Why is this Vancouver park better than SLC’s Pioneer Park (Part 2)

Yesterday I wrote about a successful park in Vancouver and pointed out that one reason it’s working better than Salt Lake’s Pioneer Park is because it’s surrounded with tons of housing. In other words, the park with density works while the park surrounded by a sea of asphalt and decay doesn’t.

But all density is not created equal.

Vancouver is a notable city for density because it pioneered and widely deployed the “pedestal building.” That means high rise buildings sit atop what are basically town houses. Here are some examples:

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The first two pictures above show what these buildings look like at street level: townhouses with doors facing the street. That design gives the area the feel of a real neighborhood. Unlike some cities, where the long blank walls of skyscrapers give sidewalks a dead or business-like atmosphere, this feels like a place where people actually live and play. In fact, it’s one of the “homiest” tall building neighborhood designs I’ve ever experienced, right up there with Paris and a handful of European cities.

But look at the top of these townhouses and you see something different: skyscrapers. That’s because in Vancouver the units on the bottom of the building act as a “pedestal” for the towers above. This design allows builders to vastly increase the number of units in a neighborhood. It’s still human scale and comfortable on the street, but it’s also super dense.

I think this is one of the things that allows the park from yesterday’s post to succeed; it feels like a peaceful neighborhood park, even though it’s in the middle of the big city and has tons of potential users nearby.

By contrast, few of the buildings near Pioneer Park in Salt Lake have much street engagement. The hotels on the east and west sides turn a blank wall to the park and open in different directions, and the south side is a disaster of empty buildings, parking lots and a single-story factory.

Only the buildings on the north side of the park have any real street engagement, and not surprisingly that’s the safest, calmest part of the park.

It’s perhaps premature to talk about the ideal design of the density we want before we have any plans to actually add density. But as Vancouver shows, design does matter. Conversely, it’s possible to imagine Salt Lake adding poorly designed density around Pioneer Park and reaping significantly diminished benefits.

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