An Idea that Built a City

A review of Vancouverism by Larry Beasley

Written by Jenna Collignon, Editor, Matrix Group Publishing

 First impressions

Vancouver, B.C., has always been considered to be one of the most intriguing and popular cities in Canada. It fits a different mould than many of the sprawling cities that we see across our country. In Larry Beasley’s book Vancouverism, he examines the concept “Vancouverism” and how the city came to be. 

The book itself is beautiful and eye-catching. It features a bird’s-eye-view shot of Vancouver, which wraps around the back of the book to connect both front and back covers. The colours of the image are concentrated in a blue/green tone, which creates a beautiful, detailed cityscape. The text of the title is strong yet subtle. The font is bold but simplistic, and it immediately jumps out to catch your eye; and it is slightly transparent, so it shows the city continuing underneath it. Vancouverism will certainly stand out on any shelf or coffee table.

The photos included throughout the text are snapshots of Vancouver life; from the buildings detailing the skyline to the people who populate the dense and vibrant city. They’re crisp, bright, and encapsulate the life of a Vancouverite in a city that went through – and is still going through – the changes that brought it to what it is today.

 What is Vancouverism?

In a nutshell, Vancouverism is “the way that one city, Vancouver, on the West Coast of Canada, decided to transform itself to be attractive, competitive, and resilient for the future” (36). The first part of the book travels through the historical timeline of how Vancouverism started, and gives a brief introduction to the concepts and issues that the book itself describes further in later chapters. 

This concept is unique to this city, seeing as it was named for it. The perspectives that shaped Vancouver into what it is are rather counter-intuitive to the others that grew other cities, because, quite simply, Vancouver is just different. From the geography of B.C. to the grid that city planners adopted to build it, Vancouver was built on a collaborative force of agents that took the city to the next level.

Unlike many sprawling cities around the country and world, Vancouver had only a set amount of land around it to spread – once it reached that, it would have nowhere to go. So they had build up and go dense. In later chapters, this book explores each of the principles in more depth.

 The key urban principles of Vancouverism

Part two of Vancouverism focuses on the different ‘key urban principles’ that built Vancouver. It covers the densely populated, less isolated, and community-driven neighbourhood grid which the city is built on; the enormous amount of transportation choices across the city, which is moving Vancouver toward becoming a green city; the diversity of household shapes that are within Vancouver, from single people to fully-fledged families; the geography and climate of Vancouver, and the historical tight grid of space; the environmental responsibility of keeping the city liveable; public and private collaboration of the space; and the new iterations and lessons that are learned as the city continues to grow.

One of the biggest things that Beasley goes into throughout the book is how the movers and shakers of Vancouverism met with backlash and countless obstacles as they tried to move forward in the building and changing of Vancouver into what it is now, 30-40 years later. 

There is a lot of information given to you in this section of the book. Beasley dives right into the deep end and digs up as much detail as he can for each of these principles. Even though there is a lot to get through, the writing is conversational and easy to read. 

“In the end, after all is said and done, only one thing really tells the tale of what we tried to achieve in all our efforts that became known as Vancouverism. That one thing is the real, tangible, visceral experience of the place that we created” (391).

Epilogue

Overall, this book is a fantastic look at the history of how a city came to be. It discusses everything from the building principles to the obstacles that arose as they moved. With the easy, moving prose, and the bright photos that accompany each chapter, this book shows how Vancouver made its unique way through reinventing itself.

I highly recommend this book if you are interested in the history of such a bustling, vibrant city, or simply want a different perspective on the creation and reinvention of a city. The future of a city as beautiful and interesting as Vancouver is something that causes a lot of speculation, and having the history and framework of how Vancouverism and Vancouver came about is a unique tool to have in your toolbox. 

After all, our world is always changing.

Larry Beasley

About the Author

Larry Beasley is the retired Director of Planning for the City of Vancouver. He is now the “Distinguished Practice Professor of Planning” at the University of British Columbia and the founding principal of Beasley and Associates, an international planning consultancy.

Over thirty years of civic service, Mr. Beasley achieved land use and transportation plans along with careful development management that have dramatically reshaped Vancouver’s inner city.  He also led the revitalization of neighbourhoods, a strong heritage preservation program, the City’s urban design studio and a successful civic fundraising initiative.  For the last thirteen years of his civic service, he was a principal decision maker for Vancouver’s development approvals.  He now teaches and advises the private sector and governments around the world.