Policy & Planning
January 22, 2007

THE SPRAWL DEBATE: Does It Really Make You Fat?

UBC urban-planning professor Larry Frank has been on the front lines of the sprawl debate. And the current issue of Science News has a fine cover-page story on the controversy.

Larry did much of his research in Atlanta, Georgia, where he lived for many years. After moving to Vancouver, he personally experienced the consequences of the city’s different design.

The glaring difference between the two cities’ landscapes figures in Frank’s professional life as well as in his personal one….
He and other researchers have evidence that associates health problems with urban sprawl, a loose term for humanmade landscapes characterized by a low density of buildings, dependence on automobiles, and a separation of residential and commercial areas.
Frank proposes that sprawl discourages physical activity, but some researchers suggest that people who don’t care to exercise choose suburban life. Besides working to settle that disagreement, researchers are looking at facets of urban design that may shortchange health.

The story provides good background on the “sorting versus causation” debate. The first studies (only four years ago) linked sprawl and obesity:

Residents of sprawling cities and counties tended to weigh more, walk less, and have higher blood pressure than did people living in compact communities …
In 2004, Frank and his colleagues produced additional connections among urban form, activity, and obesity. The data on more than 10,500 people in the Atlanta area indicated that the more time a person spends in a car, the more obese he or she tends to be. But the more time people spend walking, the less obese they are.

Then came the counter-arguments.

University of Toronto economist Matthew Turner charges that “a lot of people out there don’t like urban sprawl, and those people are trying to hijack the obesity epidemic to further the smart-growth agenda [and] change how cities look.”
Turner conducted a study that tracked people over time, as some of them moved from one neighborhood to another. He and his collaborators found no change in weight associated with moving from a sprawling locale to a dense one, or vice versa.
“We’re the only ones that have tried to distinguish between causation and sorting … and we find that it’s sorting,” he says. “The available facts do not support the conclusion that sprawling neighborhoods cause weight gain.”

Frank and others involved in the original research were always aware of the sorting-causation distinction. And now their latest work “could split the ideological difference.”

By surveying people in a variety of neighborhoods, he learned that people who are less inclined to be active tend to live in less pedestrian-friendly locales—evidence that people are sorting themselves. But he also found that, no matter how much people like or dislike being active, they are more active when they live in compact, walkable areas than when they live in sprawling neighborhoods.

Larry has also made the point to me: So what if people sort themselves? We need to offer people more opportunities to live in the kind of neighbourhood where they can walk if they choose. Too often our urban design discourages physical activity regardless of people’s motivations.

“The overarching message is that the built environment is an enabler or a disabler of active transportation—of walking,” Frank says.

Full story here.

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January 22, 2007

Hands up, everyone who thinks the media have already gone overboard on Picton-trial coverage.
Too late. It’ll be all Picton, all the time:

The Vancouver Sun continues its leading role in coverage of the Robert Pickton trial with a special team of reporters, photographers and editors dedicated to the case. Starting Monday, we will have extensive coverage inside and outside of the courthouse, with instant news updates throughout the day on www.vancouversun.com.

