June 17, 2015

Paradise Cost: Density and the Eden Complex

PT: Paul Luke covered the issue of our times in a weekend feature in The Province: “The great density debate: Just how fast is Metro Vancouver growing?“.

Actually, it wasn’t really about so much about density as how to do it.  There isn’t significant disagreement about the projected million more people by 2041, since that’s about the same rate of growth as we’ve already experienced – and if anything it’s way too conservative.  Depending on geopolitical and environmental developments, we could be looking at over two million people crowding into the region in the next few decades.

But how should growth of whatever degree be accommodated?  That’s where the debate is. 


DensitySome people call Metro Vancouver a patch of Eden. They see it as a region so blessed with stability, clean environment and cultural diversity that it has become the envy of the world.

Others are less impressed. They suggest Metro’s 2,474,123 residents resemble cattle squashed into an over-crowded feed lot. They don’t have enough land left to feed themselves and are befouling their environment with high-maintenance lifestyles.

Those who view the region as paradise and those who view it as pigpen agree on one thing: It’s bound to get more crowded over the next few years.

Just how crowded — and how crowded it should get — is subject to debate.

In Metro’s recent transit plebiscite, it was argued that residents need to invest more in public transportation to handle the 1,068,000 people expected to arrive here between 2011 and 2041. Results of the plebiscite are expected later this month.

According to Metro, which made the projection based on demographic trends, regional economic growth and global immigration patterns, the region’s population will climb to 3,425,000 by 2041.

Brent Toderian, former chief planner at the city of Vancouver, says it’s unclear whether Metro will hit the million-mark in new arrivals on schedule. Population projections are just educated guesses based on certain assumptions, says Toderian, now a planning consultant at Toderian Urbanworks. But people will pour into the region whether or not government encourages them, says Toderian, who rejects the notion of an ideal size for cities or regions.

“There are great cities across the world of every size and horrible cities across the world of every size,” he says. “The real choice in regions usually isn’t yes or no to growth but whether that growth is infill or sprawl.”

Infill is replacing lower-density buildings with higher-density ones in existing built-up areas.

The few cities that have tried to limit growth have often created or aggravated other problems, he says — not the least of which is affordability.

“If you’re trying to pull up the drawbridge, that doesn’t necessarily mean less people will come,” Toderian says. “People still come — they just come in ways that translate into scenarios like favelas in Latin America or illegal suites in North America.”

Metro’s constrained land area places limits on its ability to sprawl, he says. This constraint will force the region to grow wisely by nurturing public transit, the development of walkable communities and by relying less on cars, Toderian says.

Patrick Condon, a former city planner and now a landscape architecture professor at University of B.C., says Metro is encouraging population growth through policies such as zoning for high density around the region’s transit nodes.

Condon’s own research suggests the region could handle double the projected increase of one million without encroaching on protected lands.

By practising “gentle densification” the region could easily grow to more than four million people by 2060 — and improve its livability, Condon says.

“Strip commercial” areas along the region’s arterial roads can be converted to mid-rise and medium-density mixed uses, he says.

Laneway houses and additional rental suites in former single family zones also make it possible for more people to live in existing areas.

“By adding density, it’s possible to make things better, not worse,” Condon says.

“The Kitsilano area of Vancouver is three to four times denser than the regional average. Yet it has no high rises. It is all detached and mid-rise density homes.”


‘Projections are meaningless’

Andrew Ramlo, a demographer with Urban Futures Institute, says there is generally no maximum size for cities, or regions such as Metro Vancouver. Well-regarded cities such as London, Paris and New York are larger than Metro, he says.

“All are cities or city-regions with much larger populations than Vancouver and all are livable, vibrant places,” Ramlo says.

The combined density of Metro and the Fraser Valley Regional District was 170 people per square kilometre in 2014. This would rise to 248 people per square kilometre in 2044 if no land is annexed, Urban Futures says.

Condon says the projection of an additional million people in Metro is reasonable, although global events means these new residents may arrive before or after 2040. A second financial crisis might slow the flow of arrivals while stresses in other countries may accelerate arrivals through more immigration, he says.

Bill Rees, a retired UBC professor of community and regional planning, calls Metro’s projection that another million people will live here by 2041 “a comedy” given the growing uncertainties and risks facing the world.

“Almost all population projections are meaningless,” says Rees, an ecological economist. “One of the most important things to keep in mind is that they are often very wrong.

“When they talk about adding another million people to this area … it’s not going to be that easy. It’s going to be a very different world than the one we’re in today.”

Metro, based on the local land area and resources its residents need to feed themselves, is already grossly over-populated, Rees says.

Each Canadian needs 15-17 acres of the earth’s surface to support his or her current lifestyle, Rees says. That means Metro and the Fraser Valley could, together, support 30,000-40,000 people, he says.

“Think of the modern city as the human equivalent of a livestock feed lot,” Rees says. “You have a huge, overstuffed population. The land needed to feed and support them is tens of thousands of hectares somewhere else.”

The local feed lot could wind up getting fewer than the million new residents Metro projects, he says.

