"EcoDensity" is so 2006—make way for Sullivanism
What is "Sullivanism" and why should it matter to Vancouver urbanists? A quick Google search comes up with a Facebook fan page for a drummer, followed by Georgia Straight's recent cover feature penned by accomplished freelancer Daniel Wood. It's a feature story about how former NPA Mayor Sam Sullivan has embraced the urban planning accomplishments of Mayor Tom Campbell.
First, you have to consider the context. This is the newspaper forged out of the fires of social change during the late 1960s. It is a paper whose editorial thrust was and continues to be opposed to political organizations such as the NPA. Celebrating the ideas of Sam Sullivan and Tom Campbell on the front cover is certainly rare if not bold.
The opening paragraph of Vancouver's density debate pits Sullivanism versus the ideas of Jane Jacobs begins like this:
From where former Vancouver mayor Sam Sullivan sits on this blustery April day, the past and the future are equally visible. Across the mouth of False Creek from Kits Point rise the towers of the West End. They are the legacy of Sullivan’s Non-Partisan Association (NPA) and its 1960s developer-cum-mayor, Tom “Terrific” Campbell, who called hippies “scum” back then and those who opposed his plans to densify the West End, Kitsilano, and Kerrisdale “pinkos, commies, and hamburgers”.
You gotta love the late Mayor Tom Campbell–he certainly called it like he saw it. But was the mayor whose name has become synonymous with "old" Vancouver, pilloried and mocked by his successors and left wing media, one of the city's true visionaries? Sam Sullivan seems to suggest this. The idea might at first seem quaint if not for its heretical suggestion that the saintly Jane Jacobs might have been wrong when it comes to tall buildings and urban density.
Sullivan tells me he has just come to a shocking discovery. 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 when they brought a halt to the city’s concrete and steel densification in the early 1970s.
Those who know Sam appreciate that sometimes he catches you off-guard with his candor. Remember his "step on your opponent's neck" analogy in the Citizen Sam documentary that got him in trouble (most folks didn't appreciate that would be hard for a quadraplegic to accomplish, but the image stuck nonetheless). True to form Sullivan tells Wood why – in his opinion – Campbell was right and Jacobs wrong.
With thousands of newcomers moving into Vancouver annually, the city’s population is predicted to almost double in the next 50 years. That’s 500,000 new people. But with virtually no undeveloped land in the city, where will they go? There is no money—and few government incentives—for developers to invest in rental or social housing. And the scores of laneway houses and secondary suites now under construction will absorb only a fraction of pent-up demand. Says Sullivan: “The market is screaming! It’s the result of a planning regime that’s deaf to the city’s needs. And left-wing rage against development and towers means they’re on the side of the one percent.”
These comments unleashed the predictable backlash, but are they in essence correct? If you look at the planning direction the City of Vancouver has been taking for most of the past two decades, and certainly not waning under Vision Vancouver, "Sullivanism" is alive and well in our city.
It's funny to think that Vision used a planning label once to damage Sullivan's credibility. Back in 2006, then Mayor Sullivan and his Chief of Staff Daniel Fontaine were preparing to make a presentation at the World Urban Forum in June. The story goes they were scrambling to brand a new policy direction based around the idea that cities must find ways to reduce their energy consumption and shrink their carbon footprint. Statistics suggested that it would take the resources of "three planets" to fulfill the needs of one planet — ours. Sullivan and Fontaine tried the label "One Planet Living" at first, but discovered that it was already in use. "EcoDensity", so the story goes, would have to do.
Sullivan, who in his role as a director of the Disability Foundation had previously lost a company name because it was not legally registered, suggested to his staff that they patent the term "EcoDensity" in order to protect it as the intellectual property of the City of Vancouver. Vision leaked the story to a Vancouver reporter who turned Sullivan's patent of EcoDensity into a front page story. It was even used against him by Peter Ladner as one of his excuses for challenging the Mayor's leadership in 2008.
Fast forward to today, and EcoDensity barely raises the blood pressure of many in this city but a few. You could argue it's a term whose time has already passed. Ironically, "Sullivanism" seems to be taking its place.
So at the next controversial re-zoning by Vision Vancouver, where they put density into a block where none previously existed, you can credit Vision's embrace of Sullivanism for it.
- post by Mike