January 6, 2014

Wendy Sarkissian: How Ecodenisty undermined planning in Vancouver

We featured Wendy Sarkissian before in Price Tags (and at SFU City Program lectures).  She currently resides in Australia but also consults in Vancouver  (and hopes to be back soon).

Here’s a recent piece of direct interest to us and our Australian cousins: Vancouver’s EcoDensity Policy:  Reflections on Australian Planning’s Cultural Cringe and Cultural Imperialism.

It’s easy for those outsiders to assume that Australia is “just like” Canada, the USA or the UK.

How wrong they are! …

As state governments in Australia try to find ways to sell increased housing densities to a reluctant public and recalcitrant local councils, one model has slipped into the conversation that should, in my view, quietly slip away. That’s the recent Vancouver invention of EcoDensity.

This failed housing density initiative with a dodgy pedigree is being touted by visiting Vancouverism boosters as one of the answers to our housing density needs. Nothing could be further from the truth, as a significant amount of recent scholarly and practical research reveals.

Of course you want to read more.  Find it here.


[Also by Wendy: Activism in Planning in Australia: A Delicate Balancing Act .]

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  1. Maybe I’m thick, or maybe the piece doesn’t properly get the message across, but it seems like some pretty petty complaints to me.

    What, exactly, is the problem with laneway housing? That someone’s sister may have a shadier back yard?

    The rest of the piece just sounds like “you didn’t listen to me and I hold a grudge.”

    Have I missed something?

    Vancouver’s population is growing. Where should people live, if density doesn’t increase? Or, if it’s OK to increase density, then what is a more innocuous way than laneway housing?

    1. Exactly, I’m a little confused on the issue with laneway housing. As a resident of a laneway house, I quite like my little house. Yes I have a second storey, but the imposition of my little house on neighbourhood character and shading is most definitely far far less than the massive shadowing cast by the two monster houses on either side of the main house on our property. And we were never consulted about these two ugly, boxy, nearly identical, FSR maximizing monster houses when they were built, at least laneway houses done right (like mine) have a lot of old style character to them, curves, nice wood finishing, it definitely “fits in.” So who is more negatively effecting the neighbourhood character?

      What would have been the alternative to a second storey, take up more of the yard, and therefore reduce green space? That seems rather silly. I’m looking forward to gardening this spring and hopefully growing a lot of my own food.

      What a laneway house has been fantastic for in our family was helping keep the family together. My parents and I will eventually switch places when I need the room for a family (because who can afford a house in Vancouver, right? Isn’t that the whole point?). And we will build a secondary suite in the main house for my intellectually disabled sister so she will always have a safe, semi-supportive place to live. The laneway house concept is a fantastic tool for families like ours, and I don’t know what we would have done otherwise. And it seems to meet the goals of addressing affordability, creating supportive living spaces, and reducing our footprint on the limited land resource in the city, so again… what exactly is the issue with laneway houses?

      I sold my condo last year, and a young family now lives there. So I’ve made space for a couple trying to get in to the market for the first time. Seems like wins all around.

      1. It’s great you like your laneway house, but as you point out, yours is a fmily arrangement. Judging by the large amount of laneway’s for rent on Craigslist, not many people find them affordable, even by Kerry Jang’s definition.

        Latest stats show BC continues to experience an outflow of people, so I’m not sure where all these new residents are coming from. Perhaps people are confusing “investors” with “residents”.

    2. “You don’t listen to me” is, in five words, the entire problem. CityPlan was working to accommodate additional people in the city in a way that respected the 600,000 already living here. EcoDensity ushered in an era of “shut up, we know what’s best for you”.

      Overnight the process went from inclusive to exclusive, from “which of these do you like?” to “here’s what’s headed your way whether you like it or not”. Planners went from collaborators to oppressors. Almost every proposal now arrives at public consultations in finished form ready to begin construction the day after the consultation ends.

      I don’t think many people are against secondary units on single family lots that provide much needed rental housing and downsizing options at reasonable cost. But what I’ve heard is that the current lane way houses cost as much to build as a full sized structure. If that’s even remotely close to the truth then something needs to change.

      1. Thanks.

        I guess I struggle to differentiate between legitimate and illegitimate complaints that people aren’t being listened to. It’s far too easy to play that card. This piece reads to me like sour grapes.

        Mr Price’s rule of thumb is to use public input to weigh about 30% of the considerations for public policy. That sometimes lead to some upset people. In fact, public policy almost always upsets someone.

        I didn’t read anything in the linked piece to convince me that EcoDensity was bad policy, or even that it was poorly implemented. I’m open to the possibility that it was (I wasn’t there); maybe someone else can show me.

      2. They are more expensive to build then we originally though, we probably spent $100k more than we planned. Unfortunately from what I’ve seen of the budget a lot of it aren’t things the city could directly impact through policies (unless you want to allow skipping out on safety features like sprinklers…). The majority of the cost was simply the cost of an architect, contractors to build a nice looking and quality structure (ie. one that won’t look like crap in 5-10 years and need repairs like the rapid-build, cookie cutter monster houses on either size).