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In the next few weeks, the full force of Science will redefine the climate-change debate.  The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) will, on February 2nd, release the Fourth Assessment
Already the media are covering the leaks and leads: that human-caused climate change is more than 90 percent certain.  They’re treating climate change will a new seriousness – mainly because the climate has changed.  Of the atmosphere, likely.  Of politics, certainly.
Our Prime Minister misconstrued the public’s concern about climate change, and, to give him credit, he did a fast turnaround and is now trying to catch up, pulling out policies and programs that were, mere months ago, dismissed as expendable. 
But the problem politically is that climate change isn’t just an issue anymore.  It’s not something that can simply be assigned to a Minister, certainly not a junior one.  Climate change could potentially require a wholesale rethinking of our assumptions about economic growth and how we live – and honestly, no politician really wants to take that on.  Talk about uncertainty.
So ‘the environment’ continues to be isolated from energy and most other big-budget policy, most of which assumes we’ll continue to blow out carbon as though it had no cost.  
Examples:  Approving coal-fired electricity plants without carbon capture.  Allocating our natural gas and water to liquify the tar sands.  Turning the Fraser Delta and most of the valley over to development, mostly car and truck dependent, to serve the port and urban expansion.  And building more roads to hurry it up.  So far those policies haven’t been reconciled with climate change.
Typically, a concern would be addressed in the way politicians are doing it now: announce a targeted program or grant in front of an appropriate setting.  But this time, there are literally thousands of scientists – some outraged that government has been unresponsive to warnings and red flags – who will not likely allow the IPCC report to be ignored or dismissed. They won’t be swift-boated.  And they’ll be back, with four reports in succession throughout 2007.  The media (and the bloggers) will be relentless.
Coincidentally (I assume), B.C. Premier Gordon Campbell will be speaking to his energy strategy, and has no choice but to include reference to climate change.  Will he focus on personal responsibility for change, or will he announce new standards?  Will some incentives be provided or will taxes be shifted?
Putting the obligation on individuals just won’t cut it.  Government is the primary player for two big reasons: it sets the standards, it levies the taxes.  The politicians’ job is to calculate what the public will accept.
And that may depend in next few months literally on the weather. A few more Katrina Moments, and all bets are off.  No telling how big this might become, what new leaders might emerge, how stock markets will respond. Tie climate change in with the geo-instablity of our times, and what might seem impossible today will be imperative tomorrow.

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The New York Times piece here has, as you’d expect, generated response. Here’s an email I got from the president of a neighbourhood group in Portland, Oregon:

At a meeting of the Northwest District Association’s land use braintrust last night the following article was brought to everyone’s attention. I said to the group—-it would be interesting what Gordon Price would have to say about this. So, there you go. I hope to hear from you.

My response:
This is not a new story. In fact, the City put a moratorium on any further conversion of commercial to residential in the core while they did a study – the one reported on. It raised some concern, but no sense of crisis.
While the vacancy rate is tight, there’s still not a lot of demand for office space from major tenants. (The concern is more about options for the future. ) There are still sites available; it’s just that they’re more complicated to assemble and more expensive. The market likes nice large, vacant open sites – and truly, those are gone.
Perhaps the days are over for corporate-style office towers. A lot of work is done at home in those condos by small businesses and single proprietors – a very large part of the labour force in a city like Vancouver without large employers.
There is a matter of equity when businesses start to use condos as the main work place. Because of differential property tax rates, residential property gets taxed at a substantially lower rate than commercial. It’s also one of the reasons why it’s hard to get an accurate count on what floorspace is being used for what purpose.
Some still argue that we should not constrain the demand for more residential development downtown – even if the priority is nore job creation. Philosophically, it comes down to whether you believe jobs follow zoning – and that if there are no opportunities for commercial space, the jobs will go elsewhere. Or whether you believe jobs follow people – and that if talented, valuable people are living downtown, that’s where businesses who need those people will locate, and will innovate to do so. We’ve seen some of that in the video-game industry.
Yes, there is reverse commuting, and it’s growing. The issue then is: where are the jobs located in the suburbs? If they locate along the rapid-transit lines, then reverse commuting is actually helpful; it fills some of the unused capacity of the transit system. If people have to drive, then it worsens congestion.
As the piece notes, we’re are victims of our own success – but as our Planning Director Brent Toderian comments, it’s a nice problem to have, and we’re hardly a victim in that sense.
Lesson: life (and planning) is messy.

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January 19, 2007

Can you identify the city in which this house is located?

Peter Simpson, the CEO of the Greater Vancouver Home Builders Association, explains:

This photo could be of a single-family home in Langley, Surrey, Maple Ridge, etc. If you were to show it to your associates, chances are they wouldn’t guess Shanghai. (The licence plate on the van might give a clue). The homes are in a gated — and guarded — community in Pudong, a relatively new suburb of Shanghai. The enclave of single-family homes is surrounded by apartments, condominiums and markets.

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I went looking for coverage of the storm battling Europe, but found this as the lead article in The Guardian:

Carbon dioxide is accumulating in the atmosphere much faster than scientists expected, raising fears that humankind may have less time to tackle climate change than previously thought.New figures from dozens of measuring stations across the world reveal that concentrations of CO2, the main greenhouse gas, rose at record levels during 2006 – the fourth year in the last five to show a sharp increase. Experts are puzzled because the spike, which follows decades of more modest annual rises, does not appear to match the pattern of steady increases in human emissions.

