Richmond’s march to urbanism

Why Richmond?
We spent the first ten days of our Vancouver sabbatical in Richmond, a more suburban area of the metro, which contains the airport, and the urban areas are mostly on the outer side of YVR. It’s certainly not one of Vancouver’s poster child areas, but looking from outside, it has a planning story to tell.

We got to know it pretty well during that time, mainly because most days we went on loooong walks (often 14-20km,). While that was for fun, adventure and exercise, I left my “urban nerd” radar on, and so was always interested in it as a place.

Here are my impressions. These don’t pretend to be based on a full understanding of the planning and development history of the city, rather, they are just my thoughts after spending that time there.

A quick overview
That’s it in the bottom left of this map:


Physically, it’s flat as a pancake, built on islands in the Fraser River delta. It relies on dykes to protect it from flooding, and contains a lot of good quality agricultural land, including areas protected by the province’s landmark Agricultural Land Reserve. It has a clear structure courtesy of the original surveyor’s road grid, which had very functional names like No. 1 Road. Much of this grid, particularly in the southern area, has been filled since world war 2 by car oriented suburban development typical of that era, dominated by hard to navigate street patterns and single family housing, often focused on a school or park at its centre.

IMG_0837.PNGBelow is a sample of Richmond suburbia. Note the street pattern within the big square grid, the schools or parks locations, and the occasional intersection based shopping mall. (Also, that’s the start of some Agricultural Land Reserve at the bottom.)

IMG_0841.PNGRichmond Centre, on No. 3 Road, was really a big shopping mall, surrounded by low rise commercial and retail development, in pretty basic buildings set back and separated from the road frontage by at grade car parking – a form of development typical of “motordom“.

Richmond has a substantial immigrant population. Wikipedia reckons its 2011 population of 190,473 makes Richmond the fourth largest local government in British Columbia, and it has an immigrant population of 60%, the highest in Canada. More than half of its population is of Asian descent, many of whom immigrated in the late 1980s, mostly from Hong Kong, Taiwan, and Mainland China.

The Skytrain Cometh!
The Canada line Skytrain opened in 2009, terminating at Richmond centre. It also seems to have a pretty good bus system that focuses on the Skytrain stations. And it seems that the City of Richmond changed its planning to a transit supportive regime leveraging off the arrival of the Skytrain. It looks like this:


Urbanism Cometh too
The big thing I noticed is the march of urbanity: there is a very noticeable transition going on there now, especially around the centre, where motordom is rapidly being overtaken by a form of Vancouverism. The car parks and low intensity single use developments around the centre are progressively being redeveloped into higher intensity mixed use, with active ground floors, podiums on the street, and largely residential towers above. It feels like if you stand still for a while, you’ll see this moving cross the urban landscape:

IMG_0839.JPGThe Skytrain is mid left, existing motordom right foreground, and the oncoming urban tide behind both.

IMG_0840.JPGThe urban march is evident on the other side of the Skytrain at Richmond Centre, some remnant motordom in the right foreground.

It’s impressive what a strategic transit investment backed by some good land use planning in a cultural context supportive of urbanism can achieve.

Greg Vann
January 2015

Footnote: I really liked the redevelopment along the main roads in more suburban parts of Richmond – two and three storey townhouses that address the street well and reflect local building styles. These aren’t particularly good photos, but give some idea of my point:




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  1. mighty memo says:

    “Downtown Richmond” is anything but a good example of urban planning. The core is pockmarked with wide expanses of private parking lots which all display signs that parking is for plaza/mall customers only. So, a shopper picking up groceries at one plaza dare not step over the barrier separating from an adjoining plaza to get a coffee at their favourite cafe. Aside from limited street parking, there is no public parking (free or pay) that would allow residents to just take a stroll through “downtown.” The worst culprit is Landsdowne Centre, a large mall surrounded by a huge parking lot. In response to an inquiry about the City of Richmond encouraging the mall owners to make better use of that space, a city planner once told me the mall owners make a lot of money from that shopping centre, so they probably won’t make any changes any time soon. Richmond has one of the worst “downtowns” in Canada, but residents are unmotivated to seek anything better.

    • Greg Vann says:

      Thanks for you comment. Please don’t misunderstand what I said – Richmond Centre is a classic car based design that works poorly for pedestrian connectivity, as is typical of motordom. It’s the change to more urban style development, mostly north of the big shopping mall you mention, that was my focus. The planner you spoke to is probably right about that mall, but there is plenty of other undercapitalized retail + car park development around it that I expect will change to to more people friendly urban development.

  2. voony says:

    Good and interesting view

    Yes Richmond is going in the right direction, and raise the urbanism bar for the region.

    Nevertheless there is couple of misses so far:

    -Garden city lands which should be the “central park” of Richmond, and not a Wallmart backyard

    -the transit spines (beyond the Canada Line) are not identified. More noticeably, another major and natural Transit spine is Cambie Street (it has already one of the heaviest bus ridership in the region, and is the only urban East-West artery candidate north of Westminster Hwy), and the plan basically turn its back to it.

    I had posted on Richmond a post reflecting your view a while ago:

    While the bus system is fairly good, it could be much better :
    Try to go to the Airport from almost any part of Richmond. Or East Richmond business/industrial parks form East Vancouver…I have wrote a couple of post on it too…

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