Sullivan: foreseeing a Fourth Wave of urban reform

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 . 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 and describe who you are and why you would like to attend.

– post by Sam Sullivan

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  • chris

    vancouver urban forum sounds very interesting and seems like a good use of time/money. when i read “9 ft.² of green space is converted to sprawl every second” my heart just sank, even though i know it’s true because i see/hear it everywhere in vancouver. whether you want to say its because of chinese super rich buyers or not, we can all agree that there are too many empty condos and houses throughout the city and the population only grew by something like 4% in the last year – not so outstanding. (population in vancouver 2006 = 578,041 population in 2011 = 603,502)

  • len

    Here’s some irony.

    “300 delegates arrive at the Vancouver Playhouse Theatre on June 6 for the Vancouver Urban Forum, housing affordability will be on their minds”
    VANCOUVER?? ha!

    One of the least affordable cities in the world. Only concern and respect city council has is for developers & a few people making all the bucks. There is no creative, thoughtful, humane or healthy planning occurring in Vancouver; there is no concern for affordable housing, homelessness, or creating communities with the communities who live there.

    Having this here is good humour. There will be ivory tower discussions not applicable to reality. Sadly it will be a joke because nothing learned here is going to help Vancouver or the unthinking classist mentality of most planners (no offense, just the facts.) By the time anyone responsible for Vancouver urban planning comes along who is good, thoughtful and humane, someone who is concerned about people’s health and maintaining communities for all, even the poorest, there will be nothing decent left to plan as it will all be over-run with towers & cement.

    • Steven Forth

      So what do you think we should do?

    • Ms. Jones

      I agree, what a waste of time… for nothing!

  • SouthVancouver

    “It is interesting because foreign Chinese buyers are actually buying more property in American cities than in Vancouver …” Sam you might need to provide some backup to that statement for anyone to believe it.

    The Economist, the CEO of RBC, the Minister of Finance and the head of the Bank of Canada seem convinced that Chinese buyers are behind Vancouver’s prices, but what would they know?

    I’m tired of the endless spin from the development industry (and their mouthpieces) that we just need to give Vancouver developers even more freedom than they already have. In the West End they’ve already been knocking down churches, class A heritage buildings, and only barely stopped from knocking down the oldest tree in the city. Let’s stop pretending that the crass sell off of every inch of this city for ugly sterile towers intended for overseas buyers isn’t what is driving this city’s prices into the stratosphere. I’m also tired of urban planning newspeak being used to justify the appalling lack of real urban planning (remember the old days of zoning?) in Vancouver.

  • Steven Forth
  • gman

    What a load of BS.Sam might want to educate himself with a little reality instead of following the party line and trying to scare the kids and the uninformed. Climate change Sam,how embarrassing.Or maybe you should actually read AGENDA 21.Oh and I wonder if these clowns will be going to Rio this year for the big scare fest,unfortunately for you Sam I doubt AGW will even be mentioned as they have already lost that battle instead all you will hear is the sustainability mantra.We live in Canada Sam and there are more people living in Mexico city than in our entire country.

  • Chinese, or other non-Canadian buyers have, and have had an impact on our housing prices for many years. To compare Vancouver’s real estate market to that of the US is not a valid comparison. To start with there are a billion + Chinese, and many of those who are newly wealthy want to own property in countries like Canada and the US. Why should all of those buyers want to only do so in Vancouver? There are also many Canadians buying real estate in the US at the present time as well.

    And, yes, there are other things going on to increase the cost of housing in Vancouver. The principle factor is that Vancouver has been, and today remains a very desirable place to live and work. There are a number of reasons including: climate, geography, the Canadian economy, the proximity to Asia, and our seaport, among others. And in addition, in the 1970’s TEAM instituted civic governance and “livable city” planning policies, which have significantly enhanced our quality of life.

    After TEAM faded in the early 80’s these policies were respected and refined by TEAM members such as Mike Harcourt, Gordon Campbell, Art Cowie and others in the 80’s and 90’s as well as Phillip Owen and their respective administrations.

    It is more accurate to say that TEAM did downzone some areas of the City, specifically the Downtown, West End and Kits. However, we also upzoned the Fairview Slopes, and the Broadway Corridor. In addition, we began the master planning for the north and south side of False Creek and Coal Harbour. We successfully developed False Creek South and Champlain Heights (making money, not losing it as has happened in the Olympic Village — and in the process laid the foundation for the Property Endowment Fund). We worked with the Feds to realize Granville Island. We worked with the Province to establish the Chinatown, Gastown and Yaletown Heritage Areas and protected Strathcona. We advocated for, and provided leadership within the GVRD and its regional planning function. I could go on.

    To suggest TEAM’s policies “restricted housing supply” is simply not correct. It is clear from the above that rather than restricting supply, TEAM clearly encouraged, facilitated and successfully realized in built form a great deal of additional zoning capacity and housing supply in Vancouver.

    To also suggest that TEAM’s “new processes and policies made development difficult” is equally misleading. Yes we did introduce “conditional use zoning”, design guidelines and other planning techniques and process that have become admired and copied around the world, and these were are more complex and they do take a little more time, with emphasis on “little”. However, the improvement in the end product far, far over-rides these minor inconveniences. As a practicing architect in Vancouver during the before and after through all of these changes I would far rather design a 4 storey apartment building under RM3A that responds to and takes advantage of opportunities presented by the site than design an RM3 coffin built form, the result of the simplistic requirements of that outright use zoning.

    Densification is necessary to achieve a better quality of urban life in Vancouver and sustainable neighbourhoods, but the answers are not simplistic methods.

    However, your attempt to connect the 60’s “ideal as living close to the land” with suburban sprawl, and the “central planning” of the Pre-Wall Eastern Block with the “regulated market forces” are frankly absurd. What are the “regulated market forces” you speak of? Is that not a planning and development process similar to the one we have been successfully employing in Vancouver from 1973 to 2006?

    Please provide convincing arguments to show how “the lack of supply caused by ‘this’ [ie: not rezoning “central city neighborhoods from single detached houses to high density”] is preventing young people from finding housing in the city” in Vancouver? Do so by demonstrating how increasing the supply of land and/or density will reduce housing costs.

    Are the densification projects being approved by cities throughout Metro not a part of your “9 ft.² of green space is converted to sprawl every second of every day in the region” calculation? Please provide the detailed basis upon which you have arrived at this rate of expansion. Is this land not all zoned for urban development? Is this expansion not a result of the “land market that is more organic and creative” that you advocate for?

    Would not Metro have to expand into non-urban zones to increase that supply of land? How much added density will kill the golden egg and turn Vancouver from the world’s most livable city to yet another urban slum. I’m afraid we’re about to find out what to much density looks like in the next couple of years when the projects this current Council are approving are built.

    • Steven Forth

      Thank You Bill – CC should ask you to do a full post on this. Which of these approaches would you like to see carried forward over the next decade and what new approaches are needed? Are there other potential Granville Islands out there (loosely speaking) that could make a big contribution to quality of life? How did this way of developing Vancouver devolve into the mess around BC Place and the hockey areana? Going forward it seems that we will get little support from the federal government or event the province. How do we compensate?

      Also, which of the current projects do you think are most problematic?

    • Glissando Remmy

      Very good comment.
      I only want to second Steven on that thought of this comment being given a full post status here at CC.
      Also re. why the Chinese like to move here in Vancouver, from all the places… because the bylaws allow them to play loud music from 101.7 FM Shanghai, while cutting another tree from their property, for Feng Shui purposes, and of course to make space for that ‘special’ Vancouver Special! Was I close? 🙂