Vancouver is consistently rated as one of the most livable cities in the world, right? Well, that depends on who is doing the rating. Ask the average single guy trying to rent an apartment, or a young couple trying to buy their first home in Vancouver. Or the senior who wants to downsize but remain in her Vancouver neighbourhood in a smaller, ground-oriented home. Or families that want to be close to good schools, jobs, services and community amenities, but don’t want the highrise condo lifestyle that goes with it. Their choices are stark. The reality is that Vancouver offers a very narrow range of affordable housing options. And a major contributing factor is low housing densities. Vancouverites may be forgiven for thinking that we have plenty of density, thanks to the doubling of downtown’s population from 40,000 since Expo 86 to more than 80,000 today. True, this is one of the great success stories of modern North American cities, and Vancouver offers a compelling alternative to the suburban model. But the fact is that more than half of Vancouver’s population lives in the low-density outer suburbs that make up about 70 per cent of the city’s land area. And just eight per cent of the city’s total land base is taken up with multi-family housing, including highrise towers, apartment buildings and low-rise condos. Widen the lens to include the other 21 municipalities of the GVRD, and this proportion of dense housing drops even lower. This is simply not sustainable. The region’s population continues to grow every year, and downtown highrises aren’t going to house all the newcomers. We’re running out of land, and the land we have developed for housing is not used efficiently. We are wasting too much land on too few people. This low density accounts, in part, for our huge ecological footprint. According to a formula pioneered by UBC’s Bill Rees, when you calculate all the resources that go into supporting our Vancouver lifestyle and all the waste we produce, if everyone in the world lived like we do, it would take four planet earths to support us all. Something’s got to give if we hope to become a more sustainable city. With downtown pretty much built out, the suburbs are going to have to do their share of housing more people on less land. The question is, how do we do this without destroying the very qualities that we have come to cherish about our neighbourhoods? That’s where the City of Vancouver’s Ecodensity initiative comes in. Ecodensity addresses three challenges: reduce our city’s environmental impact, maintain livability, and create more affordable housing. Ecodensity is not only a strategy to find room for our ever-growing population; it’s a way of reducing our ecological footprint by using our finite land base more efficiently. It doesn’t just propose more housing, but more types of housing in closer proximity to jobs, shops and transit, and more ways of owning a home. A menu of housing types that Vancouver could encourage through Ecodensity—many of which aren’t currently permitted by the city’s zoning and subdivision bylaws—might include such options as London’s leasehold row housing, Spain’s galleria housing, or the narrow-lot semi-detached houses that make up most of Toronto’s desirable older suburbs. We could also have many more dwelling units above (or instead of) garages, and secondary or multiple suites within a single main house.
High density does not equal highrises
None of these house types involve highrise towers, which is what Vancouverites typically associate with the word “density.” Most of the world’s most dense cities, such as Paris, Berlin and Barcelona, are not dominated by highrises, but by six-to-eight-storey buildings. If the city amended its zoning, parking and subdivision regulations to permit some of these other house types, Vancouver could densify without imposing highrise towers on traditional single-family neighbourhoods. The challenge is to rethink the rules by which city planning staff regulate land use and development, in order to encourage more innovative projects. So much that is sensible is simply not permitted. For example, the city typically requires at least one parking stall per dwelling unit for all new housing developments, and often more. This adds both cost and density constraints. Reduce the amount of on-site parking, and you have more flexibility to increase density. Higher-density helps support better public transit. Increased transit use reduces greenhouse gases. It is a virtuous circle. And there is ample unused capacity on our local streets to park cars, if you are determined to have one.
DENSITY equals AFFORDABILITY
The rule of supply and demand applies to Vancouver’s housing market: the more limited the supply is, the more housing costs. If Ecodensity can deliver more housing in the same area, then it could contribute toward lowering the cost of housing, although this certainly is not the only factor influencing costs. Another factor in affordability is to increase the range of housing choices for all socio-economic groups, especially seniors, new families, students, the working poor, etc. A third factor is tenure: we need more creative ways to acquire and maintain our housing, such as long-term leaseholds, fee-simple row houses, more secondary suite “mortgage helpers,” and other incentive programs. Ecodensity isn’t just about adding more density. It’s about adding density in a way that maintains the quality of life, is ecologically sensitive, and also helps provide the services and amenities the growing city needs. Most importantly perhaps, Ecodensity needs to coordinate land-use planning and transit planning, so that higher density housing supports public transit, making it more sustainable and affordable.
What will ecodensity look like in your neighbourhood?
Ecodensity will be controversial, especially with those who have come to assume that their single-family neighbourhoods are immune to change, and like it that way. But residential intensification is not only the right thing to do for our future and our children’s futures; it can be done in ways that preserve many of the qualities that make Vancouver’s neighbourhoods so precious to people. A typical Vancouver neighbourhood after Ecodensification might include the following: • a lot more carriage homes over garages, or small cottages where two-car garages used to be, accessed from lanes; • more duplex houses on narrower lots, some attached on one side to an adjoining duplex; • streets with more cyclists and pedestrians walking to and from their local streetcar or bus stop; • some blocks lined with three- or four-storey row houses that have front doors opening directly onto the street; • more corner grocery stores and cafes tucked into residential buildings; • some low- and mid-rise (four to eight storey) apartment buildings nearer rapid transit stations; and • more mixed-use projects along existing arterial streets such as Dunbar, Oak, Cambie, Main and Fraser. In other words, not all that different from today, just more intensified. And more sustainable, livable and affordable.