January 21, 2020

The Coupland Primer: Some of the Basics on The Grand Bargain

Andy Coupland was the go-to guy for stats and data at Vancouver City Hall – and who periodically visits Price Tags with comments and corrections.  With John Atkin, he’s been giving us great insights on our past in Changing Vancouver, and on our present in Changing City Updates.

We asked Andy to do a background to The Grand Bargain and what Vancouverites (City and Metro) should know about this town, especially if they are going to weigh in on the housing crisis and to participate in the City-Wide Plan. 

So here’s the first post in an Andy Coupland Primer:



Metro Vancouver isn’t growing any bigger geographically.  But every year its population grows by an average of over 30,000.  So in the past 30 years, over a million extra people have been added, to reach the current population of around 2.5 million.

The City of Vancouver has grown too – 200,000 more people in the same 30-year period.

Some ask: does the City of Vancouver need to add any more people? Others are outraged that the City limits development anywhere.

A reasonable approach fits into the middle somewhere: we can’t or shouldn’t pull up the drawbridge, but there has to be a managed growth that doesn’t encourage Random Acts of Density in locations where services are inadequate.


Within the 2,870 square kilometers of the region, two thirds is effectively off-limits for development.*

That means that effectively there are only 837 square kilometers of land where development can occur (29% of the total Metro area). Within this relatively limited area, less than 10% is ‘green field’ land.

The result: in all the region, only 78 square kilometres have never been developed – an area somewhat smaller than the City of Vancouver.

The City of Vancouver has only has five percent of the region’s total land area – just 116 sq. km. Because very little of the city is off-limits for development, it has just under 12 percent of the region’s developable area.

By the 1990s almost everywhere in the City of Vancouver had already been built on.  In a few spots in downtown, the buildings being constructed today are the fifth on the site, despite the city’s relatively short history.

Nonetheless, the City of Vancouver added on average around 5,600 people a year between 2011 and 2016** despite having almost all the developable land already built out and the highest population density of all the region’s municipalities.

Yet in the same time period, the city also saw an average of 5,500 new homes added every year. At first, that just sounds wrong – almost a new home for every new resident? There are several reasons.

The 5,500 is not net growth – about a thousand homes a year are demolished and almost always replaced by other ones. So only 4,500 additional homes are added each year. But not all of those were occupied with new residents – at least, not in 2016. Some had ‘non-permanent’ residents – students studying here; temporary foreign workers. Some were used as pied-a-terre; some were second homes, some business-owned.  Some are occupied by suburban parents to use a couple of times a week when commuting home was inconvenient. A few were owned by wealthy foreigners with multiple homes around the globe. Some were on AirBnB. Some were vacant, awaiting sale or recently completed.  A few were bought purely as an inflating investment, with rising value offsetting taxes and strata fees.

Conclusion: in five years there were just over 3,000 more dwellings in the city not occupied by usual residents.

It’s not a huge number, but in a city with very low vacant rental rate and a serious affordability problem, it was considered to be a problem worth trying to tackle. So the City of Vancouver, and then the Province (and soon the Federal Government) are taxing homes that aren’t occupied either by the owner or a tenant. Non-residents pay higher taxes. AirBnB (and similar platforms) are being pursued; the rules about how much of a home can be offered as a vacation rental, and for how long, have been tightened up and are being applied. The CRA is going after speculators who buy and resell properties in a rising market, but ‘forget’ to report the increase as a capital gain.

Together these policies are having an impact: the number of vacant homes paying the empty property tax is falling.  In the meanwhile the City and Province have a windfall receipt to spend on long-term affordable housing.


*Nearly half (47%) is reserved as Conservation and Recreation and 19% is part of the Agricultural Land Reserve. Another 4% is designated ‘rural’, where nothing is expected to change much. Some municipalities are heavily constrained by this, others barely affected at all.

**That’s a net figure; far more newcomers arrived, but some of the existing population died, or moved out of the city.


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  1. Thank you for this very informative post. It tends to dovetail well with the extensive research and mapping published by Jens von Bergmann in Mountain Math & Mountain Doodles.

    The map linked below is especially informative and visually captures where future growth, and I mean lots of future growth, should go. Namely the yellow and lime green areas that plaster the landscape.


    With virtually zero greenfield land left to develop, short of filling in English Bay and carving up the ALR, parks and watersheds, it’s painfully clear that the large lot with a detached house has become obsolete and does not in any way represent a viable way forward to building the urban region for the 21st Century. Yet the detached home surrounded by generous open space still occupies a sacrosanct position in the political and planning psyche. There they are, street after street of 50-footers not 300 m from Oakridge or 500 m from Metrotown, enough open lawns to pasture half of England’s sheep population.

    Some have said that the regional town centre connected by rapid transit was the grand bargain posed under the Livable Regions Strategic Plan: to absorb most of the urban growth and economic pressures. Perhaps so. But the bargain also has a silent clause that protects the sprawling open lots that are broadly painted over every city in the Metro. As the result we see very tall tower clusters spiking up very, very high amidst a sea of low profile rooftops. This is a planning generalist’s success story. It is also an urban design nightmare. That is, the story is only half written now that the limited downtown, mall and disposable industrial lands have being consumed so quickly. By any definition that is the low-hanging fruit.

    What next?

    The only viable answer is the Missing Middle that would infill and / or replace the detached home on open lots. And that is where broad brush planning needs to leave the scene to allow creative urban design to step in at the finer scale. There is a myriad of design and site planning solutions to a plethora of challenges. Land cost, transportation, raising kids in denser communities, supplying public services, protecting heritage architecture and trees, enhancing neighbourhood character, energy conservation, strata vs. fee simple, all these and more can be addressed through urban design and architectural analysis, conceptualization and mitigation while building more housing.

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