EcoDensity: Vancouver city hall concerns shift dramatically

Regulators will be asking developers what their proposals will contribute to helping save the planet
By Bob Ransford
Vancouver Sun
Vancouver may not be leading the way in sustainable urban development, but the city is poised to make up ground in the race to sustainability at a rapid pace.
There’s a new era in urban development rapidly dawning in Vancouver. It’s one where our individualistic and hedonistic obsession with the lifestyle pleasures of our special natural setting will be replaced with a collective serious concern for sustaining the ecosystems that are at the heart of our natural environment. The “eco” part of Mayor Sam Sullivan’s nifty brand name for new urban growth — EcoDensity — is taking on a real meaning under the leadership of Brent Toderian, Vancouver’s new director of planning.

Most suspected that Toderian had a serious green streak running through his planning ethos when he replaced his high-profile predecessor Larry Beasley, who developed an almost cultish following as a poster child for the new urbanism. But few knew how deep that streak runs in Toderian.
The new urbanism, a planning theory born more than two decades ago in the U.S., advocates the design of new “walkable” neighbourhoods that contain a diverse range of housing, jobs and high quality amenities.
Beasley guided the development of Vancouver’s own brand of the new urbanism with the rebirth of our downtown as a vibrant place for people to live and work. Some have argued, though, that the new urbanism has historically put too much emphasis on human livability and not enough on protecting the natural environment. In many ways, new urbanists focus on creating great places for people, embracing sustainable development by emphasizing principles like access to public transit, while focusing not so much on green building technology and the finer details of natural ecosystem preservation.
The focus of new urbanists is changing, just as concern for global warming and peak oil is suddenly engulfing public opinion in all circles.
New urbanist planners, like Toderian, are leading the way, reminding us that livability may be an important pursuit, but that livability means little if the planet no longer exists as a habitable environment for humans and all other creatures.
Toderian has already come out and told developers, politicians and citizen advisors — and anyone else who wants to listen to his message — that livability will no longer be the first indicator used to measure the quality of development in Vancouver. He is leading the way in replacing that benchmark with what he believes is a more urgent measure of our commitment to sustainability. Ecological sustainability will now be the measure of expected performance when judging new proposed developments in Vancouver.
Instead of asking how a development will improve quality of life in the city, Vancouver planners will be asking the question: how will that development contribute to helping save the planet?
This is a crucial difference. This shift in thinking at Vancouver City Hall is pretty dramatic.
What does it mean for the ordinary citizen in one of Vancouver’s typical single family neighbourhoods?
Well, when you combine this thinking with the policy direction that the mayor set a year ago in announcing his EcoDensity initiative, it means neighbourhoods are going to change and change will be measured not by how much or how little they disrupt current lifestyle in a neighbourhood. Instead, proposed change will be measured by how much it influences future lifestyle decisions that have the potential to impact positively or negatively our natural environment and its ecosystems.
Implementing this new planning ethos will take some crafty communicating. Stay tuned.