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Plan Well or Perish

Vancouver architect Richard Balfour on readying his region for oil scarcity.

By Rex Weyler 27 Mar 2008 |

Rex Weyler is the author of Greenpeace: the Inside Story. His most recent book is The Jesus Sayings (Anansi Press, 2008); see

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Balfour: radical fixes.
  • Strategic Sustainable Planning: A Civil Defense Manual for Cultural Survival
  • Richard Balfour and Eileen McAdam Keenan
  • Old City Foundation Press (2007)

In the post-peak-oil world, says Richard Balfour, highways crawling across farmland represent insanity. We should be building light rail transport, now, and designing neighbourhoods linked to the farmland that sustains them.

Balfour is an architect, strategic planner, director of the Metro Vancouver Planning Coalition, and a member of the Vancouver Peak Oil Executive, a group of citizens attempting to warn politicians about the challenges ahead.

Balfour points out that B.C. produces about 48 per cent of the food we consume. That's manageable when oil is cheap and we can ship food from the tropics. "Our food from Mexico," says Balfour "is running out of gas."

Balfour and Eileen McAdam Keenan have written a "Civil Defense Manual" for Vancouver and the Lower Mainland, not a defense against terrorists but against our own consumption habits and illusions about economic survival. "We are already in the post-peak-oil era," says Balfour, "the rising price of liquid fuel will change everything. We must now learn to relocalize our economy or suffer the unpleasant consequences."

So how does a progressive city like Vancouver prepare for a fuel-starved future? Not, according to Balfour, by repeating the planning mistakes of the oil era. "The top planners do not even have the end of cheap energy, global warming, or mass migration on their radar," says Balfour. "We cannot keep on making the same silly mistakes of the last hundred years and that includes most current planning and engineering in our urban environments."

In 2005, Balfour established the Vancouver City Planning Commission forums with the VCPC executive. The forums included Bob Williams, Marta Farevaag, architect Oberto Oberti, Dr. Bill Rees from UBC (father of the "ecological footprint" concept) the Post-Carbon Institute, and other planners. Last year, Balfour and Eileen McAdam Keenan compiled their research into a book: Strategic Sustainable Planning: A Civil Defense Manual for Cultural Survival (Old City Foundation Press, 2007).

The book describes how the end of cheap oil leads inevitably to the end of cheap food, how food shortages will erode social cohesion, and how unrest will limit planning options.

For example, the UN attempts to feed about 70 million of the 800 million people living with starvation, but must cut back due to rising oil prices. Meanwhile, people erode 20 billion tonnes of top soil every year, and convert more farmland to growing biofuels, all leading to higher food costs.

Balfour describes planning for these interlocking crises by returning to local economies, which he calls "relocalization." Building suburban bedroom communities linked to cities by petrol-guzzling roads is already 100-years out of date.

During the last month, I met with Balfour and traded e-mails. Here are more of his thoughts . . .

On the need for change:

"We have already crossed too many important points in time where we could have managed a gentle change to a post oil society. We now enter a period of painful adjustment. The weakest links in society, the deniers, still wield too much influence.

"When we delay the changes, our culture has less chance of survival. Planning for a soft landing is about working together to avoid the painful crash. We must accept radical change, quantum-leaps, lateral thinking, and shift to patterns of community, and we must do this in short order."

On post-oil food supply:

"Farmlands represent our common public asset for food security. Urban populations must have access to a gardening commons within walking distance in a very near future.

"A farmer who believes he can plough 100 acres more efficiently than 10 acres is making the assumption that he can still get diesel for his tractor in 10 years, that he still owns the land, or that he does not have to take on 100 landless refugees."

On BC's Agricultural Land Reserve (ALR):

"The ALR is critical to the survival of town sites and must not be considered for urban development, the sprawl that some newly arrived hired guns call 'new urbanism.' This avant-garde green language is a disguised robber baron plan to erode the precious public commons of the ALR.

"The farmer who provides our sustenance has been marginalized and his land devalued. In his place, we get tasteless green strawberries with no food value delivered by trucks from California.

"We should not only protect agricultural land and green belts, but also turn back the clock to the smart decisions of the 1970s. This is not some idealistic notion of the good old days, but an absolute necessity beyond our control, that we must prepare for now. Your children will thank you."

On Vancouver's EcoDensity push:

"The EcoDensity initiative is a bit of a farce because it misses out on the 'eco' part, but densification and a move toward sustainable forms is important. Our current mishmash of poor buildings and wasteful land use has to be reengineered in short order, before the energy is gone.