The Runaway Effect, which was only mooted about – and often discounted – by credible sources a few years, now seems to be openly discussed. Read the whole article: Surge in carbon levels raises fears of runaway warming.

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The New York Times reports on the Vancouver dilemma: the Living First policy, which has encouraged more residential development downtown, is a victim of its own success. Or rather, the victim is the lack of commercial development to provide space for jobs and to loosen up the core-office vacancy rate, now at a very low 3.3 percent.
This is not a new story – and the City has already responded with new policies – but coverage in the august New York Times makes it an even bigger issue.
You can read the whole story here – but here are some excerpts:

Over the last 15 years, downtown Vancouver has become a leader in North America’s urban housing renaissance. Under Vancouver’s “living first” policy, which was adopted 20 years ago, the downtown population has increased to 80,000 from 40,000, out of a total city population of 600,000. By 2030, planners expect 120,000 people to live in the city’s shimmering glass skyscrapers, which overlook the snowcapped North Shore mountains, English Bay and Coal Harbour….
Last month, the city released a jobs and land-use study, which concluded that the downtown peninsula could run out of job space within five years under current zoning regulations.
Nevertheless, encouraging new office construction will not be an easy task, Mr. Toderian said. The Vancouver office market has a number of relatively small tenants, and he said there was a reluctance on the part of local developers to build office towers on speculation. And now the Bay Parkade project, which is a test case of the city’s new approach, has some developers suggesting that office growth is not viable….
According to the city’s jobs and land-use plan, downtown will need about 65 million square feet of space to accommodate job growth over the next 20 years. That is about 10 million more than the capacity under current land-use regulations. Class A office vacancy rates have already dropped to 3.3 percent, down from 12.3 percent two years ago, and recent transactions set a new high of 40 Canadian dollars ($34) a square foot, according to Jennifer Robertson of Cushman & Wakefield….
The land-use study will have policy implications for developers and other stakeholders, Mr. Toderian said, but he said he saw no crisis ahead. “Most downtowns would love to have our problem,” he said. “We are well-positioned to do that deeper level of urbanism.”

[More comments here.]

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I subscribe to the New York Times Select – the stuff you have to pay for to see on the web. It’s one strategy the dead-tree media are using to remain viable. In this case, it’s worth it.
Here’s a reason: the bloggers who don’t even appear in print. Lisa Margonelli writes one called “Pipeline.”
You can read the whole piece here if you subscribe, but here’s a sample:

An overwhelming number of Americans believe that our oil problems can be solved by better auto technology ….
What we would rather not do is use less gas. Over the past five years, as gas prices have doubled, fuel consumption has continued climbing upward…. We are a country with 140 million pedals to the metal. American drivers buy one of every nine barrels of crude oil pumped from the ground, so we have more power and influence over world prices than any other buyers. Our behavior exacerbates small supply shortages, sending prices even higher. The International Energy Agency now considers drivers’ “insensitivity” to price as a potential threat to the stability of the world oil market…
Why? In 1977 the average family traveled 12, 036 miles a year, but by 2001, we were driving 21,171 miles to and from work, soccer practice and the mall. People bought bigger cars to make the longer drives more bearable, and now they’re stuck with both the cars and the commutes.

[And, I’d say, with the urban environments created by the car: places in which there are no alternatives, and no alternatives wanted.]

Generations of Americans have come to expect a constant flow of cheap gasoline as a right — and they attribute high prices to oil company shenanigans. Eric Smith, a political scientist at the University of California at Santa Barbara, found that that 85 percent of Californians believe that high gas prices are the result of oil company manipulation, not market pressures. And if there’s no shortage, why conserve?
To really address our overconsumption of oil, we need to fix the drivers along with the cars. And that will require big new approaches. For years, environmentalists have begged for higher gas taxes as a way to discourage people from wasting gas. But we have demonstrated that we can’t or won’t respond rationally to high prices, so taxes will not push conservation. We need to rethink our supply-based energy policy, and ready to start making changes both big and small in the way we consume oil.

That’s a formula for catastrophe – the mechanism a deluded population requires before accepting change. Not exactly a great political platform or policy recommendation. Perhaps it explains why most politicians are not engaging the big issues, particularly climate change, or making the connections to our way of life.

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