It could also get far more would-be migrants as the Earth’s climate changes, he says.

Geological records show that in the past the world’s sea levels have risen several metres in a matter of decades, he says.

“Because of changes that cause an environmental disaster elsewhere, we could be asked to take not a million people but tens of millions of climate refugees,” Rees says. “This is not a prediction but it is a plausible scenario.”

Gordon Price, a former Vancouver city councillor and current director of The City Program at Simon Fraser University, says the region is already in the early stages of receiving climate refugees as affluent people from the U.S. mid-west buy homes here to escape the summer heat.


‘Eden complex’

Metro’s fertile soils, moderate temperatures and abundant waters qualify the area as a kind of urban paradise, Price says.

Even as the region grows, it’s still in the population range of two to three million that characterizes other highly livable cities such as Vienna and Melbourne, he says.

Metro residents have developed an “Eden complex” in which they wish to preserve their paradise — nix to tankers and pipelines — but want to continue exploiting the natural resources such as minerals, coal and timber that built the area’s wealth in the first place, Price says.

No wonder, Toderian says, that voices in livable cities will occasionally be heard to say that growth should stop.

“Given human nature, it’s not unusual to want to pull up the drawbridge after you have your piece of paradise — mind you, only after you have it, not before you have it,” Toderian says.

“Thankfully, in our region, and in most cities around the world, the “no growth” argument is rarely given much credibility.”

Price argues the years between Expo 86 and the 2010 Winter Olympics were a golden age for Vancouver and to a degree for Metro as the area accommodated immigration, invested in transit and remained affordable for the middle class — even though housing costs were high.

Some may wonder whether the region remains in its golden age or has been kicked out of paradise as it open its arms to another million residents. Try asking Price that question in 25 years.

“Waaay to early to say,” he says. “Need a few years for some perspective.”


Brent Toderian expands his thoughts at Planetizen: How Cities Grow Big; Not How Big Cities Grow!


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  1. Don’t demographics matter?

    People are drawn to a city. For years, young people moved to LA, hoping to break into Hollywood. Others moved to Detroit to build cars. Young men moved to Alberta for the oil industry. People flocked to Silicon Valley to work in high tech. New York, Paris, and Milan are fashion houses. Now, Seattle is growing fast, due to companies like Amazon who are hiring thousands.

    Are people just buying into Vancouver for political stability and clean air? No new jobs or industry? Does that mean these new 1,000,000 people are going to be predominantly rich, older people from unstable countries? We’re not going to attract the young go-getters and young families? Are we actually going to displace the young people that we already have?

    Shouldn’t we at least think about who is coming? Instead of just how many? If we’re becoming a city of wealthier, older people looking for single family homes and luxury cars with no need to commute downtown, isn’t that an important thing to consider when planning micro-condos and bike paths?

  2. Kirk – very well put. What will be the locational and housing type needs of this influx, and what employment needs? Something you may be suggesting and may happen if we aren’t careful is a dystopian future of a super wealthy “transnational” class with no job requirements (here) and a poor service/servant underclass living in those microunits we hear so much about.

    1. Thanks Frank. I hate losing the bright eyed, bushy tailed, eager and enthusiastic, ready to change the world, young people. But, the article said that they’d need an income of $400,000(!!!) to stay here. And, you know, that’s fine with me. I’ve pretty much come to accept that. This is the future of Vancouver. I get it. I really do. Early on, I couldn’t believe it, but now, if anything, it’s actually accelerating toward that future.

      So, my point is, given that this is our new reality, how does this affect urban planning? Let’s not pretend it’s not happening. Let’s not be in denial. Because, if we bury our heads in the sand, how can we properly plan? A city of luxury mansions and microunits? Okay, I agree, that is indeed actually a very realistic future, and we should plan for it. Maybe put microunits around areas neighbouring Shaunessey and Point Grey for service workers? These are the kinds of conversations we need.

      1. A subway below Hastings, for example, would revitalize E-Van and associated re-zoning 2-3 blocks on either way of Hastings to Burnaby would create tens of thousands of new affordable condo units within minutes of downtown. Easily doable with enough “vision”, self funding from development levies and property taxes collected, plus parking fees for all cars on any residential roads in Vancouver, plus taxes on foreign owned houses.

        It’s happening in N-Van, up from Lonsdale Quay. Why not E-Van, for example ?

        What is happening in Vancouver is not all that untypical compared to other large desirable cities worldwide: Singapore, Vienna, Boston, SF, LA, New York, Paris, London .. most of them though have better RAPID transit in all direction, s.th. missing in Vancouver going east, west AND north !

        1. Well, yes today as Broadway is already dense, but not if E-Van is included and Hastings area is upzoned as it should be. It is almost all single family homes, even right on Cordova, Hastings or Terminal .. all major throughroads. And if extended over Second Narrows Bridge would go to N-Van, then onto a full loop through Park Royal via Lonsdale under Marine Drive in N-Van & W-Van back to downtown.

          A major hole in the current (very weak) transportation proposal.

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