I first visited Vancouver to cover the opening of Expo '86. When I next returned in 2002, I noticed that a lot had changed in western Canada's largest city.
I didn't realize how much had changed until last Saturday. That's when I attended a seminar at the University of Kentucky, Planning for Livability and Sustainability: Lessons of the Vancouver Achievement for Lexington and the Bluegrass.
It looked at how Vancouver's focus on people-friendly development has improved the quality of life. In fact, the research arm of Britain's Economist magazine calls Vancouver the world's most livable city.
The seminar was organized by UK professors Ernest Yanarella and Richard Levine. Like the annual Commerce Lexington trip, it was an opportunity to look at other cities' experiences.
Of course, it's not that Lexington doesn't already have a lot going for it. It could teach other cities a thing or two. But Vancouver is a good example of a city that never seems to be content with good enough.
Vancouver is twice the size of Lexington, with a metropolitan area population seven times as large. But the cities have some similarities, such as being surrounded by uniquely beautiful landscapes that are both valuable assets and barriers to growth that increase the cost of living.
The seminar's main presenter was Ian Smith, Vancouver's former senior planner and now project director for a large mixed-use development that will begin life as the 2010 Winter Olympic Village.
Smith said Vancouver's approach to city planning and development has changed dramatically in the past two decades. The process began with Expo '86. When the world's fair was over, its 165-acre site became the first of several old waterfront industrial areas to be redeveloped into mixed-use urban neighborhoods.
It isn't just the look of Vancouver that has changed, Smith said. It is the development dynamic. Vancouver has become more aggressive about working with developers to make sure projects are as good for the city as they are for the developers.
"We needed to create a different model between the city and private developers that was win-win," Smith said. "Local government needs to take a leadership role. It can't be left to chance."
Smith's description of Vancouver's development process reminded me of a similar system in downtown Columbus, Ohio, that I wrote about in February. Rather than asking developers to submit detailed plans based on a complex set of rules to a fragmented city bureaucracy, there's a collaborative process aimed at making developments the best they can be.
That process includes public participation and a professional urban design review board, which in Vancouver's case has 12 members — six architects, two landscape architects, two engineers, a developer and a city planning commission member.
Vancouver emphasizes good urban design, especially human-scale streetscapes friendly to pedestrians, bicycles and public transportation. Planning for large mixed-use projects doesn't just consider utilities, roads, stores and schools, but child care, parks, indoor recreation facilities, public art and environmental impact.
Vancouver's housing prices are among Canada's highest, largely because of the constraints of being surrounded by water and mountains.
But Vancouver has shown that high-density, mixed-used neighborhoods can be great places to live.
With each new development, Vancouver has pushed for environmental innovation. A showpiece is the 2010 Olympic Village, the first phase of a new urban neighborhood that by 2018 could have 18,000 residents.
Like other cities Lexington has looked to for ideas, Vancouver has plenty of flaws. But its experiences offer some good lessons.
Lexington's mayor and council must be aggressive about setting standards that encourage exceptional development. That means articulating a clear vision for high-quality downtown growth rather than reacting to disparate projects as developers propose them.
It also means engaging the public in meaningful participation and empowering the city's professional staff to focus more on innovation and excellence than local politics.
One more thing: Lexingtonians must get comfortable with increasing density in urban neighborhoods. More density is good for the environment and will protect precious farmland. It also can make neighborhoods better. That will require leadership.