Vancouver: hand in hand with nature

Join Canada’s foremost experts in a panel discussing Vancouver’s West Coast Modern architecture and city-building with nature in Thinking Forward: Building With Nature. The upcoming discussion features Vancouver-based architect James Cheng and will be held Nov. 27 at the Vancouver Central Library.

Due to exploding city populations, the art of city-building has taken on unprecedented importance, both in Canada and the world, says Cheng. Despite Canada’s vast expanse of land, its population is highly concentrated along our southern border, resulting in many Canadians living close together. Today, over 50% of the world’s population lives in cities, and Canada is no exception.

“The world is rapidly growing into an urban village,” Cheng says.

Not Toronto, but Vancouver

We, as Canadians, did not have major cities like New York or San Francisco. Our cities are different,” says Cheng. “Toronto is made up of a series of suburbs and a downtown financial core. Vancouver is special because we have lots of urban housing.”

James Cheng, architect. | Photo courtesy of James Cheng

Cheng goes on to explain that Toronto and other major Canadian cities have only recently begun copying Vancouver’s model of concentrated housing in downtown. Before then, suburbs in these other cities were three stories tall, and there was no tradition of urban living. Whereas Vancouver has had high-rises and towers since the 1960s, Toronto has just begun to develop these forms of urban housing.

Another unique factor separating Vancouver from most cities is the presence of nature and natural elements such as trees and water. Over half of Vancouver is dotted with single-family housing with a lush canopy of trees on the street. Residents of apartments often have a view of the ocean, a rare occurrence in the world at large.

What does building with nature look like?

When surveyed about the most desirable elements of Vancouver, residents rated mountains the most desirable, with water being a close second.

“We, here in Vancouver, live for mountains and water. We’re used to fresh air, access to mountains, lots of green,” Cheng explains. “Those are the ingredients we work with. That is the essence of building with nature.”

Shaw Tower and Fairmont Pacific Rim Hotel. | Photo courtesy of James Cheng

What exactly does ‘building with nature’ mean to the average Vancouver resident?, asks Cheng. The idea of “building with nature” harkens back to the “liveable region” strategy plan the city has implemented over generations. A “liveable region” means that people can walk to work, or bike using the innumerable bike lanes criss-crossing the city. It means healthier people as the trees absorb carbon dioxide and release oxygen. Some studies indicate that it evens boosts our mental wellbeing as people are shown to be calmer when they see water or greenery.

According to Cheng, recent developments in technology have greatly contributed to building eco-friendly towers. Traditionally, the moment a new building is constructed on virgin land, the earth is covered with a slab of concrete. In downtown, this problem is amplified as the multitude of towers are all accompanied by parking lots dug into the ground, effectively preventing water from being able to flow back into the earth. Today, architects are learning to implement measures like green roofs on buildings to combat the situation, the idea being that green roofs can replace the ground the building occupies.

“We’re bringing back nature with atriums, enclosed balconies, and greenhouses on top of buildings,” says Cheng. “I’m very interested in designing cities with nature in mind.”

Hippies versus dinosaurs

There’s a long-standing inside joke within architectectural circles,” Cheng relates.

“The East Coast designers used to laugh at us [West Coast designers] for being hippies camping in the rainforest. We’d laugh right back at them for being dinosaurs in suits.”

This mockery can be linked to historical truths about Western and Eastern culture. Western culture, Cheng says, is traditionally heavily influenced by the Greeks, who thought Man to be at the centre of the universe. In this belief, Man rightfully conquers everything and builds atop it. Eastern culture instead focuses on being harmonious with nature, not lording over it. Ironically, West Coast architecture reflects Eastern philosophy as our architects strive to include nature in our buildings. The East Coast, heavily influenced by old British and French thinking, is much more formal as they pave over the earth to build over it.

Cheng and other panelists will discuss and explore the advantages our West Coast architecture brings in Thinking Forward: Building With Nature.

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