Occasionally some remarks I make provoke a reaction. (Not as often as you’d think, or I’d sometimes like.) But a speech I made to the Urban Development Institute in Kelowna on March 29th seems to have done the job.
Let’s begin with the coverage in the Daily Courier. Reporter Steve MacNaul basically got it right:
Kelowna on right track
Kelowna has made some inspired decisions – and some wrong turns – as a rapid growth desirable city. “Let’s start with the good stuff,” former City of Vancouver councillor Gordon Price said during a stop in Kelowna.
“You have the assets of natural beauty, good food, good wine and good times. The downtown waterfront redevelopment, cultural district and Bernard Avenue are all things to be proud of.”
Price, who is now director of the City Program at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver, spoke at a luncheon at The Grand hotel put on by the Kelowna chapter of the Urban Development Institute.
“But Kelowna has also made some major errors,” Price said.
“The car-based planning of the past has made Highway 97 the worst example of highway strip. Westbank is not well planned. The university (UBCO) on a hill by the airport frankly looks like a business park and you have your street issues downtown (such as homelessness, drug dealing and crime.)”
Price, who is also on the board of the International Centre for Sustainable Cities, characterizes Kelowna as an adolescent city on the cusp of adulthood.
“Make good decisions and go with them,” he urged.
“What is happening in downtown Kelowna is more important right now than whatÕs happening in downtown Vancouver.”
The direction of downtown Vancouver has already been set and is very densely “more natural, more urban and more connected” than ever before, according to Price.
There’s still a lot of development yet to be done in downtown Kelowna, therefore the opportunity to do it right – or wrong – according to Price.
“Bernard Avenue is revitalizing and still has a very pedestrian people scale, which is good,” he said.
“The residential highrises are good because it keeps people downtown and creates a vibrancy. Many people are against highrises, but really height is irrelevant. A highrise done well creates density but provides green space and storefronts at its base to keep people engaged.”
Downtown Kelowna has ‘anchors’ such as Prospera Place arena for sports and concerts, the cultural district for art and plays and non-mall stores, restaurants and services, pointed out Price.
“But a better job could be done of filling in the spaces between these anchors with housing, other facilities, parks and trails,” said Price.
“People will accept growth if they see the public benefits that come along with it.”
Price told the developers present that’s why it’s important to do public consultations before launching a project to outline the public benefits such as parks or unique stores and amenities that go along with it.
“What developers are doing is really selling lifestyle with nature and all the urban amenities to both the people that will buy their homes and the existing neighbourhood,” said Price.
And then came the reaction.
Kelowna resident Rick Shea submitted a letter to the Courier and copied me:
I find it revealing that, in characterizing Kelowna as an adolescent city on the cusp of adulthood (“City nears adulthood”, The Daily Courier, April 4, 2007), Gordon Price is not quoted even once as using the word “community.”
Price comments with regard to highrises that “height is irrelevant.” Price apparently doesn’t know that more height means longer shadows and more views blocked in a hillside community. Price apparently doesn’t realize that more people means more cars, more demands for transit, more crowding and congestion, more noise, more crime, more pollution, more disputes over scarce resources, and so on. By his logic, we could just go ahead and build a 6000 storey highrise in downtown Kelowna and be done with it.
As a former Vancouver city councillor and director of the City Program as SFU, Price must certainly be aware of the Canadian Policy Research Network’s 2006 report “Social Sustainability in Vancouver.” Despite all the highrises in Vancouver, despite efforts to create mixed use neighbourhoods, despite the availability of some low cost housing, the report states that Vancouver “has recently been identified as having one of the least affordable housing markets in the western world,” and as having one of the highest poverty rates in Canada.
With particular regard to highrises and density, the report makes the following points:
– Residents of multi-family, compared with single-family homes (…) report greater marital and parent-child conflict, and high-rise housing has been associated with less socially supportive relationships with neighbours.
– Elevated noise levels, typically from transportation, other people, and music, have been associated with children’s reading problems and intellectual deficiencies, long-term memory problems, elevated blood pressure, and motivation.
– Households on streets with higher traffic volume interact less with their neighbours relative to those residing on less congested streets.
– Close proximity to street traffic, in addition to raising the risk of pediatric injuries, is correlated with restrictions in outdoor play among 5-year-olds, smaller social networks for these children, and diminished social and motor skills.
