Breaking the Tower Mold

After spending a weekend in Vancouver, a city with dramatically different urban form from Seattle, I am struck by the idea of following the herd and the possibilities of a nudge.

The common vision in and around Vancouver is towers…concrete and glass pillars that reign over the city and punctuate the surrounding suburban, rail-oriented towns. While these towers in the city center are justified, the futuristic TOD pods surrounding the city don’t integrate with the stunning natural world. I feel little inspiration when looking at these cold towers, and wonder deeply about the desires of residents in the suburban nodes. The city and surrounding suburbs clearly care about sustainability and reducing their existential footprint, but there are certainly other ways of achieving these goals in the built environment. Is the city, or are residents, calling for this type of tower development?

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Gilmore Place (Image courtesy of Onni Group)

Endless skies of towers create a certain typology for the city. It isn’t my preference, but what is the preference of the residents who are paying substantial sums to purchase units in these towers? Would they prefer another option, or do they fall in line because this is what is available? If presented with a building that doesn’t have a nearly identical design to every neighboring building, would residents care? Would the market make a choice to accept or reject the new option?

In a region that is known for its multiculturalism, I question why new development isn’t more representative of those cultural nuances? If city regulations funnel development into this narrow representation of ‘home’, I would suggest a re-evaulation of those guidelines. Planners have the ability to create a process to establish if there are alternatives that would engender more innovation and greater connection between residents and their natural environment.

Regulations could be the nudge that moves one developer beyond the mold to a different, yet equally priced, option for residents. It strikes me that the marketing of such a new option, and the press coverage, are critical to its success or failure. In addition to a policy nudge to encourage developers to provide options, I think marketers could employ more nuanced strategies, again beyond price, that steer users toward the alternative.

The greater Vancouver region is poised to accept growth in high numbers over the next 40 years, and their TOD strategy is embracing this. However, now may be the time to assess whether the city-based tower design is the best strategy for every community…or whether a nudge would change the future of suburbia for the better.

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