built that are both family-sized and affordable in that period, by any typical meaning of those words. That would be easier to believe if it was the total family population of the DTP, or the total number of two-bedroom units that exist in the DTP. At most, I could believe "affordable" plus "two bedroom" combined built in that period.

Maybe semantics are an issue. Apparently the City requires a lot of two-bedroom housing, which many would consider family-sized and others (perhaps Price?) might not.

Whatever Steinbrueck got wrong, Price was clear that it was only true for a couple megadevelopments. Maybe this was "mandate" vs. "menu options". The Expo-site development is one Price included, and in fact they seem to make families a focus. I don't know the other he was referring to.

Price was also clear that family-friendly didn't necessarily mean affordable. In fact he pointed out that larger units are often too expensive for families.

Further, he pointed out that families tend to leave when they hit certain income levels.

Whatever Vancouver is doing is working on some level. It's just disturbing that a councilmember was making something a pet issue without really understanding the example he was quoting.

mhays

Posted Mon, Jun 22, 10:21 p.m. Inappropriate

A world-class backwater!

racc

Posted Tue, Jun 23, 9:35 a.m. Inappropriate

eddiew, I have to disagree. The trolley system in Vancouver is antiquated and often breaks down. When I lived in Vancouver, it was much easier for me to take my bicycle as I could reach downtown much quicker than taking the trolleys. Which leads me to the positives of getting around Vancouver -cycling in Vancouver is very good. And the Skytrains and Seabus are also excellent ways to get to and from the city.

smacgry, I have to agree with you. Seattle's skyline is definitely more interesting architecturally.

I cannot help feel, however, that while Steinbrueck and Price are debating which city is better - Seattle or Vancouver - the real champion quietly goes about its business in Oregon.

Posted Tue, Jun 23, 6:21 p.m. Inappropriate

Smacgry----

Actually, there are areas of Vancouver without sidewalks, too, and pedestrians have to walk on people's lawns. The area of Arbutus Ridge around 24th and MacDonald is an example. (I used to live in this part of Vancouver.)

Moreover, the fact that there are almost no freeways in the city means major street arterials--such as Granville, Oak, Cambie, Broadway, Arbutus, Burrard, etc. (imagine a Denny Street every four blocks)--are far more congested with noisy traffic and threatening for pedestrians, for whom it takes far more time merely to cross the street, which can be an obstacle course. Thus, it ends up feeling as if every major arterial in Vancouver is a freeway. In Seattle, on the other hand, through-traffic can be funnelled onto one great freeway, preventing noisy traffic from infiltrating surrounding pedestrian-oriented residential neighbourhoods.

I guess it's a trade-off.

BArkell

Posted Tue, Jun 23, 10:07 p.m. Inappropriate

Dear BArkell,

Sorry, but 24th and MacDonald is not Arbutus Ridge, where I live. Some streets in my
area don't have sidewalks ON BOTH SIDES, but those streets aren't arterials and so
pedestrians aren't endangered. Instead of walking on someone's lawn, just walk across
the street and use the sidewalk. Of course, nobody is going to try to cross Granville, Oak
etc. except at a pedestrian controlled stoplight, but those are frequent enough to make
the situation bearable for pedestrians. In fact, Isometimes find them irritating because the
pedestrian crossings can seriously slow down the traffic. Personally, I much prefer not
having freeways.

JBC

JBC

Posted Tue, Jun 23, 10:45 p.m. Inappropriate

Great idea for a debate. Thanks for the summary, Knute.

I hope Steinbrueck runs for mayor, if not in this election than the next. Seattle would benefit from an open, intelligent, charismatic mayor.

Sean

Posted Wed, Jun 24, 12:02 a.m. Inappropriate

I know we are mostly talking built environment here, but I find Seattle's natural environment more pleasing. The BC Lower Mainland has always felt confined to me, in many ways. The mountains are closer but seem difficult to get to or otherwise unattractive, with ugly (to me,) ski areas and closed watersheds lessening their appeal. Too many people are forced into the few accessible places. Spectacular, yes, but hemmed in between those hard to get to mountains to the north and the border to the south.

Seattle's mountains are farther away from the city but seem much more numerous and accessible. Just the fact that they are farther away means that more of them are visible. The Puget Sound basin just somehow feels far more spacious than the Lower Mainland, with the Cascades and Olympics close enough to be scenic but set back far enough to make for a much roomier feel.

Of course British Columbia, bigger than Washington, Oregon and California combined, has vastly more wild country than anywhere "down here." But other than a few overcrowded spots, getting to it from Vancouver is a real undertaking, which is why many of the license plates at North Cascades trailheads are from B.C. And much of southeastern British Columbia is actually reached more easily from Seattle than from Vancouver.

Posted Wed, Jun 24, 11:15 a.m. Inappropriate

Snoqualman,

Having lived in Seattle until my twenties, I can't agree with you. The north shore mountains are
glorified foothills to be sure, but they provide access to some great hiking unlike that near any
other city I can think of. And are you forgetting the Squamish area 40 km to the north or Golden
Ears to the east now being made much more accessible by the new bridge? Of course the border is
a psychological border, but Vancouver provides good access to the Baker area too. Get a Nexus pass.