This noise and crowding, the paradoxical lack of interaction with neighbours, and the associated social ills, are apparently what Price refers to as “vibrancy.” No wonder that, despite Vancouver’s efforts to develop mixed use neighbourhoods in the downtown, families tend to avoid living in those areas.
Developers are not “selling lifestyle with nature and all the urban amenities to both the people who will buy their homes and the existing neighbourhood,” as Price claims in a fit of propagandic fervor. Developers are pocketing profits, and even more profits with higher densities, as they cover over nature, tear apart neighbourhoods, making housing even more unaffordable, and driving away the very people who built our community, because they can no longer afford to live here, or because they can no longer stand the carnage.
Highrises stand as headstones for our neighbourhoods and our community.
After 15 years on Vancouver City Council (and a resident of the West End), I was familiar with the arguments, particularly with respect to highrises. And so I immediately got back to Rick:
Thanks for forwarding me your letter …. While I’m not sure of the context in which I said “height is irrelevant,” that is only true when it comes to measuring density. You can have a low-rise building that is exactly the same density as a highrise – Paris compared to New York – though people do tend to confuse the relationship. (A higher building seems like it should be denser than a lower one.)
Views, shadowing, privacy, wind – these are all factors that need to be considered when choosing certain urban forms or locating new development. But those considerations all come into play for both high and low buildings.
What I think you’re talking about here is growth, not form. More people can bring all those problems you mention, and that seems to be the issue in Kelowna. You’re one of the more attractive places in Canada for people to come to, and in that sense, height is irrelevant. Stopping highrises won’t change the in-migration; it will just mean less choice for people.
And more sprawl. Lower densities are more likely to be car-dependent, too, since distances have to be greater to serve the same number of people. An essential element for what’s called transit-oriented development is to have enough people within walking distance to justify the greater frequencies needed to provide the kind of transit people will use.
And that’s what happened in Vancouver. Car use has gone down in the central area (about 13 percent between 1994 and 1999) and continues to drop. Transit has gone up, and walking has exploded. The air-quality downtown is actually better than many other places in the region, and the noise level along some of the shopping streets is a lot quieter than Highway 97.
I haven’t seen the Canadian Policy Research Network’s report, but I’ll check it out. It doesn’t match my experience in the West End. I can report that we now have more children being borne to parents living downtown than some of the west-side neighbourhoods in Point Grey, a new elementary school that is already oversubscribed, and ‘stroller gridlock’ on some Yaletown streets around the community centre. These are people who can make choices, and at this point in their lives they like what downtown has to offer.
But I’d never suggest that it is a solution that should be imposed on people: it’s a choice, and should be only one of many. It also addresses sustainability issues that the current forms of development that predominate in Kelowna (and most other places) do not.
Affordability and poverty are definitely issues in Vancouver – and I’d suggest would be even if we never built a highrise. One thing, though: the cost of existing housing for lower-middle-income renters would most likely be much higher. Though it’s rarely reported, the new housing built downtown definitely took pressure off the older housing stock, particularly in the West End, that is still largely occupied by below-average-income people. (Since so many do without cars, the cost of housing is more affordable as well. And the ability to do without a car is realistic because so many options are available, whether walking, bike or transit.)
It’s not propaganda to say that developers provide lifestyle with nature and urban amenities: that was the aim of the planning. We cleaned up False Creek, build 50 acres of new waterfront park, extended the seawall, greened up our streets, reduced through traffic, and provided a range of housing choices, including non-market, without incurring significant new costs for existing taxpayers. We made those amenities a condition of development.
We also gave an alternative for 50,000 people who would otherwise have to compete for housing in existing neighbourhoods or go out to new development on greenfield sites, putting pressure on our agricultural land reserve and natural areas.
It is by no means perfect, it’s not for everyone, there are many ways to do it – but it’s a choice. Seems to me that Kelowna could use a few more choices if it wants to save those very factors that make it so attractive.
That got the discussion going – and indeed, the issue was about growth:
I do agree with some of what you said below, but I take issue with the idea that increasing density (and so-called “smart” growth) will somehow preserve green space and agricultural land, especially that sort of space at the edges of a city. The evidence is clear that this sort of social/urban engineering only delays the destruction of this sort of space. L.A. has some of the highest urban density in the U.S., and I would hardly call it a model of eco-density. Green space is still disappearing around the smart growth “poster child” cities such as Portland.
