carlyn yandle/for metro vancouver


An alley in Rome features gems like this intimate drinks lounge, lit mostly from illuminated seating.

"Why does the North American fridge have to be six inches deeper than the kitchen counter?"

The tiny Smart Cars scooting around town these days remind me of the identical-looking car I used to see in Kyoto called “The Cute.” They were marketed specifically to young single women like a fashion accessory, so naturally they were available in a wide choice of pastel colours and girly detailing. Small was chic.

That was 20 years ago.

It’s astonishing how slowly simply-great designs take hold here, home of the Hummer mentality where bigger equals better. Why does the North American fridge have to be six inches deeper than the kitchen counters? Why do we still have energy- and space-hogging hot-water tanks instead of compact demand heaters, like in much of Asia?

This is the danger of traveling beyond this continent. Once you get past all the tourist landmarks and exotic flavours of a city, you start to notice what’s missing from our own urban environment, like deep overhangs above storefronts to shelter walkers from the elements, as seen in New Zealand.

You start to rely on those overhangs when you’re away, and soon you start wondering why we don’t insist on them on all retail frontage.

You spend your time wandering narrow pedestrian-only city streets, and then you think about the scary state of our urban back alleys. True, city council is looking at losing dumpsters in the downtown core, but we’re a long way off from zoning those alleys for small-scale, ground-floor retail and restaurants, as seen in, say, London or Rome (see photo).

We do lead when it comes to public smoking laws, but that’s a public health issue, not a design innovation.

That’s Vancouver for you: Improving our right to access the fresh outdoors trumps the need for safer streets, affordable retail, and pedestrian mobility.

We’ll take our individual four-wheel-drive Whistler lifestyle over efficient public transit that would entice us out of our cars.

My New Year’s wish is that we all let up on the westward-ho pioneer mentality and stop backing the relentless push for more freeway for more private vehicles.

Instead, we need to consider improving the current urban condition through humane design.

Calling Vancouver a “world-class city” doesn’t make it so; we need safe shelter for all, mixed-income housing for the working poor, sanctuary for those with mental and/or addiction illnesses, and design ideas borrowed from truly great cities that encourage their urban residents to mix and mingle.

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