Part 7a (first of two sections) from a discussion guide, Density in a City of Neighbourhoods my perspective of a journey from the earliest years of land-abundant settlement to the towering glass city of 2012 – written for Carbon Talks at SFU.



Density was increasingly being seen, at least by planners, as a way of achieving sustainability goals – to promote an energy-efficient, low carbon, bike- and transit-friendly urban form, with people close to jobs and services. By and large – at least for the central area – it seemed to work.  (Click chart below right to enlarge.)

Because of density, mix of uses and frequent transit, the City achieved some remarkable successes in transportation. Population and employment in Vancouver grew steadily between 1996 and 2011, but, counter-intuitively, the number of vehicles entering and leaving the city actually decreased by 5 percent over the same period.

Trips to downtown increased over 15 years, reflecting a rise in employment, tourism and entertainment, but the number of vehicles dropped by 20 percent. Here was something rarely seen: an increase in employment and residential density, but not in traffic congestion.  (Click chart on left to enlarge.)

New trips to and within the central area have largely been by transit, bike and foot. In particular, walking has become the fastest growing and most important way of getting around downtown.

From a planning perspective, sufficient density became a precondition for frequent transit, whether by bus or rail, which itself was a requirement for new development – one reinforced the other. The car began to drop out as the most used form of movement in some neighbourhoods where the alternatives– walking, cycling, taxi, transit and carshare – were practical and integrated.

In addition, the combination of density, mix, and proximity led to a decrease in carbon emissions.

From the Clouds of Change report in 1991 to the Greenest City Action Plan two decades later, the City ramped up its commitment to sustainability. The connection to density was explicit: it was possible – indeed, necessary – to plan for more compact, complete communities, whether local or regional, if other environmental goals were to be achieved.

Beyond the downtown peninsula, however, new forms of density were rarely greeted with enthusiasm. Even when industrial parcels within residential neighbourhoods were proposed for development – notably the Arbutus industrial lands (right) between 10th and 12th Avenues – it was met with resistance.  The Fraser Lands development in the southeast corner of the City, however, moved forward with an effective consultation process; but, save for existing development to the west, occurred on a brownfield site isolated by Marine Way (map here).

One community – Joyce-Collingwood on the East Side – was prepared to negotiate for a package of amenities beyond the park space and infrastructure normally required, in return for accepting growth on a scale not seen before when associated with rapid-transit: Collingwood Village (below – map here) at the Joyce SkyTrain station. That neighbourhood became the densest in the entire region.

Around other stations however – Nanaimo, 29th, even Commercial and Broadway – there was little change. Meanwhile, most single-family neighbourhoods continued to age in place, largely untouched, save for the emergence of the megahouse. But that did not mean residents were insensitive to change, no matter how modest.


Part 1: Early Days

Part 2: Booms & Crashes

Part 3: The Beginning of Densification

Part 4(a): The Modern Era – Transition

Part 4(b): The Modern Era – A Decade of Highrises

Part 5: The End of Open Land

Part 6: Condos and Megaprojects

Density in a City of Neighbourhoods (full document)


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