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Who's Been Densified, Who Hasn't

It's time for 'equal density.' Vancouver's Westside should absorb its share.

By Erick Villagomez 18 Feb 2008 |

Erick Villagomez is a Vancouver architect and co-founder of Re:Place, a new magazine and website focusing on sustainable urban planning and architecture in the Vancouver region, where this article first appeared.

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Ratio of Vancouver's dwellings per acre by the city block, based on latest census. Click here for a larger version with statistical key. Graphic by E. Villagomez.

As one of Mayor Sullivan's many pet projects, EcoDensity has received its fair share of publicity and attention. For those of you "not-in-the-know," the EcoDensity initiative focuses on the idea that population/housing density is intricately related to environmental sustainability, housing affordability, and livability.

As the argument goes, housing people closer together reduces urban sprawl and our ecological footprint by making better use of smaller parcels of land. Similarly, with more people within a designated area, higher density allows communities to support local commerce, amenities, and transit. This, in turn, allows for the potential creation of walkable and transit-friendly communities.

With regards to housing affordability, the connection to density is related to housing type. In contrast to the typical homogenous single-family neighbourhoods, the belief holds that more diverse, dense house types create more diverse and affordable housing options (due to lowered construction costs, decreased development fees, and fees saved from using existing infrastructure) for a variety of households. Furthermore, this increased density would make new, more expensive energy technologies (i.e. district heating, etc.) more viable.

Lastly, and most importantly, the EcoDensity initiative preaches the idea this density must be "strategically" located. And although there are several questions, concerns, half-truths and inaccuracies regarding all aspects of the EcoDensity argument, one of the most deceitful revolves around the seemingly harmless issue of "well-located" density.

What's been densified in recent years

As most locals know very well, Vancouver has been growing and densifying at an astonishing rate over the past three decades. Buildings have been demolished and neighbourhoods transformed seemingly all over the city. In reality, however, this uniformity of growth, densification, and development is an illusion.

In general, Vancouver's growth has largely taken place in either derelict areas or neighbourhoods with minimal political representation -- namely East Vancouver. The formation of the great east-west divide goes back many years and is nothing new to any local resident. But how this has shaped the city itself is a very telling and a relevant story to what EcoDensity really means for the future of Vancouver -- an issue constantly evaded by the City of Vancouver and other avid EcoDensity supporters.

The creation of rules and regulations pertaining to building and development often take place behind closed doors. Aside from those brave homeowners who have delved into the murky waters of municipal affairs when applying for building permits, few of us are ever exposed to the effects that municipal policies have on the creation of a city. Jargon-based, poorly written, and overly confusing, reading municipal documents -- such as zoning bylaws -- is akin to some kindof water torture . . . slow and annoyingly painful.

City Hall's double standard

There is much lost, however, through the public's ignorance of these highly influential documents. For it ensures that citizens don't understand how values, biases and prejudices are institutionalized and fossilized into the way we build our cities. Even worse, it allows those familiar with the terminology and processes (an elite minority of community members, politicians and municipal officers) to publicly speak one message while silently communicating another.

This issue becomes exceedingly important when discussing a city-wide densification initiative such as EcoDensity. For, although it is touted as pertaining to Vancouver as a whole -- and although there may, in fact, be good intentions behind it -- the reality of it will necessarily be skewed in the direction of wealthy, politically savvy communities and individuals that this city has historically always favoured.

Through the 1980s and '90s, a number of important new zoning bylaws -- setting out the rules and regulations to which builder and designers must abide -- were introduced. Several of these bylaws such as RS-7 and RS-5 -- often aggressively pushed by wealthy community associations -- had the calculated effect of deflecting denser developments to East Vancouver. Under the guise of "maintaining the streetscape and local character" and through carefully developed incentives, these policies have served to preserve social homogeneity and the high land values of well-to-do communities through excluding intensification.

With limited land to develop and a growing immigrant population, these municipal practices served to direct densification beyond the concerned gaze of its wealthy inhabitants to East Vancouver. This took the form of rampant demolition and replacement of older housing stock that was, more often than not, replaced by poorly designed and built speculative housing or subdivided (legally and otherwise) into several substandard dwelling units.

Mapping the lopsided reality

At the scale of the city, this lopsided bias is blatantly expressed in the three-dimensional density map above showing population densities -- in dwelling units per acres (du/ac) -- by the block. Drawn in accordance with most recent census statistics, one can see the vast difference in population as one travels from west to east.

Given how difficult these bylaws are to change after implemented -- and despite the "intention" to re-visit the RS-5 zoning -- it is fair to say that EcoDensity will serve to exacerbate this biased condition and maintain the status quo. NPA Coun. Suzanne Anton's recent citing of Fraser & 48th and Victoria & 49th as specific areas that could "benefit" from EcoDensity serves to prove the point.

Similarly, it is clearly stated throughout the EcoDensity website that the initiative is not intended to overwrite the city plans and community vision documents created by different neighbourhoods. These visions serve to express (and, effectively solidify) the values residents have regarding their neighbourhoods. Thus, for example, it is no surprise that 86 per cent of residents within the Arbutus Ridge/Kerrisdale/Shaughnessy neighbourhoods support maintaining "most single-family areas" within their jurisdiction. Without an ability to address these biases, densification promises to be lopsided.

Eastside is doing its share

This is no small deal, since most of the East Vancouver neighbourhoods are already within, or close to, the density range that research has shown to be "sustainable" -- that is, densities between 15-20 dwelling units per acre that are enough to support walkable communities with local commerce, economically viable transit and a variety of house types that accommodate a diversity of households. Commercial Drive, Hastings-Sunrise, Main Street and Victoria Drive between 33rd and 54th are excellent examples. Thus, one can reasonably argue that East Vancouver is already "EcoDense" or, at the very least, much closer to "EcoDensity" than its Westside equivalents.

Looking at the densities of several of these Westside neighbourhoods -- some of which are the lowest in Metro Vancouver -- it would seem reasonable to asked our heroic leaders at the City of Vancouver to do something truly forward-thing, progressive, and "green." That is, focus its energy on reversing the institutionalized prejudices of the past three decades and stop subsidizing our wealthy patrons' insatiable appetite for "unsustainable" land-use practices.

Growing EcoDensity concerns among Eastside neighbourhoods is not a misunderstanding of the intentions of the initiative, as many advocates currently hold. To the contrary, it seems to me that it is simply a manifestation of the fact that these often under-represented citizens will not stand to have green smoke blown in their faces to justify yet another Westside swindle.

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