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  • Lance Berelowitz

Vancouver’s First Urban Design Awards: A Mixed Bag

After many years and much discussion, the City of Vancouver recently spearheaded this city’s first ever Urban Design Awards program. The winning results were announced and celebrated at an elegant ceremony held at the Van Dusen Gardens Great Hall on Monday 15 September. The program will be repeated every two years.

It is commendable that Vancouver is finally celebrating urban design achievements in a formal way (although there is no actual prize money for the winners). However, perhaps understandably, the first season of these new awards is a mixed bag, and there are some challenges with the program that need to be addressed.

Firstly, and perhaps most importantly, while there were many admirable, even exemplary, architectural projects on display, some of them had very little to do with urban design, and at least one was frankly anti-urban. There is a significant difference between urban design and architectural design. It was noteworthy that the organizers and presenters seemed not to fully understand this crucial difference, using the terms ‘urban design’ and ‘architectural design’ interchangeably during the ceremony.

‘Urban Design’ may perhaps best be defined as ‘the design of the city’, or perhaps ‘the conscious design of the space between buildings’ (with the building facades acting as the ‘walls’ defining the resulting urban spatial patterns). It is not about individual stand-alone buildings, but rather all about context, the design of built ensembles that contribute towards a memorable urban environment. Urban design is as much about urban ‘fabric’ as it is about ‘monument’: background buildings, open space design and infrastructure that work together to contribute towards a coherent, functional and elegant public realm.

So, one simple suggestion then to address this issue: change the program title to the Vancouver Design Awards. That way, there would be less confusion about what the awards are for, and exemplary standalone architectural projects could continue to be chosen as part of a more inclusionary program.

Alternatively, if we really want these to be Urban Design Awards, the evaluation criteria and categories need to be revisited for the next cycle, to better define what kinds of projects are eligible and what the jury should be looking for. Which brings us to the next issue: the project categories need work. Including ‘Small Scale (primarily single family) Residential’, ‘Sustainable Design’ and something called ‘Urban Elements’ that is as loosely defined as a canopy, an artwork, an entranceway or a piece of infrastructure, stretches the definition of urban design beyond usefulness, however laudable these things may be in another context.

There is also a problem with giving an urban design award to a landscape project that is essentially anti-urban in its thrust: a ‘re-naturalized’ beachfront and park, charming as it might be to some, really celebrates something quite different from urbanism. Conversely, noticeable by their absence were any urban design plans, precinct plans or site plans that might contribute towards the city’s emerging urban form and public realm. I believe this is because the City required that all eligible submissions “must have received an occupancy permit after January 1, 2012”, which seems like a strange eligibility criterion for an urban design award.

Finally, while a jury of professional peers is absolutely the way to go (rather than a populist straw-poll approach), loosening up the submission requirements to encourage others beside developers and their architects to submit, will generate both more diverse projects and broader interest and buy-in by Vancouverites themselves.

All Vancouver urbanists must surely wish the program well, and I commend the City for this inaugural effort. At the same time, I look forward to the program being modified and improved in future to better reflect the issues that have been raised by this writer and others.

© Lance Berelowitz

Vancouver 2014

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