Media Density Discussions are Needed for Cities

Brent Toderian's picture
Can any North American city have a meaningful public discussion about sustainability, about its "green-ness" or ecological footprint, without having the challenging but necessary public discussion about the city's density? 

Many are still trying to. Many freely trumpet smart growth and sustainability without the tension and trouble that comes with discussing the "d-word" openly, and thus avoid the necessary heavy-lifting. Few politicians, and embarrassingly not enough city planners, are willing to tackle the density issue publicly, as it is still what Sustainable Urbanism author Douglas Farr calls the "3rd rail" of sustainable city building.

There is, however, great commonality in thinking in expert circles that density done well is a critical component to reducing a city's carbon footprint. The vast majority of our city's greenhouse gas emissions come from buildings and transportation, both of which are powerfully determined or influenced by the city's density patterns.

But of course, what we've called "density done well" is not easy. What does that mean? How can it be done, with design, amenity, infrastructure, and neighbourhood voice? Here, the public weighs in loudly, and rightly so.

And as for the willingness of cities to put the issue front and centre, witness Vancouver. Density has been part of the dialogue for decades, and the public by comparison to most cities, is astute on the issues.

But since the launching of the EcoDensity Initiative in June 2006, the density discussion has been front-and-centre like never before. My previous posts have documented some of the steps, controversies and dialogue, which ramped up since November 2007 with two and a half months of consultation on the second draft of the EcoDensity Charter and Initial Actions (54 additional workshops or meetings with public or stakeholder groups to be exact, between Nov 27th and Feb 26th), followed by 7 nights of public delegate presentations to Council on the second drafts from Feb. 26th until early April.

The videos of our many hours of presentations and discussions at Council can be found on our EcoDensity website, and its been fascinating to see how they've been poured over, commented on, debated, by bloggers and media alike - the closest thing to reality tv I've been involved with in my career. Many for and against EcoDensity have commented that they have learned a tremendous amount during (and even enjoyed) the many evenings of public presentations and Council questions, much of it about what density done well could and should mean.

One of the most interesting results of this year and a half engagement though, has been the surprising number of media articles in our city and region about density and its link to sustainability. As most city planners will attest to, it is usually very difficult to get the media interested in planning matters. Although that is somewhat less true here in Vancouver, we have arguably been in a flurry of media attention with few past equals (although observers who have been here longer than I, may challenge that suggestion).

Not every reporter, pundit or letter-writer has agreed, and as one would expect, there have been pieces both positive and negative to the Initiative. Headlines have ranged from "The Price of EcoDensity" and "EcoDensity Raises Fears of Crowding without Amenities" to "The Argument for Density: Livable, Affordable and Kind to the Climate". A key point in the media back-and-forth came later in the game, when after running many articles and letters with varying perspectives, the Vancouver Sun in March 2008 ran a definitive op/ed from its editorial board endorsing the Initiative, entitled "Vancouver Neighbourhoods needn't fear the Impact of EcoDensity Plans."  

As I've read the many pieces, my occasional disappointment with mis-information, selective quotes or rhetoric in some, has generally been off-set by the pleasure that comes from seeing important city-building issues being discussed and debated openly in the media.

The surprising amount of dialogue on density has itself become news, as veteran civic affairs reporter Frances Bula for the Vancouver Sun noted in "EcoDensity Concept Gets Public's Attention" - "EcoDensity has emerged as the surprise hot-policy-topic of Vancouver with a second week of public meetings kicking off today to accommodate the 160-plus people who want to speak to Council to support it or oppose it." After a few nights of such hearings, another pundit wrote the headline "EcoDensity Debate Illuminating, Inspiring and Despairing", referencing the many broad perspectives strongly felt by those who spoke to Council.

In a second part of this post (soon-to-come), I'll assemble links to many of the media articles since the early days, for those with an interest.

Can a city have a meaningful discussion about sustainability without this kind of public and media discussion? I doubt it. It's a challenging discussion, but its necessary for any City that takes climate change and other environmental challenges, affordability, and a more resilient livability seriously. No matter what you think about the Initiative, it has gotten the public and media's attention and the dialogue going at a new level. I think that's a good thing for any city.

Interestingly, the dialogue has spread rapidly past our border, as cities from Canada to the US to Europe follow the discussion, and watch for signs of our success or failure. Some have suggested to me that, to a certain extent, we are doing some of the heavy-lifting for them, by leading the way and educating their own local dialogue on density.

Council has just given us direction to prepare a third (and presumably final) draft influenced by everything we've heard, to present to Council on June 10th. Given the tremendous amount of dialogue there's been, we have our work cut out for us.


Brent Toderian is an international consultant on advanced urbanism with TODERIAN UrbanWORKS, Vancouver’s former Director of City Planning, and the President of the Council for Canadian Urbanism. Follow him on Twitter @BrentToderian


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