The most circulated article around City Hall yesterday was Gary Mason’s column in the Globe and Mail. (Here, if you’re a subscriber.)

While Mayor Sam Sullivan’s Eco-Density initiative hasn’t produced much excitement locally, it’s drawing attention elsewhere.
The program, which promotes increasing density as a means of reducing our collective impact on the planet, is the subject of a lengthy and mostly positive examination in a recent issue of Planning, a highly influential magazine put out by the American Planning Association.

Around here, not only hasn’t Eco-Density generated much excitement, it’s been generally denigrated – rather like the Mayor himself.
Even ostensibly neutral articles about Sam Sullivan often start with the assumption that he’s been a disappointment. And I can’t figure out quite why. A third of it is just the lazy cynicism of our times, opposition grousing and a hostile columnist or two. It comes with the territory. Another third of the negativity may be that, on one hand, he lacks the charisma and glad-handing bonhomie we expect of public figures – and, on the other, nervous reaction to the eccentric persona revealingly displayed in the recent biopic, Citizen Sam.
But the other third mystifies me.
People are accusing him of lacking leadership and failing to put forward policies. Or putting out too many blue-sky ideas and grandiose visions. Of not providing enough detail – or too much. Of moving too quickly – or not fast enough. It’s hard to take this too seriously, since it mainly comes from the chattering class, in which I include myself.
But what I absolutely do not get is criticism of Eco-Denisty by those who should be roundly supporting the concept and cheering from the sidelines when a politician is courageous enough to even mouth the “D” word.
The notion that this is simply retread policy already implemented by previous councils is full of bull. When the APA figures it’s news, it’s new.
And so does the Director of Planning. When Brent Toderian was taking his PowerPoint on the road to introduce himself and present his intial thinking, it didn’t take him long to make a few unequivocal statements about Eco-Density. Don’t believe what you read about Eco-Density being business as usual, I recall him saying. The Planning Department will be reporting back to council with policy that will break with the status quo. What council chooses to do with that is up to them – but they’re going to get what they asked for. And Toderian knows how unusual it is to get a Mayor to ask for it.

There is no question it’s gaining traction,” Mr. Toderian says. “The ideas of livability and sustainability have been two things that have for a long time been very subjective.
“The power of the ecological footprint is that it takes away some of that subjectivity. It gives us a way to measure and quantify things. You can now calculate your own personal footprint and I can tell you it can be shocking when you see it.”
Vancouver is experimenting with many options to eco-densify, including converting single-family houses to three-dwelling units without changing the facade of the home. Otherwise known as invisible density. The city has appealed to residents for their own ideas of how to densify intelligently.
“I don’t think there is a city better positioned to have this discussion,” Mr. Toderian says. “Vancouverites, better than most, can make the connection between their living patterns, density patterns and issues like climate change.”
Which is an issue that seems to be framing every discussion we have these days.

Sullivan was prescient. What he did, by staking his office on densification, was courageous. Whether it was foolish and naive is yet to be seen, and we’ll only know when citizens react to the policies that respond to his mandate. But anyone who is criticizing him for lack of vision, action or originality isn’t paying attention or simply doesn’t like him.


  1. I thought the article hit the good points – that the days of developing the brown fields are over and the tough decisions on densifying in other areas of the City have to be made.
    I haven’t heard much about the eco-density intiative much at all – I’ve read about it in the “announcements” in the news stories – but it’s not at all prominent on the City’s website.
    Maybe it because the policies for implementation haven’t been formulated yet.
    I’m also wondering whether the eco-density intiative has caused a big dust-up at City Hall?
    It seems to me that it runs head to head with the City’s CityPlan – which invariably seems to lead to the the preservation of single family homes and relatively low densities (i.e. Broadway and Commercial; i.e. Oakridge other than the mall site).

  2. I’d be interested in knowing what the density of Kerrisdale is. It and maybe Kitsilano around 4th Ave. near the arpartment blocks strike me as a couple of the denser areas outside the downtown penninisula (with contrasting built forms).
    I’d be happy if the eo-density initiative lead to a Kerrisdale equivalent around each neighbourhood centre (preferrably around rapid transit stations).
    Phrased in this context, the “Kerridsdale-ization” of the other City neighbourhood centres could well be acceptable to residents.

  3. I thought that the city always planned to increase density along major corridors and in neighbourhood centres, as addressed in CityPlan (
    If the Mayor’s plan is for greater density than is described in CityPlan, kudos to him.
    Ron, there’s also the Arbutus Walk area near Broadway and Arbutus as a more “marketable” example of densification.
    As for Kerrisdale, unfortunately, it’s starting to become like Fairview/”Granville Rise” with million dollar twelve-storey luxury condos replacing three-storey apartment buildings.

  4. I tend to lump Arbutus Walk in with the brownfields developments because it used to be the Carling O’Keefe brewery. Mind you, there was still an uproar when it was rezoned.
    WRT the conversion to fewer unitsof luxury size, I’m wondering what can be done. A straight foward increase in density wouldn’t work, as the additional could just end up in more luxury units.
    Perhaps tying the heritage density bonusing to a minimum number of units (thereby mandating smaller units)? I’m not sure to what extent conditions can be attached to heritage / bonus density – i.e. whether that density is provided without additional conditions over the site’s zoning, or whether the City has the power to impose additional restrictions on the 10% bonus. If the City does have additional powers, perhaps bonus allowances could be upped to 20% (subject to the suitability of the site) and mandate smaller units (albeit at market prices). The 20% would be consistent with the percentages for social housing seen in the megaprojects.

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