Some of the world's top urban thinkers will assemble in Vancouver on June 6th
When 300 delegates arrive at the Vancouver Playhouse Theatre on June 6 for the Vancouver Urban Forum, housing affordability will be on their minds. Although some delegates will come from places such as Albania, Australia, Bangladesh and Colombia the majority will be local and very familiar with Vancouver housing prices.
I have been intrigued by recent discussions in the media about the theory that foreign Chinese homebuyers are responsible for high housing prices in Vancouver. It is interesting because foreign Chinese buyers are actually buying more property in American cities than in Vancouver and yet the prices there have dropped dramatically. It seems pretty obvious that there is a lot more going on.
Rising house prices in Vancouver are not new. I suspect that they have more to do with policies to restrict housing supply that were introduced to Vancouver in the 1970s. At that time, the West End and several other neighborhoods were downzoned and new processes and policies made development difficult. Meanwhile over 30,000 people have been added to the region each year. The inevitable result has been sprawl and high housing prices.
Prof. Edward Glaeser of Harvard has made the connection between restrictive housing supply policies and high house prices in his book Triumph of the City. I have asked him to come to Vancouver to speak at the Vancouver Urban Forum on Wednesday, June 6 at the Vancouver Playhouse Theatre. The theme of the Forum will be "achieving urban densification". He will review the evidence in favour of density and explain where he thinks Jane Jacobs got it right and where she got it wrong.
He will be joined by several other presenters. Dan Zack is a city planner from Redwood California and he has been wowing citizen groups with his presentation "Delightful Density". Gil Penalosa, a former municipal leader from Bogotá, advocates the link between density and non-automobile transportation. One of Canada's most innovative social sector leaders, Alan Broadbent, will advocate his ideas for a new relationship for cities and highlight the electoral underrepresentation of urban voters that skews national and provincial priorities.
UBC Prof. Max Cameron, head of the Center for the Study of Democratic Institutions, will present his ideas for a new structure of municipal government and an overhaul of the Public Hearing Process based on the separation of powers argument first put forward by Aristotle and refined by Montesquieu. Can we reform the system that allows small groups to tie up City Councils and prevent critically needed density? Can we design our democracy better by implementing the separation of powers?
Waves of urban reform every half century
Canada has seen three waves of urban reform since its founding. The third wave of urban reform of the 1960s brought many wonderful and humanizing benefits to cities. It also brought about a hyper suburbanization, stopped natural densification and left cities economically weaker and environmentally more malignant. Is it possible that a fourth wave of urban reform could lead us to an urban future? What might a fourth wave of urban reform look like?
There will be many answers proposed at the Vancouver Urban Forum. Some think we should abandon the 1960s environmentalism that saw the ideal as living close to the land in low-density developments. They find it ironic that the environmental activism that some still adhere to has led us to the most environmentally destructive urban form in the history of humanity. We might instead adopt a scientific biological approach that measures impact on climate and habitat and then act accordingly.
Some think we should also accept the outcome of the great debate of the last century — whether it is better to organize human society through central planning or through regulated market forces? With the fall of the Berlin Wall it is clear that those countries which adopted central planning created less social justice, were more damaging to their environment and delivered less prosperity to their citizens. Can we achieve less intentional and more spontaneous cities? Can we cultivate a functioning land market that is more organic and creative? Can we free our architects and design professionals and allow them to meet the challenges that we face?
For over 40 years very few cities have rezoned central city neighborhoods from single detached houses to high density. The opportunity cost to the environment and the economy has been high and the lack of supply caused by this is preventing young people from finding housing in the city. In Vancouver the result is that 9 ft.² of green space is converted to sprawl every second of every day in the region.
The Vancouver Urban Forum will be attended by Mayors coming from countries like Bangladesh. Bangladesh is a country that is under severe threat from climate change. The well-being of their citizens is threatened by municipal governments in North America who exacerbate climate change by continuing to approve sprawl and reject high density buildings. A World Bank report indicates that some Toronto suburbs create 10 times as much greenhouse gas emissions as the high density core. Should the Climate Risk Mayors from threatened cities start to weigh in on these decisions and gain status at Public Hearings in North America?
These and many more topics will be discussed at the Vancouver Urban Forum on Wednesday, June 6 at the Vancouver Playhouse Theatre. Please consider registering for the Vancouver Urban Forum at www.vancouverurbanforum.org . For those who have difficulty paying the registration, the Real Estate Foundation of British Columbia has provided a grant that will sponsor up to 30 unaffiliated citizens. To apply please write to firstname.lastname@example.org and describe who you are and why you would like to attend.
- post by Sam Sullivan