5 Lessons Columbus Can Learn from Vancouver

First, you might be asking “why Vancouver?”

Vancouver is a city that spent a lot of time, thought, and money to make their downtown livable and appealing to diverse array of residents. David Roberts, a reporter for Vox, extensively interviewed Brent Toderian about the city’s progress to its current “urbanist” success (I encourage to read all of these pieces they’re really intriguing). “Toderian was the Vancouver’s Chief Planner from 2006 to 2012, a time of furious change for the city that saw the 2010 Olympics along with a broad range of programs to increase density, non-auto mobility, and livability. He’s now a consultant to cities that want to move in the same direction.

Generally speaking, urbanism is defined the same way as city planning: forward thinking about the things (structures, infrastructure, resources, luxuries) people need to live in a certain city. This is all sounds like long term and high-level thought, right? Not always. As Toderian’s interview revealed, part of Vancouver’s success has come as much from the individual, small decisions as it does from the larger planning initiatives.

So what can Columbus learn from Vancouver as we get ready to level-up into “big city” status?

Here are 5 lessons:

A few ground rules go a long way

Why is Ohio so ugly? This isn’t the punchline of a coast-dweller’s joke… this is a sincere question. And I believe the answer is because we allow the free market to run wild without any unifying vision for how things fit together. Viola: strip malls as far as the eye can see. Unlike here, “in Vancouver, like few other North American cities, nothing is simply left to chance, or developers, or the market. There is a deliberative regulatory framework in place, and every decision within it is made consciously, working backward from a clear vision of the city residents want.”

“No Blank Walls”

Toderian talks about the importance of there always being something interesting at the eye-level as you walk through the city. Right now, in Columbus that means “mixed-use retail” on the ground level and then a high rise condo plopped on top. But what about street-level housing? Vancouver uses a street by street approach to this: some streets are primarily residential at eye-level and some are primarily commercial at eye-level. This mix is a key to functional neighborhoods, especially since there is only so much retail that an area can successfully support. But what about privacy?

 Toderian talks about smart ways that designers keep privacy for street-level urban residential properties. One common mistake is to put front doors and windows right on the sidewalks. But then “you can see into the windows. So people don’t use the amenities space and they close the blinds on the windows. And what you get is a de facto blank 


wall. Whereas, if you elevate [entrances], just a few steps — three or four steps — and design a semi-private amenities space, people will use it. They’ll keep their windows open.

Take the brownstones on Gay St. as a nice example of this design principle (minus the submerged units). Those tall staircases allow people to live with direct street access, but have a significant privacy barrier between their front doors and passing traffic.

Stop talking about the cost of houses, talk about the cost of cities

This is a great point that we might be a little guarded from in Central Ohio at the current moment. The affordability of city is too often determined by the cost of purchasing a single-family home. As cities scale up in size and density, that quickly becomes an inaccurate measurement of the cost of living there. We’d never think about cost of living in Manhattan by how much a freestanding home costs there… Toderian says we should “look beyond the price of buying a home, to the price of having a home.” This means everything that comes along with living in the area– rent, transportation, etc.– as a measure of whether an area is affordable or not.

Deliberate Integration Instead of Displacement

This is one of the biggest problems that fast-developing cities face and is best stated in Toderian’s own words:  

For decades, we’ve been requiring that 20 percent of space in all major housing projects be set aside for social housing [what Americans call “public housing”]. That requirement has been a powerful tool — finding and acquiring land or airspace can be the toughest part of a social housing project.

Part of the success of the program is that social housing is now built into all major projects around the city, in an integrated and often almost invisible way, with management programs to help that integration succeed.”


Stop Suburban Flee

How many people do you know that used to live in Short North, Vic Village, GV or downtown and then bought a house in UA, Bexley, or New Albany “for the school district.” This is the San Fransisco problem and we’re going to see lots and lots more of it. Why can’t families with kids live downtown?  They can in Vancouver.

Here are Toderian’s basic steps for making a family-friendly downtown

Want families & kids downtown?

1) ensure family-sized housing;

2) ensure daycare, schools & supports;

3) design the #publicrealm for kids.


Where do you see Columbus’ biggest challenges emerging as we develop? Tell us on Twitter.

Photo by Scott Webb on Unsplash

Staff writer, editor, and producer for 1812 Columbus. Creative Community Director for SEEN Digital Media and

  • Tony Romano

    All excellent ideas..and that last one *especially* hits home! I find it maddening & heartbreaking that sooo many couples here buy into that stupid Middle-American narrative that “start a family” = “move to the ‘burbs.” Why?? City life is always interesting.. intellectually stimulating.. energizing.. educational.. cultured.. colorful.. vibrant.. diverse.. never dull.. in a word, awesome!! A sustainable urban lifestyle surrounded by the amenities and benefits the city should be available to everyone: single or family, young or old. In fact, it wouldn’t surprise me if kids raised in a city environment grow up better able to cope with life in the real world.