Wrong Way to Make a Region Livable

June 12, 2007 • Commentary
This article appeared in the Vancouver Sun on June 12, 2007.

Property owners in the Lower Mainland face some of the strictest land–use regulations in Canada, with more than two‐​thirds of the region off limits to development. Not coincidentally, Vancouver also has the least affordable housing in Canada.

TransLink, the Greater Vancouver Transportation Authority, is building expensive light–rail and other transit lines, and has given relief of highway congestion the lowest priority for funding.

Not coincidentally, Vancouver shares with Toronto and Montreal the record of most time and fuel wasted per commuter of any urban area in Canada.

In 1995, the provincial government asked the Greater Vancouver Regional District to write a “strategic plan” for the region. The legislature gave planners 14 goals, including maintaining housing affordability, providing efficient transportation and protecting the unique character of communities.

The GVRD responded with its Livable Region Strategic Plan. But rather than meet all 14 goals, this plan focused on just two — “avoiding urban sprawl” and “minimize the use of automobiles.” Unfortunately, achieving these goals meant discarding several of the others.

To avoid sprawl, the GVRD closed more than 70 per cent of the region’s land to development and mandated that all cities in the region accommodate growth by increasing population densities. The result has been skyrocketing housing prices and, for most families, an end to the great Canadian dream of owning your own single–family home.

To minimize automobile use, TransLink spends a large share of the region’s limited transportation funds on various forms of rail transit. These expensive projects will not get a significant number of people out of their automobiles.

The growing congestion that results will only waste the time of the 90 per cent of people in the region who rely on autos as their main source of transport.

Meanwhile, the mania for density is destroying the unique character of communities. District planners directed cities and towns to move more of their residents into five–story apartments and condo towers.

Cities are also supposed to provide a “jobs–labour balance.” This means cities like Surrey that have almost twice as many workers as jobs are expected to add more than 100,000 new jobs.

Meanwhile, cities like Burnaby that have more jobs than workers are supposed to discourage new businesses. The result will be that everything looks exactly alike.

Where will it end? Vancouver is already the densest major city in Canada, 14 per cent denser than Montreal and 27 per cent denser than Toronto and Victoria. The only incorporated Canadian town of any size that is denser than Vancouver (by a mere one per cent) is the Montreal suburb of Westmount.

Vancouver’s Mayor Sam Sullivan says even more density is needed to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. This argument is without foundation. Research shows that building, heating, and operating highrise condos emits more greenhouse gases than single–family homes.

Density also increases traffic congestion, and cars produce the most pollution and greenhouse gases in congested traffic.

The region will not reduce carbon emissions by forcing people to waste fuel in stop–and–go traffic.

Just who decided that “avoiding sprawl” should be the paramount goal of the region’s planners anyway?

This goal should be laughable in a province that has some of the lowest population densities in the world, all of whose cities, towns, and villages cover less than one‐​half per cent of British Columbia.

Planners have their priorities upside down. In a province such as B.C., which is 99 per cent rural open space, or even a region such as Vancouver, which is more than 70 per cent open space, keeping housing affordable is more important the preserving every last acre of undeveloped land.

Nearly three out of four Canadians aspire to live in a single–family home with a yard. The yards people want to own are some of the most valuable sources of open space and outdoor recreation a city can have. Denying this goal to most of the region’s residents makes Vancouver less livable, not more.

Discouraging driving is even dumber. Besides being the most convenient form of urban transport ever invented, autos have given Canadians access to better jobs, housing and recreation, and Canadians are not going to give them up.

If driving has problems, such as greenhouse gas emissions, fix those problems. One of the world’s leading alternative fuel research labs is located right in Burnaby, yet planners chose social engineering over technical solutions to pollution.

Government strategic planning inevitably does more harm than good. The province should break up the GVRD and TransLink into decentralized, user–fee–driven agencies each focusing on a specific mission such as sewers or transit.

Land‐​use planning should be turned over to the cities, or better yet, private landowners.

Local governments should focus on providing effective urban services, not on changing people’s lifestyles.

About the Author