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The Great Vancouver vs. Seattle Debate

Arbutus Walk in Vancouver.

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

More public waterfront access

Walkable neighborhoods

Bikeable streets

No downtown freeways

More cosmopolitan feel

More multi-cultural feel

More “granny flats”

Better new neighborhoods

Bike-borrowing program

More integrated design

More design focus on livability

Families downtown

Seattle is great because it has:

Unique neighborhood character

Downtown ferries

Pike Place Market

Hilly terrain

Local civic patrons

More money

Free downtown buses

Parking strip gardens

Olmsted legacy

Better residential architecture

More architectural risk-taking

Better downtown office towers

A less homogenized feel

More cultural institutions and events

University campuses integrated into the city

Streetcars

Major medical and research complexes

Westlake Plaza (Vancouver had no equivalent)

Seattle Center

As for the cons, both criticized their hometowns for significant failures.

Steinbrueck said of Seattle: “We’ve given up on families in the urban core.”

Price said Vancouver’s dirty secret was: “We’ve reached a very high level of mediocrity.”

After the Q&A, the audience was asked to decide who won the debate. It was Gordon Price by a hair, which balanced things out nicely: Steinbrueck was voted the winner in Vancouver. Which produced the kind of result soccer cities can be happy with: a tie.

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