Vancouver: A Model of Smart Development - Metropolitan Planning Council

Skip to main content

Vancouver: A Model of Smart Development

From Marine Gateway to the City of Lougheed, our northern neighbor teaches the Chicago region about smart development.

Audrey Wennink

Transit Oriented Development in Surrey, a suburb of Vancouver

“The best transportation plan is a great land use plan,” said Geoff Cross, Vice President of Planning and Policy for TransLink, the regional transportation agency in Vancouver. This sentiment summarizes many of the successes of Vancouver in integrating transportation and land use. The planning trip I recently took with Lambda Alpha, an international land economics professional association, shed light on how the Vancouver region has been so successful at sustainable urban planning over the past five decades.

Vancouver’s Translink is an integrated transportation agency that oversees funding, development and operations of both transit and roads. The region uses a performance-based approach for transportation planning, which puts all modes on a level platform to achieve the best regional mobility outcomes. Imagine that! Translink’s approach to transportation is to:

  • Invest in multimodal transportation with a focus on transit, bicycle and pedestrian infrastructure
  • Manage through pricing, regulations and information
  • Partner to ensure appropriate land use at a regional level, fund TOD and coordinate with development

One noteworthy aspect of Vancouver’s transportation system is the lack of major highways connecting to the downtown. This is the result of protests in the 1970s that aborted plans for a major highway along the waterfront, which many other major cities in North America constructed. This signaled a new way of viewing cities, placing a high value on livability. Vancouver also has an urban containment boundary, partly driven by the natural boundaries of the mountains and sea, which contributes to the pressure for increased density around transit. The result has been building more housing near jobs and redeveloping industrial land. 

The regional transportation goal is for half of trips to be taken via non-auto modes and to reduce trip distances by one-third. Walking and cycling is encouraged for short trips so transit has capacity to handle longer trips. Regional leaders highlight how safe biking and walking infrastructure costs much less than overinvesting in transit. While the agency anticipates changes with automated vehicles and ride-hailing services, under any scenario there is a need to focus on high-capacity transit corridors.  

Audrey Wennink

In Vancouver, walking and cycling is encouraged for short trips so transit has capacity to handle longer trips.

The region recently developed at 10-year vision for transportation, reaching consensus by all 21 regional mayors for a plan to develop three new Skytrain lines and increase bus service by 40 percent. Skytrain is Vancouver’s fully-automated, driverless, rapid-transit system. In the face of declining revenues from fuel taxes, the region has established the Mobility Pricing Independent Commission to identify new sustainable revenue sources. The commission will develop recommendations by spring of 2018, and we at MPC will be eager to see what they suggest, given our need for transportation funding in Illinois.  Recognizing that the industry is migrating to treating mobility as a service, they seek development of an integrated app that will display transportation choices by time, cost and directness and enable payment for a multimodal trip at once. Great idea—we should do that in greater Chicago!

The Vancouver region recognizes transit is a tool to shape communities and is undertaking a period of transit-oriented development on steroids, including the largest development in Canada. For example, in Burnaby, formerly a bedroom community for the City of Vancouver with no city center or urban core, an outdated mall is being transformed into the Brentwood urban town center.  On 28 acres, the Brentwood development will house 60,000 people in 13 towers at full buildout, adjacent to a Skytrain station. One quarter of the development will be protected as open space. A goal of the development is to have a 1:1 balanced jobs/housing ratio. The concept of the town center dates back decades and, now that construction is underway, the developer is keeping the existing mall open.   

The developers’ view is that, as long as it is cheaper to build single family homes with roads, people will buy that type of housing. But once land values get high enough, people become more comfortable buying in dense developments. In areas of Vancouver converting from single family residential to dense TOD with apartments, sellers are getting huge prices for their properties. Large employers are now seeking urban settings to satisfy employee preferences. Where in Chicago have we reached this turning point?

Audrey Wennink

For 25 years, Vancouver has taken a proactive approach on developing amenities to attract families with children downtown, including quality schools, parks, daycare and playgrounds.

For 25 years, Vancouver has taken a proactive approach on developing amenities to attract families with children downtown, including quality schools, parks, daycare and playgrounds. According to former mayor of Vancouver and former Premier of British Columbia Michael Harcourt, “If you can make it safe for families, anyone can live there.” In 1991 Vancouver developed the Guide to Designing for Families, which is still relevant today. In fact, a distinctive form of architecture has been developed to achieve high densities in the city—a narrow high rise tower that allows for a lot of light between buildings, with a podium of family housing around it. 

Given many years as a hot residential market, the City of Vancouver has had great success negotiating contributions to urban amenities by developers.  Since 2002, the City has received $1 billion in livability investments such as green space, infrastructure and daycare centers, amounting to one-third of the city’s capital budget. Vancouver’s strong emphasis on livability continues as it has just kicked off a Places for People Downtown effort involving 250 researchers conducting observation and interviews to understand how people use the public realm and their desires for the future. The city is going beyond just providing a rich set of amenities and now focusing on human behavior and preferences to refine the experience further for residents and visitors. Another great idea.

Vancouver is not leaving it to chance that trends continue in the right direction. The region has developed a performance monitoring dashboard that documents regional goals, explains why they are important and tracks progress. It has also developed a rigorous plan to become the Greenest City, complete with performance measures tracking progress toward zero carbon and zero waste by 2020.   The Vancouver region has defined its priorities, is carefully planning transportation and land use to shape a sustainable and livable region and is carefully measuring its progress: Chicago can learn a lot from our neighbors to the north.



No comments

More posts by Audrey

All posts by Audrey »

MPC on Twitter

Follow us on Twitter »

Stay in the loop!

MPC's Regionalist newsletter keeps you up to date with our work and our upcoming events.?

Subscribe to Regionalist

Most popular news

Browse by date »

This page can be found online at

Metropolitan Planning Council 140 S. Dearborn St.
Suite 1400
Chicago, Ill. 60603
312 922 5616

Sign up for newsletter and alerts »

Shaping a better, bolder, more equitable future for everyone

For more than 85 years, the Metropolitan Planning Council (MPC) has partnered with communities, businesses, and governments to unleash the greatness of the Chicago region. We believe that every neighborhood has promise, every community should be heard, and every person can thrive. To tackle the toughest urban planning and development challenges, we create collaborations that change perceptions, conversations—and the status quo. Read more about our work »

Donate »