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Thoughts about the relationships between transport and the urban area it serves

How cities grow

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The Globe and Mail has a story today abut a new study by the Neptis Foundation that compares Toronto, Calgary and Vancouver. When I read the Globe piece I was at first puzzled as it seemed to me that there was some confusion in that about definitions. It seemed to me that the Globe thinks “Vancouver” meant the city, whereas Calgary and Toronto referred to their regions. I am glad I looked at the Neptis site and then decided to download the whole report (though from the same page there are a number of other options including a summary report and links to a fact sheet and “observations and FAQs”). Since the full report is 128 pages it is going to take me some time to read it. But I wanted to get in first with a quick bash, once again, at the sloppy reporting of main stream media, but also to point out firstly how well constructed this report is, but also how dated. Things have moved on, and our region  – though quite fairly from the data seems to have been doing well – is now going in completely the wrong direction.

Let us first deal with the comparison thing. They did do an “apples to apples” comparison, by using satellite imagery to define the limits of the city regions and then using census data to track changes in population and dwelling counts over time. But the time is also significant – they looked at the period 1991 to 2001. In that time, compared to the other two regions, Greater Vancouver (as it was then called) did much better than the other two.

Rates of growth in population and housing stock:

• Calgary’s population grew by 24% and its housing stock by 26%.

• Vancouver’s population and housing stock both grew by 24%.

• Toronto’s population grew by 19% and its housing stock by 22%.

Compare these to the increase in urban land:

• Calgary’s urban land increased by 43% (from 25,000 to 35,000 hectares), or 6.3 hectares per 100 new residents.

• Toronto’s urban land increased by 28% (from 139,000 to 178,000 hectares), or 4.4 hectares per 100 new residents.

• Vancouver’s urban land increased by 16% (from 57,000 to 66,000 hectares), or 2.3 hectares per 100 new residents.

So we seemed to have done better at limiting sprawl than they did. The report goes on to examine the nature of the growth on more detail (intensification vs greenfield), and then turns to the planning policies of the the regions  and the implementation of those policies. The conclusions are unsurprising but important

The stability of planning policies over the long term hinges on the presence of supportive institutions such as regional planning agencies and consistent regional leadership. Vancouver and Calgary have  both pursued fairly consistent regional urban development policies for more than 50 years because they had both of these things. The Toronto region, however, has suffered from a fragmentation of authority — only the provincial government has been able to act as the effective planner for the region.

(I am quoting, by the way from the copiable shorter pieces referred to above, not the full report as that is a “secured” pdf than does not allow quoting of selected text)

There are, of course, good reasons for their selection of dates. I would suspect that a comparison of 2001 to 2011 – when that data becomes available – will show much less of a success in controlling sprawl. But I also think that anyone who has had close experience of the regional planning process and its implementation here will choke on their cornflakes when reading some of the findings about the GVRD. “Stability and continuity of institutions” are credited for  Vancouver’s success as well as “a long tradition of inter-municpal cooperation and decades-old policies for protecting agricultural land.”

First notice that the word “Transportation” is not mentioned. Stability of institutions does not apply there. Nor does “inter-municpal cooperation” – for example the long running battle between New Westminster and Coquitlam over the Braid St bridge.  In the last ten years transportation has been one of the most contentious issues in this region, both with municipalities battling for rapid transit and also arguments about who goes first ((Vancouver, Richmond and Burnaby won – Coquitlam and Surrey lost).  Secondly, the commitment to protecting the ALR seems to have been weakened. And thirdly the role of the province which the report says was to set the rules and then stand back has very obviously shifted. The current government says that the LRSP “failed” and that therefore the highway expansion is essential to support their favoured pattern growth. The policies and the frameworks have not changed very much, but it is very obvious that the intentions of the developers are now being given much more favour than formerly.

We didn’t sprawl much in the nineties, says this report. And that is very well documented. But don’t take that pat on the back as assurance that all is well. For the performance in the noughties was almost certainly worse – certainly for loss of the ALR and growth outside of the Growth Concentration Area. And with the province now firmly committed to more freeways, much more sprawl is certain in the next ten years (the teenies?).

I would like to believe, as a regional planner and policy analyst, that policies and their consistent application are the key to controlling growth.  I do not believe that one can ignore transportation completely. I cannot accept that the provincial has ever been wholly benign – and certainly is not now. But I am going to read the whole thing now – which may take me some time. Once again, this is NOT an invitation to restart the old “it’s all Skytrain’s fault” stuff and if I see any comments on that they will once again get moderated out of existence.

UPDATE Thanks to Price Tags here is former GVRD head planner Ken Cameron’s response in a letter to the G&M

Spinning in her urban grave

I feel queasy when I see Vancouver described as an “urban planner’s dream” (How Cities Grow – These Days, Up Is In; May 17). Thirty years ago, people described Toronto as “New York run by the Swiss.” Now it resembles Los Angeles more than Lucerne.

