Think globally and act locally?

By Don Cayo, Vancouver Sun June 6, 2012

Think globally and act locally?

Nonsense, sniffs Edward Glaeser, a Harvard University economics professor, a prolific author and a globally recognized authority on urban issues.

Glaeser has made his name, and he makes his living, documenting evidence that pokes holes in many of the myths about what it takes to live lightly on the planet.

And it turns out it has nothing to with trekking back to the land, or with building chicken coops or cultivating gardens on what ought to be high-density urban land.

Indeed, “Local environmentalism often turns into bad environmentalism,” he told me as we strolled busy streets from former mayor Sam Sullivan’s first Vancouver Urban Forum in the Playhouse Theatre to a downtown radio interview.

“The key is not to ask about the footprint of the person in Vancouver. Rather, it’s about what has Vancouver done to lower the footprint of the world.”

What we have done — though not enough of — is live close together in a place that is packed not only with people, but also with amenities that make life pleasant.

Glaeser has been to this city before, and he’s a fan of Vancouver, though he admits that really he knows only its downtown core and the area around UBC.

But that’s enough for him to proclaim to the Playhouse audience that this city stands “as a model to the world.”

Which is not to say he has no ideas to make it better.

Glaeser’s main thesis is summed up in the title of his most recent book, Triumph of the City: How Our Greatest Invention Makes Us Richer, Smarter, Greener, Healthier and Happier. The book documents how innovative and entrepreneurial cities — as opposed to the dying industrial cities like those of the U.S. Rust Belt — are substantially ahead of other areas in all measures of quality of life, and they have a much smaller impact on the environment.

“If the environmental footprint of the average suburban home is a size 15 hiking boot, the environmental footprint of a New York apartment is a stiletto-heel size 6 Jimmy Choo,” he observes in the book.

So what Vancouver has begun to attain, but needs more of, is high-quality density. And this means, among other things, housing that’s affordable to the full range of citizens who might like to live here.

His recipe is simple: build more homes.

In his extensive studies in the U.S., he said, “None of the places that build a lot are expensive. And none of the places that are expensive build a lot.”

Building more means dealing with some sensitive issues — NIMBYISM, a faddish affection for urban agriculture, even heritage preservation.

He even dares to take issue with perhaps the most influential urbanist of her day, Jane Jacobs — a writer and thinker who, for the most part, he admires greatly, as do I.

“But she did make a mistake when she looked at old buildings and new buildings”, he said.

Jacobs concluded that, because old buildings were cheaper to live in than new ones, they should be preserved for affordable housing.

“But this isn’t how supply and demand works. We’re not promoting affordability when we freeze cities in amber,” he argues.

In conversation, Glaeser used the counter-intuitive example of Yaletown’s pricey towers as construction that enhances a city’s affordability.

“Beautiful green glass towers are expensive to put up, and they’ll never be an affordable housing option. But by building green glass towers, we limit the push to gentrify middle-income areas. So creating supply in one area eases demand in another.”

And vice versa when we limit density through stultifying regulations or by crowding it out with low-density uses.

We may fool ourselves into thinking we are doing good for the environment, but we’re pushing other would-be residents out of the city and into places where their presence creates a much larger impact.

“We are an extremely destructive species,” Glaeser said, recounting how Henry David Thoreau, revered today as an early environmentalist who chronicled the good life on Walden Pond, enraged his neighbours when he inadvertently burned down a large tract of forest.

“So if you love nature, often the best thing is to stay away from it.”

dcayo@vancouversun.com

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