Friday, June 1, 2012

Why Vancouver's viaducts cannot be the High Line

Though City staff are set to release their report this summer, all signs are pointing to the Dunsmuir and Georgia viaducts getting the old heave-ho. Anyone paying a smidgen of attention to the talk at city hall, and specifically Cllr Geoff Meggs who has taken the viaducts on for awhile, would know that the preferred option is to see the viaducts removed in favour of more parkland, room for development, and a generally better stitched together neighbourhood. While careful traffic impact studies need to be done before the viaducts can be removed, car traffic into downtown has been decreasing steadily in the past decade and will probably continue to do so. The viaducts right now only handle a fraction of the car traffic they were originally designed to handle.

A design competition a few months ago sparked interest in alternative plans for the area and the viaducts themselves, and, given the success of New York's High Line park (which, unless you have been living under a rock, you'll know is an elevated rail trestle converted into an uber-design linear park), it's no surprise that some people are pushing for Vancouver to copy New York and turn the viaducts into something similar.

This is a bad idea.

While cities should look to other cities for design and planning ideas that they can incorporate, we've seen time and time again that many ideas--be they a pedestrian street or a casino or a Ferris wheel--are context specific and not necessarily transferable. You can't just take the idea for the High Line, transplant it onto Vancouver's viaducts and get the same result. It's tempting to think this way, but dangerous and costly.

They're expensive

The viaducts are expensive to maintain. Meggs estimates that the City will need to spend around $10 million over the next 15 years just to maintain the structures. I'm sure that price would be much higher if we were to load them full of dirt and plants and trees. At Toronto's annual Park Summit a few weekends ago, I heard Richard Hammond, one of the co-founders of the High Line, speak about how the High Line is an incredibly expensive park to maintain because of its high usage, but also because of the nature of its design. No doubt a park on the viaducts would be extremely expensive to maintain, more so than a traditional park, not only because of the aging infrastructure, but the landscape of the park as well.

photo by jmv from Flickr (cc)

They're ugly

The viaducts are hideous pieces of urban infrastructure. Originally supposed to be the on ramps to an urban highway that never materialized, they were never meant to be anything but utilitarian. From underneath they're about as inviting as an underground parking garage in a horror film. The High Line, while still a large and intimidating piece of infrastructure with its iron beams, doesn't have the same look as a concrete highway. Plus, its historic background as the route for goods being shipped into that part of the city gives it a kind of romantic tinge as a piece of New York history. Arguably, the viaducts are also a piece of Vancouver's history, but one that represents a short-lived moment and, ultimately, a mistake.

Additionally, the sheer bulk of the viaducts acts as much more of a neighbourhood killer than the High Line. The picture below typifies what the High Line looks like from the side. The infrastructure itself is less imposing and more elegant. It's also lower to the ground, and is already surrounded by significant development abutting it in many places.

photo by erikorama from Flickr (cc)

They're too short 

The High Line winds its way through a pretty long stretch of Manhattan, passing by many interesting areas of the city. The viaducts are simply too short to really offer what the High Line does--namely, a strollable stretch of carefully designed landscape. Park of the magic of walking the High Line is not only taking in how the design changes from block to block to block, but about how the city around it changes. The High Line offers an always evolving landscape and accompanying cityscape, something the viaducts do not. While the viaducts would offer a beautiful view of False Creek and probably some mountain views, this is not really something too hard to come by in Vancouver already. The city has more beautiful vistas than some countries.

So, what then?

The plan put forward by Dialog/Beasley/PWL/Green, which is featured in the City's slideshow about the viaducts and was one of the winners of its re:Connect contest, is an intelligent, beautiful, and, most of all, Vancouver-specific, solution to the problem of the viaducts. It would combine Pacific and Expo into one road, increase parkland in the area, introduce a winding stream leading out of False Creek into the urban fabric, and, most importantly, work to knit together Strathcona, Chinatown and the Downtown Eastside, to a waterfront they have been disconnected from for years.

The plan put forward by Dialog/Beasley/PWL/Green

This plan represents far more parkland than could be obtained from greening the tops of the viaducts, and, while the plan is not without its own expenses, would likely represent less of a maintenance burden on the city. No doubt a new urban stream, a new urban beach, and significant amounts of parkland would spur interest from developers--all this and without unsightly water-stained concrete slabs nearby.

While the High Line is a great park for New York and works wonderfully there, let's not kid ourselves into thinking that our viaducts represent the same opportunity. What we do have though, is an opportunity to create a new amazing part of Vancouver's waterfront and connect the rest of the city to it. Yes, I think Vancouver should be bold and creative, but being bold and creative shouldn't mean copy-pasting something from New York just because it worked there.


  1. Let's be honest, they will be bulldozed to make room for more condos, period.

  2. While condos will likely appear, I don't think it will be the main feature of the area. A large section of the Concord land (where the parking lot is now) has already been set aside for parkland, and Vancouver does have a good history of keeping its waterfront for public access, so I don't think we can write it off just yet. There also some grumblings about putting so many condo towers close to two operating stadiums. We'll have to see how things go on that front.

  3. Oh my, yes. This is exactly what i try to explain to people when they say we should High-Line the viaducts (along with the simple fact that removing traffic while converting the viaducts to park space saves no money, aggravates drivers, impedes further development, and in the end doesn't actually solve anything!)