In the heart of Vancouver, Canada, a project is underway that could reshape how we think about urban development. The Squamish Nation, after a late 2019 vote which garnered 87% approval, is continuing to move forward with the ambitious Sen̓áḵw (seh-nowk) development plan to construct a dozen towers—11 of them residential—alongside commercial and community spaces.
The project is designed to occupy the 10.5 acres of reservation land held by the Nation within Vancouver’s city center. It’s slated to contain over 4,000,000-square-feet of developments and more than 6,000 residences.
The plan has met with some pushback from Vancouver residents, especially directed at the very forward-looking, innovative, and thus unfamiliar aspects of the project. One city council member, remarking on proposed parking levels far below local requirements for new developments, said that the project clashed with the “livability” of Vancouver.
The Nation is planning on such limited parking as an effort to steer residents toward the use of public transit and biking. Beyond limited car parking, there will be multiple underground bicycle parking garages accessible from street level. All of this is part-and-parcel of the broader project vision as a model of sustainable, high-density housing.
What’s more, this is all possible because the Nation is not bound by local regulations per its sovereignty over development decisions within its own territory.
It was not long ago, however, that this land, the Kitsilano reservation, was returned to the Squamish Nation after nearly a century of illegal withholding by the Canadian government. In 1913, after successive illegal annexations of the land, the provincial government forced Squamish residents into buy-outs and relocated them. Beginning in the 1970s, the Nation’s court challenges were finally successful—partially—in 2003. The roughly 10.5 acres which comprise today’s development were returned, only a fraction of the 80 acres originally laid out in agreements.
Despite, or perhaps due to, this shameful history, the Sen̓áḵw development project stands as an important lesson for liberal democratic societies. This effort could seriously alleviate a housing shortage in Vancouver which is largely a result of regulatory roadblocks. It will set a new example for sustainable development both by its design and construction methods, like using mass timber framing to produce half the carbon in construction compared to typical concrete.
The potential innovations abound and culminate in a lesson similar to the one found in my recent exploration of Estonia: that good ideas can come from anywhere. A healthy society cultivates openness and competition, providing the best ideas and those ingenious enough to dream them up with the right opportunities and rewards.
Yet, as with Estonia, it is not entirely surprising that such innovation might come from smaller communities rather than behemoth nation-states like Canada or the United States. This piece is not a pro-local-control tract by any means. But a country of 300 million is more likely to be plagued by inertia and immobility in its policy choices than a country like Estonia or the Squamish Nation. It’s much easier to make a sharp turn on a bike than a big-rig.
However, it’s no excuse to look at innovative efforts like the Sen̓áḵw development and simply say that such things are unattainable due to factors outside of our control.
Liberal democratic societies require—and purport to cultivate—ingenuity. But we have knee-capped ourselves by allowing the once-ingenious to secure themselves against the innovative disruptions of others. Whether it’s zoning boards or multi-national corporations, the lesson is the same. As Spectacles has pointed out here and with discussions of voting reform, digital bureaucracy, and much more, there are better ways within our reach, if only we would decide to care and reach for them.Subscribe to Spectacles
Below you can find the other articles & episodes referenced in this piece as well as another article on a similar topic you may find interesting. Don't forget to share this article with others if you found it interesting, and don't miss our longer discussion of the topic from Reflections!