JBC

Posted Wed, Jun 24, 11:16 a.m. Inappropriate

I meant "psychological barrier". Sorry.

JBC

Posted Wed, Jun 24, 2:50 p.m. Inappropriate

Great discussion about the "great debate." I will be following up with some additional details about the views of Gordon Price and Peter Steinbrueck on the Crosscut blog soon. But I just got the schedule from the Seattle Channel on the airing of the debate on TV (see below). It will be available on their website on the morning of July 3rd (Seattlechannel.org).

Vancouver/Seattle debate broadcast (Seattle Cable Channel 21):

Thursday, July 02, 2009 5:00 p.m.
Saturday, July 04, 2009 2:00 p.m.
Sunday, July 05, 2009 11:00 a.m.
Monday, July 06, 2009 3:00 a.m.
Tuesday, July 07, 2009 10:30 p.m.

Posted Wed, Jun 24, 6:59 p.m. Inappropriate

Thanks, JBC, I guess my impressions about the inaccessibility of the North Shore mountains are out of date. I'm glad to hear there are now more ways to get to them 'cuz there sure weren't 15 or 20 years ago. I'm not sure that anything could ever tempt me to drive that awful "Sea to Ski" highway, though.

I still think it feels more spacious "down here," though, in a number of ways. A good friend of mine from Vancouver who had never spent much time in Seattle stayed at my house in North Seattle house a while back. He was struck by how my modest 1940's bungalow had such a large lot, with so much greenery. Walking around the neighborhood (Victory Heights) prompted further similar comments, and surprise at the spaciousness of the place compared to the unpretentiousness of the houses. His opinion was that only places selling for well into the seven figures would ever have so much space around them in Vancouver.

I do realize that large lot sizes are problematic in multitudinous ways, and there are no sidewalks, but my selfish side does love waking up to birdsong, and living where the neighbors are far away enough to be nearly invisible, at least when the leaves are out...luxuries, yes, and ones which someone of my modest means could never afford in Vancouver.

Posted Wed, Jun 24, 11:44 p.m. Inappropriate

More public waterfront access — yes, I do wish we had more of that in Seattle. There are plenty of street ends that are platted into our lakes, bays, and the Sound, but many of them aren't really accessible, and some of them are being used by the neighboring landowners.

Posted Sat, Jun 27, 5:19 p.m. Inappropriate

If only Seattle had more Gelato bars, and Vancouver more coffee shops.

Posted Mon, Jun 29, 9:12 a.m. Inappropriate

Vancouver needs more left turn lanes. Seattle, on the other hand, turns nothing but left.

dbreneman

Posted Sat, Jul 10, 2:49 p.m. Inappropriate

Well, after a trip last week to both cities, Vancouver wins hands down! It is without a doubt, one of the cleanest urban areas you will ever spend time in.

I have not seen another city with so much citizen pride in North America. Their citizen embassadors are the icing on the cake too!

itche2

Posted Sat, Aug 4, 5:53 p.m. Inappropriate

i am no fan of any western country, but seattle has some advantages. it has better entertainment, food, architecture, sanitation, prices, and infrastructure. the people are also much friendlier in seattle. the streets of vancouver are just straight up dirty, and sometimes i wonder if anyone is even employed to clean the streets. it is easier to drive in seattle. vancouver has better public transport, but if you compared driving 5 minutes to buy something in seattle, vs taking the bus half an hour to buy something in vancouver, then seattle wins. the architecture of canada is just ugly. vancouver, and canada in general is much more expensive. unless you strictly eat Asian food, then seattle, and the usa in general, has better food. vancouver is also paranoid. alot of them are too overcautious about crime, even scared to open their door. canada is also ridiculously expensive. canadians have lower salaries, and higher expenses. now, i will talk about the problems with america. it's too much of a police state, where people are not really free. that's not to say that canada is some kind of liberation paradise either. america is just worse. canada has better healthcare. some may argue that america has better healthcare, but those are usually rich people making those claims, therefore does not apply to the majority of the people. yes, you wait 6 months for an mri in canada, but if you work at mcdonalds, you can wait 6yrs and still not get an mri in america. while canadians are not friendly, they are not quite as racist, or "politically incorrect" as many americans are. i'm not saying canadians arent racist, because they are (as most western countries are), but just not as bad as america. and the racism in america (seattle included), plus the fascism, makes america a place that i dont want to be in, despite the tasty food (which will kill you by the way), friendly people, beautiful environment, and convenient freeways. both countries are plagued with corporations. americans seem to be more accepting of corporate dictatorship. like i said, i am no fan of western countries, thats why i opt out of the both of them. the real good countries or cities to live in are rarely ever discussed online. in fact, they are usually the targets of cybercom shills. most of the information you get online is false, or misleading. and every story is written for a reason, and it's not to inform you.

RPD247

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