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Aug. 12, 2022

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In Our View: Development must protect, enhance vibrancy

The Columbian
Published:

For most of the past 20 years, the dominant story in Vancouver — and several other Clark County cities — has been development. Even with the coronavirus pandemic surpassing development in terms of prominence, growth has been a significant and constant part of the local news cycle.

Starting two decades ago with the rejuvenation of the blocks surrounding Esther Short Park, reinventing the future of the city has been a familiar theme. The Waterfront Vancouver, east Vancouver along Mill Plain Boulevard, Camas’ city center and outlying areas, Ridgefield, La Center and many other locales have been transformed.

Now, the focus is turning to the Heights District, Terminal 1 just west of the Interstate 5 Bridge, the Waterfront Gateway and the Renaissance Boardwalk just east of the bridge. The Port of Camas-Washougal is preparing to develop the Waterfront at Parker’s Landing, plans are in the works for Camas’ North Shore area, and Ridgefield continues to rank among the fastest-growing cities in Washington.

The framework for development in Vancouver is different from those in smaller cities. But the goal for cities large and small is the same: How to accommodate growth while creating a vibrant city.

As a website called VibrantCommunityBlueprint.com recommends: “People believe that government is the answer for community building. Until they change this belief, they’ll be stuck. The goal is to help citizens understand, ‘This is our community. We, the people, are responsible for its well-being.’ This mindset shift is the first and most important step. Every action will flow from the sense of ownership it creates.”

Six decades ago or so, the trend was for metropolitan areas to build freeways so people could escape the city, live in the suburbs and enjoy the new invention that was the shopping mall. It nearly killed American cities. Now, the trend is for cities to reinvent themselves as attractive places for residents, businesses and retail outlets.

While much has been learned during that time, the quest for vibrancy remains preeminent. But how to foster that? There is no shortage of suggestions.

As an article from Building Design & Construction recommends: “Focus on the ground floor. While residential and office spaces typically drive the financial pro forma of mixed-use developments, it is the ground floor that defines a building’s identity. The places where buildings interact with the street have the power to shape our cities in dramatic ways. Bringing in ground floor tenants that attract diverse groups — residents, office workers, families and tourists alike — is valuable to driving a thriving city.”

And as urban sociologist Jane Jacobs wrote in 1961, vibrant cities have buildings that are diverse in terms of age and function. They also have a sufficient mix of residents and places designed to attract visitors. Density, while sometimes decried by long-term residents, is crucial to creating an energetic city.

And as an article for the American Planning Association dictates: “People are drawn (and will come back) to places that make them feel safe and welcome. Well-loved public places are open, inclusive, and welcoming with a wide variety of vibes.”

That speaks to a current threat to Vancouver’s vibrancy — rampant homelessness. As a visit to just about any section of Portland demonstrates, tent communities do not enhance a city’s zeitgeist.

All of this plays a role in the transformation of Clark County’s populated areas. And it points out what is at risk as the region continues to develop and create vibrant public spaces.

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