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UBC Theses and Dissertations

Towards a theory of urban vitality Maas, Paul R.


This thesis is concerned with defining urban vitality; creating an explanatory model of its processes and determinants; and using the model to explain perceived variances in vitality between four districts of Vancouver British Columbia. It derives a definition by selecting characteristics which occur frequently in descriptions of oft-quoted archetypical vital urban areas. The definition maintains that urban vitality is the synergy arising from a "variety" of somewhat "unique" commercial and entertainment opportunities, and a dense socially heterogeneous pedestrian population. The investigation into processes and determinants, begins by sub-deviding the pedestrian population into locals, hinterland visitors, and tourists. It notes that when significant numbers of all three groups regularly use an area, it attains a genius loci, a quintessential of vitality. Since large numbers of non-locals are intrinsic to the phenomenon, the investigation ponders their attraction and finds that they seek goods, services, and experiences, which are significantly "different" from those available in their own areas . Then since such commercial activities and experiential environments arise to satisfy people's needs, it follows that they occur initially, in response to the demands of groups of "unique local" residents and workers. Further, a "variety" of such facilities, must be the response to the demands of a "diversity" of groups with sufficient within-group homogeneity, size, and purchasing power to surmount the customer thresholds which ensure business profitability. The factorial ecologists have demonstrated that the processes of residential segregation which create such distributions, arise in response to both local and societal influences affecting factors such as socio-economic status, ethnicity, life-cycle stage and familism. Thus the size and segregating characteristics of the local population are held to be the determinants of vitality. After developing the model, the thesis surveys four commercial areas in Vancouver to test its explanatory power. It concludes that the amount of vitality evident in each centre, correlates to the size, and number of unique social groups within its local population. For example the European stores, chic boutiques, and local services on Robson Street are a response to several social groups past and present; the environmental attractions of Water Street, are the results of locals of yesteryear; and the limited vitality in the other two areas is due to insufficient between-group heterogeneity in one instance and an apparent incomplete invasion/succession cycle in the other. It is believed that the model represents a first step in the evolution of a theory, which warrants further testing and refinement.

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