        Perhaps these prefab laneway houses are cheaper to the point the city fees are a more significant part of the budget, personally I find those ones rather distasteful and have too much of a modernist-minimalist look that don’t fit in to older neighbourhoods as well. But you’re right, the cost difference in building a lane house to a main house isn’t that large, its simply a difference in the number of square feet times the cost per square foot of construction in Vancouver. And it does raise interesting questions when I was told during original planning of the structure the cost per square foot of construction is higher in Vancouver than say, Surrey, why…. (and I’m talking contractor costs, not city permitting)

        While I loved my contractor and want him and his people to make a good living, what this all says to me is its not a city policy issue, its a provincial issue with the lack of training programs for more builders to help with the tight construction market. More builders, hopefully mean a lower cost per square foot of construction? I mean, what fees could the city reduce? Water main and sewer connection costs? So the rest of the taxpayers would have to subsidize the labour costs of this work? The same would go for permitting, inspections, etc, I think there’d be outrage if all taxpayers were asked to fund the costs of these services provided to developers, rather than the fee for service model. Or DCCs to pay for the infrastructure and amenity improvements from development, I don’t think people would enjoy those being spread around to all taxpayers.

        I agree, there probably is room for improvement in the process (we were asked to redesign and lower the height of our lanehouse *after* the building permit was issued because it suddenly became a hot political issue at that moment, we pushed back and said no way, you already issued the permit), streamlining and such. But a lot of it comes down to the bigger affordability issue in general, how do you create affordable housing in the city without subsidizing developers and/or the fact simply to *buy* the land for these new higher density developments is so outrageously expensive to begin with (owners getting $3 million per house on Cambie street? Please!). When you start with a high baseline cost on the whole project starting with the land acquisition, how do you cut the final unit price? Step one in my mind is getting the land prices down so units can be built at an affordable price, but when demand outstrips supply, you have a chicken and egg situation. I would love to hear from experts and academics ideas on how this goal of affordability can be achieved, because I certainly don’t have the answers (and I would *not* like to hear from developers or politicians on this issue, those with vested interests in maximizing returns). There are bigger issues at play than a bit of extra shadow a little laneway house adds to someone’s backyard.

  2. A well written article on coopting citizens under the disguise of “consultation” and by using nice words like “eco” in front of bad words like “density”.

    People generally do not like change, especially if they have lived in a neighborhood for a long time and it is nice and low density.

    A city like Vancouver needs a VARIETY of housing forms, low rise, mid-rise, high-rise, big homes with 10,000 sq ft, townhouses, laneway houses, duplexes, normal single family houses, etc.

    Residential density should primarily be along transportation hubs, or former industrial sites. Single family areas need to be preserved, to a point, i.e. perhaps at the edges, say along 10th Ave, Cambie, 16th Ave or Marine Drive higher density is on order, but not in the middle of West Van or Point Grey established single family communities.

  3. I found this person’s commentary to be a bit harsh; it’s easy to attack a place that puts itself out there by trying new things and testing urban design principles on a mass scale. Love it or hate it, Vancouver has evolved more in the last 20 years than any other Western city, with some great results and some not so great results, but at least they tried. Vancouver is constantly in the conversation because things are always happening, like one big Urban laboratory. Visiting Sydney you see they have done nothing regarding density other than high end infill in Pyrmont and some stuff around Bondi Junction. So far there is very little TOD around the excellent train and lightrail system. Melbourne has designated large residential areas no-go zones for intensification, instead concentrating density in specific areas. Easy to criticise when you have remained “Normal” and static.

  4. And what of the “eco” in the Ecodensity? I would like to see some analysis of the life-cycle environmental impact/energy use of Vancouver’s policies vs. Sydney’s or Brisbane’s sprawling villages. As a former resident of Sydney, I found on a recent visit that it was even more traffic-choked than before, if that could be possible. But I find it hard to imagine that Vancouver’s skinny concrete forest is an environmentally friendly form of building. Gord, didn’t you run a piece a year or two ago from one of the Australian universities with an energy analysis of the middle-density suburbs vs. the high-density ones?

  5. Thanks for this motivational piece. The ‘planner as therapist’ school of thought needs to be challenged. I personally believe the ‘hug a NIMBY theory’ has not worked, in fact has been an environmental disaster. I am pleased that Australian cities are looking to the EcoDensity Initiative for some answers.

    1. “Sullivan and I leave Vanier Park and weave through the leafy Kits Point enclave where, Sullivan knows, I once owned a home. “Can you see the whole thing as big, shiny high-rises?” he asks of Kits Point. He sees the expression of horror on my face and adds, “Okay, some mid-rise buildings too.”


      EcoDensity™? I think EcoDisaster™ is closer to the truth.