David Pereira

Urban accounts from the fringe….

The Town Centre Model: Part 3

As we’ve previously discussed, The Apartment Studies established the foundation of Burnaby’s long range planning vision. These documents outlined a specific order to the way planning would be carried out in this otherwise typically suburban municipality. Some would consider that quite groundbreaking, but not necessarily visionary. Visionary was contained in a hardbound text produced by the Burnaby Planning Department in 1971.

The Metro Town

Just a few years following the publication of The Apartment Studies came a text principally authored by municipal planner Gerhard Sixta. The text was not a typical planning document one would find crafted by a municipality. The 142 page tome, Urban Structure: A study of long range policies which affect the physical structure of an urban area, instead reads more like an instructional text book. In the foreward, Planning Director Tony Parr cited several contextual underpinnings for the text.

  • A growing interest amongst members of the public regarding quality of life and environmental concerns
  • Ongoing regional discussions over the goals of a ‘livable region’
  • Recognition of the advantages of public transportation.
  • Recognition that there were large tracts of yet undeveloped land in the region that could serve centrally important roles among municipalities.

That’s right – the region. Although the text was produced using specific Burnaby examples, the underlying intent was to inhibit a re-imagining of development through the whole of Greater Vancouver and beyond. As Sixta stated:

[...] this document will not only assist in clarifying Burnaby’s goals, but that it will also provide a meaningful contribution to metropolitan concentrations in Greater Vancouver and in other metropolitan areas of Canada (Sixta, 1971: 9)

Through the text, Sixta criticized the typical form of suburban development, even taking aim at many of Burnaby’s own subdivisions, including the Brentwood Park neighborhood, one of the earliest large-scale suburban developments in the region.

But he didn’t limit his criticism solely to the suburb. Sixta took issue with mmany forms of contemporary urban development, including the typical American city:

In searching for solutions to the issues , Sixta surveyed a variety of urban structure concepts that were either theoretical or in use elsewhere. Comparing their merits, he concluded that one was the most practical and most feasible. He referred to this one as an “Intermittent Grid of Metro Towns,” defined as:

[...] linear in concept, with a fixed dimension. Their central spine, which serves mainly commercial destination traffic, combines roads, parking, loading, storage and a pedestrian deck on top of roads and parking. One spine serves only one town (Sixta, 1971: 63).

This was first and foremost, a growth management plan. The following image proposed what Greater Vancouver would look like with this structure.

But the plan was equally about the urban design of cities. Throughout the text, Sixta discussed the vitality of areas and their ability to attract pedestrian activity during all times of the day. Below is the hypothetical design that Sixta proposed for these Metro Towns, containing some of this aesthetic – note the variation in building types and heights.

As we see from the image above, the text also contained a strong emphasis on public transit, highlighting Sixta’s interest in alternative forms of travel over the automobile. He imagined that some sort of high frequency rapid transit line would run through the core of these Metro Towns. He advocated for a high quality urban environment with strong variety and high amenity. He suggested that automobiles should be moved underground to accommodate the free-flow of pedestrians. To help encourage modal shift, he also floated a type of experimental on-demand public transportation system that could be activated by calling a reservation system. All of this was designed to create an environment by which pedestrians could move around just as conveniently by foot as by private automobile:

Towards a new planning paradigm

The release of Urban Structure was met with little fanfare. This was perhaps due in part to the complex and forward thinking concepts contained within the text. But we also know that it was due in large part to some of the proposed locations for the Metro Towns. The most controversial locations were the southwest slope of Burnaby Mountain, and the environs around Deer Lake. The artist’s rendition below shows the Deer Lake proposal.

Residents were aghast at the perceived proposal to develop one of the municipality’s most cherished green spaces (as we saw in the previous section, this space has since been transformed into a civic precinct with strong natural and cultural amenities). To pacify the opposition without abandoning the principles in Urban Structure, the Burnaby Planning Department needed to act quickly and decisively.

Shortly after the publication of Urban Structure and inspired by a renewed regional interest in the participatory planning, the Burnaby Planning Department embarked on a public outreach campaign. Planners hosted various public forums throughout the municipality, and for the first time, encouraged residents to submit letters and comments with outlining perspectives on the municipality’s direction. The results were published in 1974 within The Public Meetings: Phase 1. Early in the introduction, the planning department took the opportunity to distance themselves from the specific proposals contained in Urban Structure, noting that it “was meant to prescribe an overall comprehensive framework” (Burnaby, 1974: 2). The  Deer Lake and Burnaby Mountain Metro Towns were only meant to be theoretical models; not a reflection of actual planning priorities.

Planners also summarized some of the comments they heard during the various public information sessions held in advance of the publication of The Public Meetings. Centrally, they realized that they could not quickly mute resident opposition to growth. Many of the public comments, which were appended to the text, suggested that the general public was concerned about population projections that planners had highlighted during their public presentations. Residents did not want to see the character of their neighborhoods change. Many of these people had moved to Burnaby because there was a certain country in the city feel thanks to vast forested areas complimented by a close proximity to Vancouver’s city core.

Seeking public approval for their overall planning program, planners recognized that while residents were weary of an increase in population, they were even wearier of spot-zoning, a practice that could potentially result in unwanted change within neighborhoods, such as apartments or commercial districts that could bring traffic into otherwise tranquil streets. Planners interpreted this as a victory for the Town Centre concept, citing that densities could instead be concentrated into defined areas of the municipality. These areas would then mitigate the need to  impact the character of established suburban neighborhoods, and would relieve the pressure to consume vast cherished green spaces. To further address the latter point, planners recommended that a conservation area be created on the west slope of Burnaby Mountain where Sixta had previously called for a Metro Town. They also dismissed the Intermittent Metro Town concept as self-defeating. They feared that promoting the development of multiple Metro Towns in the municipality would drain the municipality’s financial and human resources by requiring focus in too many areas. Planners instead opted for only one Metro Town capable of best realizing the principles contained in Urban Structure. Those principles were: transit accessibility, strong pedestrian orientation, a diversity of activities during daylight and night time hours, and a “wide range of commercial and social opportunities” (Burnaby, 1974: 24). Preference was also given to an existing are of the municipality where conditions would be ripe to foster this kind of development. Considering the options, they examined all three existing Town Centres.

These [Town Centres] are the Simpson-Sears, Brentwood and Lougheed Town Centres. Of these, it is considered that the Brentwood and Lougheed Town Centres have tended to develop into auto-oriented regional shopping centres which presently have limited capabilities to develop into a Metrotown with the aforementioned characteristics. On the other hand, the Simpson-Sears town centre does exhibit those characteristics capable of forming the basis of a Metrotown. Supportive of this is the fact that the nucleus of the existing town centre is considered ripe for development. Through this impending redevelopment process, the Metrotown concept would provide the guidelines for managing growth in the desired directions. (Burnaby, 1974a: 24-25)

Signalling big changes for the Simpson-Sears area, the Public Hearings concluded with a recommendation to schedule an aggressive schedule for public consultations. In July of that year, Council passed two recommendations: to explore the creation of a conservation area on Burnaby Mountain, and to begin pursuing a development plan for the Simpson-Sears Town Centre, which had then been renamed the Kingsway-Sussex Town Centre.

We will discuss this bold vision in the section Metrotown. However, what is more significant is that a decade after it’s introduction, the Town Centre concept remained a core municipal policy. And, although the other Town Centres were  not suitable for a Metro Town designation, as we find through the next sections, the patient commitment to this planning policy nonetheless proved to be a worthwhile investment over time.

>> Continue reading onto the next section: Brentwood Town Centre>>

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