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? Continue reading