Observe, Listen, Learn

Principal Consultant , David Allison Inc.
  • Jul. 12, 2010

Despite a sore throat, a raspy-voiced Dr. Michael Goldberg, urban planning guru, got very real and very pointed with lunch guests at the Hotel Vancouver.

In Vancouver, we tend to strut around with our feathers plumed, crowing about how wonderful the city is, but the Hotel Vancouver Ballroom was no place for ego stroking last week. As guest speaker at the Urban Development Institute luncheon, Sauder School of Business Professor Emeritus Michael Goldberg embraced the opportunity to chat quite candidly about the city of Vancouver. From casual conversation and tasty spoonfuls of crème brulee we turned to listen as Dr. Goldberg pulled the city apart piece by piece. There were more than a few stunned silences and sharp intakes of breath.

If you have ever lived or visited Vancouver, you can attest to the fact that our beautiful city has done some things well – we have good infrastructure, we have a strong waterfront, we are a city that people actually want to live in – but there is still plenty to work on when it comes to development and planning if we want to compete on a global scale. Dr. Michael Goldberg pointed out the elephants in the room, gave them names, and had them parade in front of the stage in all their circus finery

He pointed to:

• Balkanized regional convergence. Essentially, the city’s infuriating habit of thinking and planning in compartments rather than whole regions. Every suburb wants it’s own Mayor, and unless we start planning with bigger multi-Mayor areas in mind, it will always be disjointed.

• The continued failures in our supposed success stories. Our sprawl in housing, office and retail space has resulted in growing congestion, pollution and travel times. That makes no one happy, so how can we actually sit back and consider these developments achievements? Celebratory smiles about jobs well done in tough times faded.

• Restrictive density, height and land use, resulting in high housing prices and limiting outdoor dining, drinking and street activity. Basically, our lack of any kind of innovation when it comes to architectural and land use. This place needs to loosen up, was his message. And Kitsilano’s annual Greek Day doesn’t count. The Olympics proved we can have fun on the streets. Why not some form of that all the time?

• Our terrible transit system. As jaws dropped, Dr. Goldberg made it plain that he felt Vancouver’s transit system was a farce – winning awards for skytrain stations that are inaccessible and do not connect directly to a building or central location was almost comical. Slide after slide of metro lines and transit stations from Toronto to Hong Kong put Vancouver’s efforts to shame. We need to improve our planning when it comes to transit and transit systems more than anything.

And that’s not all. Beyond failing to integrate a transit system adequately into the urban fabric – a major grievance – Dr. Michael Goldberg scoffed at Vancouver’s lack of usable public spaces, ceremonial and public gathering spaces, permanent pedestrian zones, and arcades.

“Vancouver is not a fun city,” he remarked. “It’s boring by design.” Ouch.

But I wouldn’t argue against him.

Not long ago, you may recall, the Olympics were held in Vancouver. The city shone and we Vancouverites actually got a glimpse at what this city could be. The masses gathered, conversed and laughed. People were allowed to have fun and they did.

So what can real estate developers take from this?

A couple of things. Number one. There is no room for being smug, only room for improvement. Acknowledge your accomplishments and then move onto something better. If you don’t, someone else will beat you to it.

Number two. Start thinking about living rather than building – and living enjoyably at that. Creating spaces that are usable, accessible and foster a sense of community are a must. The granite countertops and high-end appliances aren’t enough anymore. What an individual can do outside of their 567-square-feet box is the selling feature. So what are you doing to ensure that happens? Adequate supply is one thing, but there also needs to be adequate diversity in the homes we build and the communities we develop.

Take a step back and analyze the development world not as a developer, but as a professor or even a student. What can you teach? And more importantly, what can you learn?



David Allison works with executive teams in real estate development and other industries to craft the early-stage vision and brand for projects of all kinds. He crystallizes the most interesting…

Read more

David Allison works with executive teams in real estate development and other industries to craft the early-stage vision and brand for projects of all kinds. He crystallizes the most interesting…

Read more




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