Densification under microscope

June 6 forum will debate which way ‘sprawl meter’ should tick
By Jeff Lee, Vancouver Sun June 1, 2012

When Harvard urban economist Ed Glaeser looks at Vancouver, he sees an example for the rest of the world of a successful economic powerhouse. With its tall towers, airy space, dramatic views and proximity to wilderness and countryside, Vancouver is admired for “get-ting it right,” he says.

But when former Vancouver mayor Sam Sullivan looks at his city, he sees a place that still hasn’t met Glaeser’s argument that healthy cities are afford-able and not generators of sub-urban sprawl.

To demonstrate his point, Sullivan, who has long argued for urban densification, points to the University of B.C.’s web-based “sprawl meter,” created by the Design Centre for Sustainability, that shows more than 343,000 sq. ft of land in the Metro-Fraser Valley region between Hope and Squamish has been converted to urban area since March 2011. That’s a rate of more than nine square feet per second.

Both men agree that cities are increasingly becoming the world’s major economic generators. And they say what is helping to propel those changes is the desire by more people to exchange suburban living with its commuting cost for condominiums and easier access to cultural amenities.

But that move to cities is being stalled by what Sullivan says is an institutional bias against densification.

On June 6, Glaeser, the Fred and Eleanor Glimp professor of economics at Harvard University, will be the keynote speaker at a one-day forum on urban issues organized by Sullivan that the former mayor hopes will generate debate about the need for greater urban densification around the world.

“Most urban thinkers would argue that we should live lighter on the planet, and you can do that by having higher-density cities,” Sullivan said. “The Vancouver forum would succeed in my mind when the sprawl-meter clock starts going the other way.”

To help in that debate, Sullivan has brought in a number of other urban land professionals, architects, mayors and academics to speak at the forum, which is being organized through his Global Civic Policy Society.

Glaeser, the author of the critically reviewed Triumph of the City: How Our Greatest Invention Makes Us Richer, Smarter, Greener, Healthier, and Hap-pier, said in an interview that cities, once places people fled, have come into vogue again.

“The New York I grew up in 45 years ago in Manhattan is an example. Living in the city didn’t seem like a very great idea. We’ve seen a radical reshaping of that, where a majority of people find city living to be far more attractive than they once did,” he said. “In part that’s the result of cities becoming safer and more pleasant but it is also because of cities excelling and providing an ongoing array of entertainment and forms of cultural innovation.”

And yet Glaeser says he believes many city administrations still resist rezoning or densifying their cores at the peril of creating more sprawl.

“They make it more difficult. Every time you say no to a project you say no to families with children moving into the area. I will also argue there are environmental costs to this; when we make it difficult for people to build up it is natural for people to build out, with adverse consequences on the environment.”

Glaeser said Vancouver, for all its success, suffers from that problem, as can be seen from its high housing prices.

“I certainly think of Vancouver as a successful city in many different ways. Too many of our cities are overly restrictive in terms of the amount of building they allow and the impact of that is the cities become boutique towns affordable only to the wealthy,” he said.

“I think Vancouver has been better than some, but assuredly it could do more to allow more densification as well if afford-ability is critical. There is no way to break the laws of supply and demand; if you have a city that is highly attractive and you don’t allow it to build, it will become expensive.”

But how do you encourage densification in central city areas like Vancouver when sub-urban communities like Langley, Maple Ridge, Abbotsford, Richmond, Surrey and other municipalities want to grow?

Sullivan believes pressure on those cities would dramatically drop if Vancouver were to relax its rezoning policies. “You know, in most of my 15 years in city hall most of our energy was spent stopping density. The whole regime of rezoning is created to stop density, which is actually the opposite of what you want to do.”

Other speakers include Alan Broadbent, Toronto-based author of Urban Nation; Gil Penalosa, former municipal leader of Bogota and founder of 8-80 Cities; University of Alberta political professor Jim Lightbody; Redwood, Calif. planner Dan Zack and former Vancouver planning director Brent Toderian.

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