My hackles also go up when people talk about decreases in car usage, increases in green space and so on, as I am fully aware of the difference between “per capita” figures and total figures. Kelowna for example claims a significant reduction in water use over the past few years, but that is per capita. The total amount used has remained constant, and I find the misrepresentation behind such statements offensive.
I do take issue with your comments about air quality in Vancouver. In reading the reports about the Fraser Valley airshed, it’s clear that the major source of the smog there is from Vancouver (road and boat traffic alike), and that the winds are generously moving that pollution out of the city. Out of sight, out of mind, does not appeal to my social conscience.
As well, given that Vancouver has the highest housing costs in the country (with us a close second), I am very reluctant to follow any example set by Vancouver with regard to affordable housing, and with regard to growth “management.”
If developers provide lifestyle and nature, then I suppose that any day now I’ll be able to catch trout once again in the little creek near my former home on 144th Street in Surrey — you know, the one that is now just a series of culverts for the convenience of development.
No, I certainly don’t wish to see Kelowna “vancouverized.” And I, for one, detest living in even moderate density developments, as do many long time Kelowna residents.
Densification may be a short term bandaid, but every time I travel to Vancouver (which is often) I am reminded that it is by no means a long term solution. It is, as I stated, a way for developers to continue to make profits, and the direct and hidden costs of that development always have an impact on taxpayers.
The choice, for me, is to prevent any of that development from happening at all, and there are some very simple ways to do that. Unfortunately, the urban growth machine makes sure that those ways are not chosen by most politicians, planners, and people in general, and only the future will show how absurd and stupid our ways really are.
What we are doing is simply not sustainable, no matter how we may try to fool ourselves. If you haven’t done so already, I recommend that you read “For the Common Good” by Herman Daly, or any number of similar books. And I do recommend that you read the CPRN report in detail. There are many damning data and comments there about the current state Vancouver.
One more response from me:
If I read you right, your argument is this: I don’t like high or medium-density, regardless of whether others do. Therefore I shall fight it. Consequence: development will be entirely low-density, car-dependent sprawl, unless growth is stopped altogether. (Chance of that: zero.)
Therefore, you’re right. Kelowna will not be Vancouverized. It will become something much worse.
And from Rick:
“Chance of that: zero.”
That’s exactly the sort of thinking that has gotten us to this point and, if my group has anything to do with it, those odds will improve, as they already have in a few other jurisdictions throughout the world where the chances have already been shown to be much greater than zero.
At some point, growth has to stop, and the sooner we realize that, the better off we’ll all be, and the better chance our arrogant and destructive little species will have of survival on this planet.
As the old saw goes, the only ones who believe in infinite growth are fools, and economists.
Regarding Vancouverization, it’s hard to imagine something worse.
Well, you can tell that we’d start to get repetitive and shrill at this point – so it made sense to see if others would like to join in, given the fundamental issues at stake. I asked Rick if he’d mind if I posted our correspondence (obviously, he agreed), with this qualification:
I request that people visit our website and forum before responding, as ‘ve read and responded to all the stock and trite responses far too any times already.
The URL is www.saveparadise.com , and look for the Forum link at the left side.
I note that a group similar to ours is starting up in Peachland, and had 40 or so people attend an unadvertised founding meeting, and that similar groups are springing up, or have existed for years, at various global locations. Perhaps there is indeed a bit of a trend — at least hope so, for everyone’s sake.
I recommend that you have a look at www.growthmadness.org
It’s an example of the many similar blogs, and groups, springing up around the world.
Also, I again recommend that you read Daly’s “For the Common Good.” Daly is a former World Bank economist, with a very different perspective. I also recommend Eben Fodor’s “Better, not Bigger” as it will give you, I believe, a good understanding of where our group is coming from.
And one of my personal favorites is Richard Heinberg’s “Power Down, Options and Actions for a Post Carbon World.” It sits right beside my copy of “Wealth of Nations.”
You might be interested in this article as well:
So there you go: a matter of record. And if you’ve read this far, you might want to comment….