January 30, 2015

Urbanization, Population and Policy: The Case of Vancouver

Pete McMartin in the Vancouver Sun:


Does Metro Vancouver have an optimum population? Is there a point where our numbers outstrip quality of life? …

Whether it’s nostalgia or xenophobia or ecological concern, or even our topography talking through us — with our stockade of mountains and the moat of the sea keeping the world at bay — many of us, if my mail is any indication, feel besieged.

In terms of the transit tax, the argument being made by the Yes side, which I count myself on, rests on the projection that there will be a million more people living in Metro Vancouver in 25 years.

That’s an intimidating number.

If you include the Fraser Valley regional district, it’s even more intimidating: Our population will reach four million by 2043. Depending on the year, that’s between 35,000 and 50,000 more people living here every year. We’ll have to build over 600,000 new dwellings to accommodate them. …

In strict environmental terms, this is long past untenable. Bill Rees, UBC professor emeritus, ecological economist and the man who coined the term “ecological footprint,” figured that the optimal self-sustaining population for Metro Vancouver was about 30,000. We passed that number in 1901.

“Our region is now almost entirely dependent on imports of food grown elsewhere,” Rees said. “If you assume the world is a stable place, and the next 50 years will look as stable as the last 50 years, then if you have more people here or less people here all depends on personal preference.

“But I don’t think the world will look like that in the next 50 years. I think because of climate change, we’ll be facing dramatic and, more likely, catastrophic changes.” Our choices? We either stop immigration to Canada completely, which won’t happen (though Rees thinks Canada is “vastly overpopulated” as it is), or we densify so we can protect what agricultural and rural land we have left. The worst thing we can do? Sprawl, and eat up our land base. …


Sun crowd



Gordon Price was a Vancouver city councillor during that period. Now director of The City Program at Simon Fraser University, Price, like Rees, has an historical perspective on the issue. His, however, is rooted in nostalgia, and the fear of change from a comfortable past.

“People’s ideals (of the city) are rooted in the mid-20th century. It’s increasingly looking like a unique moment in human history, particularly for North Americans and in particular for us in the West, that had the right circumstances at the right time. Wealth and land, location and political stability, education, and governance of law.”

Thus, the impulse to limit population has less to do with quality of life but with culture.

“That’s what people are really talking about, the anxiety that they may be losing their cultural roots and what they believe has created a quality way of life. … Population is really a surrogate for all the anxieties people feel about the people that have recently arrived.”

And therein lies a paradox, Price said. Ours is a culture of immigration. But if we limit immigration to save the culture, then we’ve changed the culture. We destroy what made us the city we’ve become.

“It really isn’t a question of whether (we) can accommodate the people. We’re rich, and we’re pretty good at it. We have a good infrastructure and a civilized culture. But it gets back to this question of ‘For whom and for what?’”

And therein lies another paradox. When you look at the list of most livable cities in the world, most are like Vancouver — temperate climate, lots of amenities and, importantly, populations in the two to three million range. Melbourne, Vienna, Helsinki, Copenhagen, us.

“And I think that is a nice size,” Price said, “because you have a nice size for the economy and amenities but not so big that your problems become intractable.”

One thing, though: These cities are victims of their own success. They’re growing fast, and becoming increasingly more expensive in which to live.

I told Price that I sometimes wondered, given Vancouver’s sleepy and parochial past and the prospect of its more uncertain future, if this was the city’s apex of livability.

Price, chuckling at his own admission, said: “I’ve always thought that; that the years between Expo and the Olympics will be seen as our best years, but I’ll leave that for history to judge.”

Posted in


If you love this region and have a view to its future please subscribe, donate, or become a Patron.

Share on


  1. There’s another paradox at work. Since many are immigrating from less developed areas to Canada for a better life, are we not damaging the environment by giving them more opportunities for consumption? It may sound harsh but since most strive for items they could not afford at home (a car, a detached house) they will automatically be consuming more here than they would have been in their home country.

    Ultimately the planet has too large a population to support comfortably. From an environmental perspective shouldn’t we be focusing on importing Western values that have led to falling or stable population here to the less developed world?

    Finally if we passed the carrying capacity of local agriculture in Vancouver at 30,000, maybe it’s time to let go of the agrarian fable of the ALR. The image I always carry of local ALR lands is the eerie glow emanating from the greenhouses in Delta. Are we sure they are as environmentally sound as importing food from more suitable climates?

    1. Are you suggesting that life in a cave was better, as surely there were less cars and CO2 emission then ? Human progress is bad ? Environment trumps humans ? No more immigration ? Let’s all go back to Europe or Asia ?

      I agree the ALR debate needs to be restarted. Does it make sense to grow blueberries where one could build housing, an urban park or expand harbours ?

      We indeed need more RAPID transit to further out but cheaper places to spread around the millions of folks. I’d say rail links to Tsawassen, WhiteRock, S-Richmond, Delta, Langley or Abbotsford are needed. Not more buses on already congested roads !

      Also missing is the option to create far more land in the midlands off UBC, Richmond, Delta or Surrey, several sq km of land could surely be created like the Dutch did here or in Holland 150+ years ago. Richmond essentially was just a sand bank until it was dyed, dried and developed. Why don’t we create another Richmond, say south of Surrey, towards Tsawassen or White Rock in what is today a fairly shallow bay ? Or west of Richmond. Much room to grow if the political leadership were a tad more visionary.

      1. An interesting concept, but given our geological situation reclaimed land probably isn’t the safest place to be in an earthquake.

        Were humans living in caves better for the planet? Absolutely but not better for homo sapiens. My point was that by bringing in more and more people we are degrading our environment. Maybe Mother Nature is trying to tell us something by tying falling birth rates to social and economic progress.

