Anti-growth policies an antiquated approach to building cities

By Sam Sullivan, Special to the Sun
March 26, 2012,Vancouver Sun

I usually agree with Gordon Gibson, but not with his suggestion that Vancouver should just say no to growth and let him live a quiet life.

In the 1880s Canada decided to make Vancouver its “terminal city.” A monumentally expensive railway was built which functioned like a giant funnel, delivering people and products from across the country. This led to another funnel as 100 years of public investments in the port brought more people and products from the rest of the world. A freeway system from across Canada and another from the U.S. west coast contributed additional funnels to our terminal city. More funnels were added when our International Airport was built and Vancouver became the financing and servicing hub of our resource industries.

It is unfortunate that Gordon chose to find a peaceful and idyllic life in the place where our biggest city was placed, and after so much public and private investment in infrastructure. He no doubt benefits from the vitality that comes from the density of people and experiences. They are what brought all of us here in the first place.

The world is experiencing a powerful tide of urbanization. This is fortunate because high-density cities do far less damage to the environment per capita and provide a strong foundation to the new knowledge-based economy. Many people live in Vancouver because they love the advantages that come from urban places. People who want no change should go to the 99.9 per cent of the province that is non-urban and people who embrace change should go to urban places.

In fact, Gordon’s idea has already been tried and has led directly to many problems. In the 1960s a wave of social change swept Canada resulting in anti-urban ideals becoming official policy. The natural densification that was happening in the West End and pockets throughout Vancouver was stopped dead. The city was downzoned and economic activity was pushed to the suburbs. BC Tel, for example, was asked to take its plans for a new building elsewhere. It reluctantly located a few feet past Boundary Road. There was an unofficial moratorium on densification in all suburban inner-city neighbourhoods. Gordon’s recommendations have been city policy for the last 40 years. As a result, many neighbourhoods of Vancouver have lower populations now than they did in 1970!

Growth was pushed out of the city destroying many natural areas of our valley and the price of housing rose dramatically. Gordon might notice that many of the homes in his neighbourhood increased in value last year alone by about $500,000. Let me repeat: the increase in value for one year is more than many families can afford for a home in their lifetime. The strategy of pushing growth to other places has been a good one financially for homeowners who have located beside the funnels. Even better considering it is the only investment where capital gains are not taxed and are therefore subsidized by everyone else.

The ability for people to locate beside funnels and then freeze development was made possible by a variant of “participatory planning” which essentially gives megaphones to the most politically sophisticated interest groups. Shaughnessy and other neighbourhoods like Kitsilano were once filled with affordable rooming houses. After the 1970s, this version of participatory planning helped demolish or convert these buildings and a great segregation began. The Downtown Eastside, which had many middle-income people, became the place for only the poorest.

The urban reform that swept Canada in the 1960s was the third in the country’s history. We need a fourth wave of urban reform to overcome the problems created by previous waves. The anti-urban ideals that currently dominate municipal governments need to be replaced by a new model that unapologetically embraces the urban. The Vancouver Urban Forum will take place on June 6 and will consider new ideas for a fourth wave of urban reform. The sprawl meter on its website ( indicates that nine square feet per second in our region is swallowed up in suburban sprawl. The environmental, economic and social health of our city depends on our ability to overturn destructive elements of third-wave urban reform.

No one has suffered more from anti-growth policies than young people who are not able to live in the neighbourhoods they grew up in. They are forced into long commutes, driving daily past the people who have required them to live in developments that destroy our natural areas and generate up to 10 times more greenhouse gas emissions. Turning this around will be extremely difficult and will require the efforts of many people. Join the Fourth Wave Center for Urban Reform and participate in the Vancouver Urban Forum June 6 to begin this process.

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