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I had the chance to attend the Vancouver Urban Forum on Wednesday hosted by former Vancouver Mayor Sam Sullivan. The conference was really interesting, and maybe more than anything else, the consensus among local and international urban thinkers was striking. So I read the cover story in this week’s Georgia Straight with a sense of awe.

The article discusses Sullivan’s shift away from a Jane Jacobs-inspired vision of urban life, and towards a “Tom Campbell“-inspired vision (another former Vancouver Mayor, one known for his emphasis on high-rises). For Sullivan, the major development that forced his rethinking was suburban sprawl:

Considering the fact that suburban sprawl is—with its spacious, energy-consuming homes and requisite commuting—a disaster for the planet, then, to Sullivan’s mind, Campbell was right. Stacking people was right. Towers are good. And all the New Urbanist, low-rise, Jane Jacobs–loving, fuzzy-wuzzy antidevelopment forces were wrong…

“Haven’t Vancouver’s critical housing issues—almost nonexistent rental opportunities, the near impossibility of middle-class home ownership, and ongoing suburban sprawl—all been produced by the Jacobs-inspired shortage of affordable places to live within the city? Short supply plus high demand equals sky-high real-estate prices. …

“Can you see the whole thing as big, shiny high-rises?

Sullivan, rightly, insists that sprawl has negative environmental consequences (longer commutes, more car trips, greater areas that municipal services need to cover). But his conclusion that “densifying” Vancouver with new 35- and 28-, 25- and 31-storey apartment towers (these are projects currently underway in Kits Point and South Cambie, respectively) is essential to addressing the environmental crisis presents the issue too simplistically. There’s more than one way to make a city more dense, and there are better and worse ways of doing it. Somehow Sullivan seems to think that “density” can be achieved by simply “stacking” people in 30+ storey towers, and that this has no side effects on neighbourhoods.

Yet, if this is Sullivan’s view, why did he invite so many leading urban thinkers to his forum to argue for the exact opposite of his vision? Indeed, why does Sullivan think so if the overwhelming consensus among speakers was that building 30-storey high-rise apartments in areas where the tallest nearby buildings are 6-8 stories has detrimental effects on “livability” — that other much-touted word — and that density can and should be pursued in other ways. Instead of “Density”/”density at any cost”, the urban environment needs to be densified “well”. So what does this look like?

Taking cues from Patrick Condon, Brent Toderian and Dan Zack (speakers at the Vancouver Urban Forum), “density done well” has some of the following types of features:

  • Build diversity at eye level. Creating spaces for shops, restaurants, workshops, parks, offices, etc. will ensure that the neighbourhood is busy throught the day making the neighbourhood more vibrant.
  • Find ways to make density more gradual, gentle and invisible. Density has become a four-letter word, but guessing the density of a building is often quite difficult. A single row home can house several people, mid-rises even people. Density can be created accommodated in many different ways. Vibrant cities mix different types of structures. Density ought to be thought of on a larger scale (blocks) than single buildings. Can a neighbourhood be made more dense by building several low- and mid-rises instead of a 30+ storey building?
  • Insist on high quality design. Instead of imposing the same concrete wrapped in green glass towers, insist that architects and designers find creative ways to preserve sunlight, privacy and views for residents and neighbours.
  • Leverage development to foster community life. Insist on social housing, daycares, parks and other urban amenities for both residents and neighbours.
  • Synchronize land use and mobility. Decide which types of transportation to prioritize (walking, cycling, transit, single occupancy vehicles) and tailor urban space to accommodate these types of transit. Building a more dense neighbourhood with a variety of amenities and services nearby will cut down on car trips out of the neighbourhood and contribute to more sustainable lifestyles.
  • Add density along transit corridors. Vancouver was designed around a streetcar grid that now provides Vancouver with its major transit arterials. These are the areas along which new, denser buildings should be built. But not 30-storey buildings, “these buildings should assume some of the character of the neighbourhood upon which they are imposed. In height, in mass, and in function, new housing needs to fit in.”

To be fair to Sullivan, he also points out that adding more towers will make Vancouver more affordable — Vancouver is currently the 2nd most expensive city in the world. Sullivan is right that adding more homes will bring down prices. At the forum, Edward Glaeser repeatedly made the case that cities that build are not expensive. Cities are in many ways more or less a single market: when demand increases faster than supply, prices increasing; increasing supply in one area (with high-rise towers) eases prices across the rest of the city to varying degrees. Yet this does not mean that high-rises need to be added to all neighbourhoods. Adding more high-rise towers to areas with towers already will help situate them in context and will not produce the same adverse effects on neighbourhoods as they would in ones of 3- and 4-storey buildings. The Rize development at Kingsway and Broadway would add units selling at over 10 times the annual household income in the area. This will only increase gentrification — in the kind of area Vancouverites are trying to save from gentrification.

I think that Sullivan is well-intentioned. He seems to genuinely care about making Vancouver a greener and more livable place, but his ideas about how to go about it seem wrong. Global environmental politics demand a type of pragmatism in dealing with urban policies, but installing a few 30-storey towers won’t adequately address issues of sprawl. “New green values” concerning the planet and emissions do not have to abrade against “traditional green values” of nature, peace and community. Communities can be made denser and greener in a variety of ways. Let a thousand flowers (or 5-storey buildings…) bloom.