        1. But isn’t the environment there for humans enjoyment, to exploit, protect and enhance for their enjoyment & betterment ?

          Is Point Grey peninsula, for example without UBC or fancy houses – just forest – better than the current developed affair with a learning environment for 45,000+ students, Pacific Spirit Park, hiking trails, gardens, benches on the bench and jogging path BETTER than the previously pristine environment from 150 years ago ?

        2. @Thomas Beyer, I agree entirely with your example of Point Grey peninsula. I care about nature as environment – that is, as the context of human life. To me, Bob’s suggestion that people living in caves was “better for the planet” is meaningless because the planet is neither moral agent nor deity.

          For that reason, however, I am not in favor of spreading the city throughout the valley. First, we depend on the natural environment. In a stable system, making the most efficient use of it might be wise. But efficient systems are brittle. Capitalism has never been stable (hence its dynamism); today it and the environment it has altered are particularly volatile. We may soon need that land for something other than roads and tract homes.

          Second, I see economic efficiency as merely a means to human ends. In my view, sprawl isolates us, effaces our differences and dismantles our sense of a common world. Good urbanism is about meaningful places and interactions. Though that is my preference, I realize that many people feel most alive when they are in touch with nature. The suburban dream was for every family to have their own private green space. It has not worked out so well. Rather than slicing and dicing nature into thousands of front lawns, connection to nature is better served by denser more human development juxtaposed with rural or natural areas. (I actually believe the city has too much green space within it, not too little: this corresponds to too little greenspace surrounding and impinging on it.) To me, good urbanism preserves both community *and* nature, or we can slice both so thinly they evaporate in a tangle of pavement and automobiles.

          To me, your example of Point Grey perfectly illustrates my position: yes to spaces like Pacific Spirit Park, and yes to density nearby so that more people can appreciate what they have to offer.

          That said, I also realize that for many people the suburban dream lives on. I would not uproot them, blame or punish them for their choice. I think only that we should gradually withdraw subsidies for a lifestyle with so many costs.

    2. Chew on this – the entire population of America (circa 330 million) could fit in the state of texas with an acre each to their name – so before you start pontificating about over population consider the reality of the siutation

  2. Better or worse? Hmmm.

    Better for whom or for what?

    Depends on your philosophical position.

    From an anthropocentric (human-centered) position, of course, it’s better now for human use and enjoyment. From a non-anthropocentric perspective (where all beings and all life matter), it’s probably true to say that more species benefited from Point Grey in pre-settlement times. Or at least in pre-White settlement times.

    The thing is — all planning and development decisions — and values — are based on a human-centered view of life. That’s why planners need to study environmental ethics.

    Our biased human-centered worldview always gets in the way.

    1. Well, I think humans are on top of the food chain, and not mice, rats or fish.

      And yes, we have to take care of our environment, but first AND FOREMOST, of humans.

      1. There is a strong link between the state of our environment and the state of humanity. Mother nature is the support system for life on the planet, including human life. Most collapses of civilization in the past have been due to humans destroying the carrying capacity of the land. We are now on a race to do the same to the whole planet and the outcome will be unpleasant. The environment is the economy and it is the key to a planet which will sustain us. We trash the environment at our peril.

        1. The carrying capacity idea is by and large a MYTH. There are basically endless energy and resources for us that are not yet exploited. Human ingenuity goes a long long way.

          “Growth is not unsustainable. With freedom, including the freedom to produce energy, it is practically inevitable. We are not eating the last slice of pizza in the box or scraping the bottom of the barrel; we are standing on the tip of an endless iceberg.” .. more here as a related read: http://news.nationalpost.com/2014/12/24/alex-epstein-the-sustainability-myth/

          1. Growth is sustainable? If the current rate of population growth continues into the future, then in about 1000 years, the mass of humanity on the planet will be expanding outward at the speed of light.

            1. I am not saying “any growth”. I said “growth”. We see today that growth in Vancouver – the topic of this blog – is excessive and POORLY MANAGED as we have incompetent political leaders – without university degrees or real world commercial experience – running billion $ decisions. The lack of political leadership – ie cooperation between MetroVan leaders and provincial leaders – is astounding. Rapid transit is decades away (say a subway to UBC or along Marine Drive from W -Van and N-Van to downtown, or a rail link to Langley or White Rock). Missing is a candid discussion on property or land transfer taxes for large homes, mainly owned by rich immigrants paying little income taxes – or necessary infrastructure investments that are now finally starting – 20-30 years too late i.e. 2020’s not 1990’s .. it is all fine to have folks arrive here by the 100’s of thousands but the necessary infrastructure for education, healthcare, roads or transit is missing or far too small or too late. It is poor planning, integrated across a whole regions. Far too fragmented.

          2. Mr Beyer (and others), please don’t nest replies so deep. Maybe it’s just me, but I see your last reply in this thread displayed with one word per line, overlapped with the Categories list in the right margin. (Until I click reply, then your post gets about 5 words per line. What’s with that?) When discussion shifts towards back-and-forth replies, I suggest using the @user notation instead, replying to a post’s parent rather than the post itself. I would actually like to see what you have to say!

  3. A very interesting and very controversial column. The root cause of almost all our environmental problems is over-population. The BC birthrate is about 1.4. If we limit immigration to fill about 1.0, we’d have a pretty steady, level population. Housing costs would probably crash almost immediately. Over the long term, we could even reverse urban sprawl. I can’t imagine the financial impacts though. There’s probably some PhD thesis out there that studied all of this.

Subscribe to Viewpoint Vancouver

Get breaking news and fresh views, direct to your inbox.

Join 7,297 other subscribers

Show your Support

Check our Patreon page for stylish coffee mugs, private city tours, and more – or, make a one-time or recurring donation. Thank you for helping shape this place we love.

Popular Articles

See All

All Articles