In an earlier post, I wrote about how the EcoDensity Initiative here in Vancouver has been transforming the public dialogue about density ( http://www.planetizen.com/node/25399 ). Since then, over autumn, the conversations have intensified, with Vancouverites from all perspectives weighing in. Just Google "ecodensity" for a flavour of what's being written, in media, articles, and blogs, etc. The community is very aware and engaged in this important initiative, and that's a great thing.
It's clear, not everyone feels that change in Vancouver is necessary, and some have spoken about the "price" of EcoDensity. Some are passionate in their belief that additional density, for whatever reason, may diminish the city's existing quality of life, and certainly their own. Some worry that change will come in the same form everywhere, such as high rise towers, and only market condos. They worry it will come without the public amenity and transit that makes neighbourhoods work better for more people. They ask "how do we know it will be "eco", and not just more density?" They comment on profit for developers, and pressures on existing houses around gentrification and affordability. They question how we'll still have a diverse social and income mix? Will everything look the same, or will a neighbourhood's special design character still be respected? They wonder if they will be heard, before more detailed decisions are made. And yes, they worry about important details in their lives, like sunlight on their private gardens.
To some, these concerns are reasons to oppose change, or at least to want it to slow down substantially.
Many other neighbours though, seem to see their neighbourhood's future differently. They may share similar concerns, but have told us that they believe meaningful change is necessary. Maybe because of the implications of climate change, or because they've seen density work well in their neighbourhood before with design and amenities and vitality, or because they want the chance to build a mortgage-helper unit above the garage or a coach house for their kids so they can stay in the neighbourhood. They see change as a way to protect or improve their livability, and help with affordability and they tell us so. The status quo isn't working for them.
They want it to be done the right way, with beautiful, green design and strong eco-performance technologies. They don't want towers everywhere, not in the middle of single family residential blocks to be sure, but are interested in discussing other kinds of density, what we've called "gentle, hidden or invisible density" (although these are admittedly very subjective terms) like row houses, basement suites or lane-housing such as coach houses or rental "fonzi-suites" above garages, that keep a single family scale to their block. Many are seeing their single family neighbourhood changing anyway, with older character houses being torn down for larger single family houses that could have had green, less expensive units within them, but didn't.
They want it done for the right reasons, with a reasonable amount of the "windfall" of the land value lift landing in community benefits and green performance, not just in the profit lines of developments (even though often much of the profit has been realized by the seller of land to developers in the past, not to the developers themselves). We've messaged this to developers, suggesting they wait and see what Council expects in return to make the density work before they pay too much for land.
Many Vancouverites speak of a different price – the price of inaction, of not avoiding or being ready for the consequences of climate change and the end of cheap energy. They say we can't pretend we don't know that change will occur to North American cities, faster than it has in the past, whether we want it to or not. Those changes are already bringing big costs. They expect us not to wait and react, but to plan and manage.
These neighbours mirror the message we're hearing from experts and scientists in our own community and beyond, who are helping us measure how density by itself is indeed "eco", in that it substantially decreases our eco-impacts through both transportation and building energy. But clearly, when density is combined with and enables green technology such as district energy, the ecological benefits are truly powerful. Thankfully learned individuals like the University of British Columbia's Dr. William Rees (internationally famous as the inventor of the ecological footprint concept), have been advisors to us throughout this process.
In particular, young people are telling us they want us to do better. It is truly sobering to have young Vancouverites passionately tell us we haven't done enough to ensure their quality of life, their livability. They may be the most aware of the generations around climate change, perhaps because they will be living with the consequences – the price - much longer than we. And in the immediate sense, they tell us they have too few places to live, particularly affordable/flexible rental and ownership options.
There are many perspectives, many voices, in this interesting civic discussion, and we're not done listening.
The next step began last week with the presenting of the draft "EcoDensity Charter" and initial ideas for action to Council, for discussion and referral to a special council meeting at the end of February next year. We'll be spending the next three months listening to the public's thoughts on the drafts, which are far from "written in stone".
For those of you working through density discussions of your own, I'd love to hear your comments, and your own approaches, case studies and anecdotes.