Sprawl clock illustrates loss of green space in Metro Vancouver

New approaches to urban density needed in order to slow spread of communities and preserve natural spaces, speakers say
By Benjamin Alldritt, Vancouver Sun, June 7, 2012

Former mayor Sam Sullivan opened the Vancouver Urban Forum Wednesday morning in front of a large screen tallying the loss of green space in the region – at a rate of eight square feet every second.

Although that figure is an improvement on last year, when 10 square feet were lost per second, the experts warned that Metro Vancouver residents must continue to embrace density to prevent urban sprawl.

Sullivan’s “sprawl meter” has been running online for a year now, but he reset it Wednesday morning to show forum attendees just how much land is built on, even in the course of a single day. He developed the meter with Patrick Condon, senior researcher at the Design Centre for Sustainability at the University of B.C.

“I wanted to really quantify what’s going on in the region,” Sullivan said. “I think people need something simple and clear.”

It might seem too simple, though, to suggest one number can illustrate the effect of sprawl in multiple communities across southwest B.C.

Condon said he arrived at the figure by taking the annual number of housing starts for single family homes and row houses between Hope and Squamish from the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corp. He then divided that by the average number of units permitted per acre, converted the figure into square feet and then divided that number by the total seconds in a work week over the course of one year.

The centre’s results were reviewed by the Sightline Institute, a non-profit sustainability think-tank based in Seattle, which arrived at a similar figure.

Despite the compounded use of averages, Condon said Wednesday the sprawl meter is “plenty accurate.”

He added this year’s slight decline in the rate of green space loss is due to two main factors.

“It is slowing down some,” Condon said. “I think part of that is we’re running out of land and part of it is that the market is trending towards denser development.”

Throughout the forum, speakers stressed the need for new approaches to urban density in order to slow sprawl and preserve natural spaces.

Dan Zack is a planner for Redwood City, an affluent California community that long resisted moving away from single-family neighbourhoods before embracing significantly higher density. He said his city is a good example of how to overcome suburban NIMBYISM.

“The population continues to grow,” Zack told the forum. “And we have to build up if we are going to keep people out of the forests and the wetlands.”

Zack said he made a case to Red-wood residents that living in a com-pact community would reduce their household costs and their tax burden and improve their quality of life.

“People want to spend less of their weekend mowing the lawn and less of their weekday on the highway.”

Pedestrian-friendly street design, smaller lots, and “unbundling” parking spaces from new units were key to Redwood’s success. Another key factor, Zack said, was to avoid radical departures in design. “We don’t need to press on people’s artistic sensitivities. Find out what they want, give them what they want, and you’ll get support.”


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