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EcoDensity Transforming the Density Discussion – Part 1

By North-American standards, Vancouver is already a density-friendly city, relatively speaking. Although we've had our share of density related brawls and debates over the decades, by comparison to the wars fought in other cities, the "D-Word" gets a better reception here than in most places.

Brent Toderian | June 29, 2007, 10am PDT
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By North-American standards, Vancouver is already a density-friendly city, relatively speaking. Although we've had our share of density related brawls and debates over the decades, by comparison to the wars fought in other cities, the "D-Word" gets a better reception here than in most places. We've seen this in the doubling of downtown population (from 40,000 to almost 90,000 people in the downtown peninsula in recent decades), the excellent densification examples along our arterials and in our neighborhood centres, the success of our Community Visions and Neighborhood Centres exercises around new housing types, our Council approval a few years back allowing secondary suites in all single family zones, and so on.

One reason for this is that Vancouver has consistently shown that density can be done well, with excellent architecture, and careful attention to quality public realm design. Perhaps even more importantly, we've shown that density can not only lead to the population-driven benefits of more neighbors (such as supermarkets and other stores, schools staying open or new schools actually opening, better public transit, etc), but also to the kind of civic benefits and amenities usually needed to make density work, but so hard to actually deliver in many cities (i.e. parks, greenways, child care, cultural facilities, pools, rec centres, libraries etc). In Vancouver these are voluntarily provided by developers either through or on top of standard development charges/levies, as part of re-zoning proposals. Developers are willing to provide them due to the rigor/ consistency/ predictability of the application process (which means they can factor such costs into the initial price they pay for land), and the community support that often results because neighbors often see a "win-win" for them.

Vancouver has pioneered many processes and tools that consistently deliver both the high quality design and the amenities, and many other cities come to study the details of our "Vancouver Model" for high density livability. It's an approach, although not perfect (as no system ever is), that has lead to progressive city-building, and an unusual local perspective on density.

It's hard, then, to accept that with all these successes, we haven't gone far enough. The acceptance of density varies widely in different parts of the city (and region). Density approaches have differed significantly across neighborhoods. Strategic density options have been "parked" in many neighborhoods, awaiting a time when further study can occur. Around half of the city's land area is still made up of single family housing blocks, some of which have been reluctant to embrace new density, even "gentle" forms of densification such as row housing, coach houses, or units above garages ("Fonzi-suites", which are allowed in some neighborhoods, but not in most).

The hardest thing to ignore is the knowledge that we are still fundamentally a low density, single family household city, and that's a big reason why, according to the ecological footprint measurement, if everyone on the planet lived the way we Vancouverites do, it would take 4 planets to sustain us. Despite being an international model of livability and sustainability in the urban context, we are not yet a sustainable city. And our city-wide density is a big part of that need to improve.

This realization comes at a time when we've never been more aware of the consequences of climate change and other environmental threats, and our need to take action. While some strategies across the continent seem to nibble around the edges, the need remains to address the largest, hardest-to-change factor effecting our environment - our North American patterns of living, including our perceptions on density.

The good news is that Vancouver may be the best positioned city in North America to be a continuing model for change. We have the expanding tools and building blocks to do density well and to deliver the amenities that make density work. We have a growing level of citizen awareness around the connections of our living patterns - the most significant element being compactness and mixed use - and the consequences of climate change and the end of cheap energy. And we have a new initiative - EcoDensity – coined by Mayor Sam Sullivan, endorsed unanimously by City Council and being defined, operationalized and delivered by Staff, that is further transforming the discussion and debate about the need for a greater level of high quality, "green" densification.

Already many cities are watching how the term and related concepts are helping people make the connection between density, green technologies and the environment. And locals (including the media) are now starting with the acknowledgement that density is good for the environment, even if they proceed to debate whether a particular initiative or project should proceed, or how the broader EcoDensity initiative should role out. We've already turned a powerful corner – it's now difficult to say you're pro-environment, and anti-density.

Want to know more about EcoDensity? Part 2 (when I can get to it) will summarize the EcoDensity Initiative as we move to present the first set of Initiatives to Council in October. In the meantime, go to www.vancouver.ca/ecodensity to download the draft EcoDensity Charter, background communications pieces, media/video files of presentations, etc. Maybe it can help with your local discussions around density. It's a North American discussion that needs radical transformation.

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