Living large on a small planet

Source: The Globe and Mail Thu 25 Jan 2007
Byline: Gary Mason,
While Mayor Sam Sullivan’s Eco-Density initiative hasn’t produced much excitement locally, it’s drawing attention elsewhere.
The program, which promotes increasing density as a means of reducing our collective impact on the planet, is the subject of a lengthy and mostly positive examination in a recent issue of Planning, a highly influential magazine put out by the American Planning Association.
Densification, of course, is not new. It has been tried elsewhere in North America with mixed to little success. People have become accustomed to their sprawling single-family dwellings and don’t like the idea of anything cramping their lifestyle. But because of the debate now raging around climate change, the timing may be right for densification initiatives that are predicated on the need to reduce our “ecological footprint.”

The term refers to the amount of land and water a human population requires to accommodate the resources it consumes and the waste it produces. The concept and formula by which a city’s (or country’s) ecological footprint can be measured was created by William Rees, an ecological economist at the University of British Columbia.
There was a minor buzz around Prof. Rees’s idea in the late 1990s, mostly upon the release of a book he co-authored on the subject. Now, however, fresh momentum seems to be building behind his work, momentum being used to justify hard-to-sell initiatives such as densification.
Chalk it up to the greenmania sweeping North America.
Canadians currently require a per capita average of 7.25 global hectares of land to support their lifestyle. Globally, the average amount of productive ecosystem is 1.8 hectares a person and the average ecological footprint is currently about 2.2 hectares.
In other words, we are living as if our planet were 20 to 25 per cent larger than it actually is. Or, in the words of men like Prof. Rees, we are in a state of “overshoot.”
According to the Living Planet Report of 2006, the United States had an ecological footprint in 2003 of about 9.5 global hectares a person. Given that the planet’s remaining supply of productive land and water is, as mentioned, about 1.8 hectares per person, the United States would need four more planets to sustain its current standard of living.
Greater Vancouver’s 2.1 million residents have a per capita ecological footprint of 6.7 hectares. Or put another way, the total ecological footprint of the region is almost 300 times its geographical area. Despite all its claims, Vancouver is far from being a sustainable city.
The primary components of a city’s ecological footprint are personal transportation and the construction and operation of buildings — residential or otherwise. Running buildings of any type requires huge amounts of energy.
In an earlier study, Prof. Rees found that moving from a single- family home to either a three-storey walkup or high-rise resulted in a 40-per-cent reduction in the ecological footprint related to transportation and house maintenance.
Density is good for the environment. Anything that is good for the environment has become a much easier sell politically these days. This is why Mr. Sullivan has rebranded the city’s densification efforts under the Eco-Density banner.
Vancouver has been a leader in densification over the past 10 to 15 years. However, it has mainly consisted of building residential high-rises on unoccupied brown sites. The process gets harder now as the city tries to densify neighbourhoods of single-family homes — a group that has historically resisted such efforts throughout North America. The word “livability” has always led city planning efforts here. Consequently, Vancouver is one of the most livable cities in the world. But under Eco- Density, the degree to which new projects achieve ecological sustainability will be the new measure and definition of success — not livability.
Brent Toderian, the city’s new director of planning, agrees that Prof. Rees’s notion of an ecological footprint is a concept whose time has come.”There is no question it’s gaining traction,” Mr. Toderian says. “The ideas of livability and sustainability have been two things that have for a long time been very subjective.
“The power of the ecological footprint is that it takes away some of that subjectivity. It gives us a way to measure and quantify things. You can now calculate your own personal footprint and I can tell you it can be shocking when you see it.”
Vancouver is experimenting with many options to eco-densify, including converting single-family houses to three-dwelling units without changing the facade of the home. Otherwise known as invisible density. The city has appealed to residents for their own ideas of how to densify intelligently.
“I don’t think there is a city better positioned to have this discussion,” Mr. Toderian says. “Vancouverites, better than most, can make the connection between their living patterns, density patterns and issues like climate change.”
Which is an issue that seems to be framing every discussion we have these days.