"Single-family houses, high rises and lousy, leaky apartments are vestiges of our colonial mentality in the rain forest. The problem lies with Vancouverites looking at homes as investments first and community housing second. We have become a city of yakkers.

"The EcoDensity plan proposes arterial redevelopment and urban villages that should have happened a hundred years ago. We have little time to correct a century of bad planning. If we don't clean house soon, radically, nature will clean house for us."

On Vancouver's expansion:

"We're building on the flatland that we will need for food in the near future. Green regions are not just negative space left over after planning the urban area, but the vital part that provides life. Urban areas have social limits. Two smaller communities separated by productive green land creates positive social benefits over sprawl.

"If the mistakes proposed for Maple Ridge, destroying ALR land, are allowed to become reality, it will bode poorly for the rest of Metro Vancouver that would soon regret this criminal dismemberment of the ALR.

"B.C. is mountainous, so we should learn how to take proper urban development to the hills. Thorn Hill is one of the best sites in BC to demonstrate this, an area of poor soils but otherwise a classic site for a stand-alone sustainable town on a gentle south slope. Thorn Hill could be a demonstration for true smart growth for a post oil economy."

On the end of suburbia:

"Over-inflated false economies like oil-subsidized, single-family subdivisions are at risk most of all. To sustain our communities and heal the planet, we have to throw out the oil era planning and engineering documents and start over.

"The old land management plans of the Wacky Bennett era paved over green space as described by former Minister of Municipal Affairs, Dan Campbell, who envisioned, 'Some day soon, it will all be paved from Vancouver to Hope.' His heirs are trying to speak green while still plotting for 1950s-style suburban sprawl.

"Any suburb or city artificially propped up is toast. We're building highways to a future oblivion. Green fingers of land must penetrate town sites to make them sustainable when there is no gas for cars or for shipping food from Mexico."

On the speed of change:

"The green baby steps we now proclaim as progress are too little, too late. What sense does it make to give a green award to a building where everyone has to drive to get there? The longer this emergency is ignored, the worse the crash will be."

On new economics:

"The cheap energy era allowed us a veneer of civilization in which people collected money for doing nothing of significance for the real betterment of society. We count useless products and the war as positive GNP. This practice suggests a sick society. Mother Earth is keeping another set of books, however, and the two forms of accounting are not reconcilable.

"The 'grow, grow, grow' planning folks have an Achilles heel. Each growth scenario relies on key resources that are running out. The shortages will depress expected growth. In most cases, the dream of finding alternatives is wishful thinking.

"The practice of creating more palaces of temporary bliss, where we breed more consumers to perpetuate the paving of the planet, has to collapse."

On nuclear power as a solution:

"We have only 85 years uranium resources at current consumption. If there is a huge ramp up of nuclear, the supply life of uranium will be shorter than the design term of the new facilities built to use it. And still we have not dealt with the issues of disaster insurance, waste disposal, and weapons proliferation."

On saving soil or selling lawns by the yard:

"Last year, Scientific American and New Scientist investigated "soil mining," the use of corn and soya for biofuels. There is nothing left to return nutrients for sustainable yields. We do the same thing in the Fraser Valley for growing lawns, which we waste gas on to mow. The sod farms on class one soils roll up a crop of sod every few months, taking with them a whole layer of the best agricultural soils. In some places, the sod farms are over a meter below the fields around them."

On relocalization:

"The rising outrage against big governments and big corporations making unhealthy decisions 'for us' is a healthy sign of repossessing our life and survival. Relocalization is a rediscovery of how to do things for ourselves. We must quickly re-learn forgotten skills. This is not a small task, but a great challenge.

"We cannot force relocalization. It will happen as a survival shift, like the Victory gardens of World War II. Six years ago, when I suggested relocalizing sewage treatment to a community level, the engineers laughed. Then they discovered the cost to replace the big pipe systems that were breaking down. Now the talk is about local treatment. It means using the edges of schools and community centres to recreate wetlands for purifying water."

On life after peak oil:

"Price escalations will not wait until the world's oil tank is empty, but will appear earlier, at the last quarter-tank mark. We are there.

"The oil era globalization monoliths are not people, nor community, nor essential to our survival. Safeway, Save-On-Foods, and Wal-Mart rely on cheap liquid fuel and cannot keep breathing in the same way beyond the next few years. Chains like Wal-Mart destroy local mom and pop community businesses, the very institutions we'll need to survive."