Vancouver, which Mayor Gregor Robertson wants to make the world’s greenest city, comprises a mere 27 per cent of the region’s population and less than 5 per cent of its land base. Much of the rest of the region is more like an urban planner’s nightmare, with low density development aided and abetted by massive provincial investment in freeways – freeways, for heaven’s sake. Jane Jacobs must be spinning in her grave.

It isn’t a pretty picture. Unless Mr. Robertson and mayors of the other 20 municipalities can get their act together and fix the weak, dysfunctional arrangements for regional growth management and transportation planning, Vancouver might soon resemble Venice, but it will be surrounded by Phoenix.

Ken Cameron, Vancouver

Written by Stephen Rees

May 17, 2010 at 2:19 pm

5 Responses

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  1. Thanks for the link, an interesting read. Skimmed the summary. A few notes:

    -Unfortunately, they were not able to include the m-line as part of the analysis. certainly, there is a dearth of nodes along that section of lougheed, but it looks like the maps are from circa 2001. It would be interesting to see what that would look like now.

    -It seems that the authors like development around nodes and commend vancouver for its ability to attact population growth to town centres. However, I know you are disappointed about the lack job growth by the town centres (although I have no data to support this, but I agree that anectdotally there are examples to support this (eg. glenyon business park in burnaby). I wonder why this is? willingness for metro mayors to be less strict with businesses and zoning? competition among metro vancouver to attract business?

    -my gut feeling is that for all its warts, somehow we (our metro area) are able to make it by, better than other jurisdictions. I’m not totally familiar with TO’s situation, but amalgamation has caused a lot of grief for the metro region (eg. the province downloaded a lot of services to them, and some metro toronto politicians are exploiting the urban/suburban split).


    May 17, 2010 at 11:05 pm

  2. mezz

    It’s not that I am disappointed about the lack job growth in the town centres. That was what the LRSP was supposed to achieve and hasn’t, and that process is well documented by the GVRD/Metro staff reports that come out annually on the subject i.e they looked at data which the census to 2001 does not.

    There is now a debate on the whole notion of regional growth nodes versus corridors – and within Metro Toronto it looks like they now favour density increasing along the transit corridors with less emphasis on the regional centres.

    The real problem I have with this study is that the world has changed significantly since 2001 – and a 2010 report on the 1991-2001 period is academically interesting but probably not a lot of help understanding what we need to do differently in the next ten years.

    Stephen Rees

    May 18, 2010 at 11:02 am

  3. ^ But then Toronto tried to promote 47 growth nodes and there was a concern of a lack of concerted effort (page 16). Metro Vancouver has ~ 10 regional town centres with several more smaller nodes. Not sure how this would compare to TO’s nodes.

    A study from 2007 referenced in the main article would also suggest that TO’s moves to focus growth to main st corridors has ‘limited effect’ (page 61).

    I would also dispute this point:

    “In the last ten years transportation has been one of the most contentious issues in this region, both with municipalities battling for rapid transit and also arguments about who goes first ((Vancouver, Richmond and Burnaby won – Coquitlam and Surrey lost).”

    The E, M and C line all contribute to a strong network, and IMO this helps everyone in the region. (e.g, newcomers would settle in bownfield development along the m-line, and not in langley adding to traffic strain). The LRSP has been in effect since the 1990s. Everyone knows where transit will go and they all have compellng reasons to get transit.

    And the failure for the LRSP would’t be a failure of the plan itself, but of municipal will. If the LRSP advocated streetcar/main street corridor development, it would still be up to the municipalities to make the zoning changes. A good example of this is the lack of upzoning by nanaimo and 29th Ave stations in vancouver.


    May 18, 2010 at 2:54 pm

  4. Can’t comment on the report, but grab an Ubuntu liveCD. The pdf reader in Ubuntu (as with most Linuxes) doesn’t pay attention to ridiculous things like copy restrictions.

    Corey Burger

    May 18, 2010 at 6:20 pm

  5. @ Mezzanine

    “And the failure for the LRSP would’t be a failure of the plan itself, but of municipal will. If the LRSP advocated streetcar/main street corridor development, it would still be up to the municipalities to make the zoning changes. A good example of this is the lack of upzoning by nanaimo and 29th Ave stations in vancouver.”

    While I to would have loved to seen areas around those stations up zoned. As a resident of East Vancouver who has lived in this area all my life. Although not in the area of those stations. I can also understand why development has been basically none existent, even if the areas at been rezoned. It still wouldn’t of had a the kind of change that I or most others would have liked.

    Paul C

    May 20, 2010 at 3:52 am

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