Densification is the path to affordable housing

The explosion of single-family homes — a.k.a. Suburban Domination — is bad for the environment

Special to the Vancouver Sun

In the early 1970s an urban reform movement swept North America. Inspired by authors such as Jane Jacobs who railed against the “highway, highrise city,” Vancouver avoided a highway through its downtown and a new era of participatory planning was ushered in.

From this point on neighbourhoods would determine their own destiny. The free market which had created the West End towers on previous single-family homes and was now resulting in towers across the water in Kitsilano was successfully reined in. The urban reform movement not only stopped the highway, it stopped the highrise.

From 1972 to 1986 virtually no residential highrise towers were built in the city of Vancouver. Since 1986 the only residential highrise buildings have been built at the expense of commercial, industrial and low-rise apartment land.

It is not a coincidence that the early 1970s are recognized by textbooks as the beginning of a period called Suburban Domination. Before then the city grew at the same rate as the suburbs. After that the suburbs exploded with low-density sprawl. It is also not a coincidence that cutting off the supply of housing in the city of Vancouver marked the point at which the cost of housing began its steep rise.

With the decision to say no to the market’s demand for higher density housing, pressure mounted to convert commercial and industrial land. So began an exodus as employment activity was forced out into business parks in the suburbs. These parks are recognized by regional planners as one of our most serious environmental and economic problems. Despite the establishment of the Agricultural Land Reserve, wildlife habitat and green areas were paved over with sprawl. People who grew up in Vancouver had to face the fact that they were being priced out of their own city.

The resistance to higher density housing on residential land had another impact. Air-quality started to deteriorate and scientists raised the alarm about global warming. Across North America almost all of the growth of cities was in a thin, life-choking layer of carbon producing sprawl.

Researchers have recently turned their attention to the environmental cost of different forms of housing. Their conclusions are sobering. The single detached house will emit four times as much greenhouse gas as a unit in a highrise tower. When you add to this the emissions associated with transportation the problem is even more serious. Where the average person living in a downtown tower creates less than two tonnes of greenhouse gas per year, the person living in a distant suburb can create more than six times that amount.

In addition, if we continue on our path of development our region will lose the equivalent of 25 Stanley Parks to sprawl in the next 20 years. Even a mid-rise building can cause more than double the wildlife habitat and green space loss of a highrise tower. In fact, every tower built in the city can save the equivalent of up to five city blocks of wildlife habitat.

The year 1995 was a time of great hope for me. The remarkable city plan process asked citizens to decide the future they wanted for their city. The results were staggering. More than 80 per cent of the citizens of Vancouver wanted nodes of high density throughout their single-family neighbourhoods and they overwhelmingly rejected converting industrial and commercial land into condos.

My hopes were soon dashed. One of the first neighbourhood vision processes resulted in a net loss of housing in the city. While small victories were achieved in some neighbourhoods the real result was a further entrenchment of the status quo.

Suburban Domination was safe from threat.

I am convinced that the way we plan our regions has utterly failed us and if this is not corrected we will continue to set a terrible example for the developing world. We need to change the rules of the game. We can no longer use government as a tool to push people who need housing ever further out into the suburbs. We need to remove the constraints that prevent people from building the kinds of housing that people want at the prices they can afford. We cannot continue to have private interests using government to thwart the housing that the market wants to provide and that the public good demands.

We must celebrate the remarkable achievements of the urban reform movement but also recognize the well-intentioned errors.

I predict that the period of Suburban Domination will end when someday, somewhere in North America, for the first time in 40 years, a single detached home will be rezoned to a tower.

This will signal at last the end of the violence we are doing to our planet and usher in a new, responsible era of city building.

Sam Sullivan, the former mayor of Vancouver, heads the Global Civic Policy Society.