Stephen Rees's blog

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

Posts Tagged ‘ecodensity

Weekly Photo Challenge: Dense

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Vancouver Aerial

This is a photograph of Vancouver’s downtown, which in recent years has become – in terms of urban development – one of the densest parts of the region. This was the result of a set of inter-related planning decisions, to allow for towers, closely spaced, and mainly for residential use. This was a departure from the way other places kept downtowns for other, non-residential uses. This has allowed for much greater choices in terms of how people get to and from work – and other activities. In most modern cities, built since World War II, the plan has been to allow for most use of cars, which has created large swathes of low density suburbs. Traditionally, prior to motorised transport, cities were designed to allow for most trips to be completed by walking. Railways and streetcars allowed things to be spaced out a bit more, but the greatest impact was the use of the personal automobile. Most North American cities are now turning away from this pattern of development and rediscovering the benefits of urbanity. (Most European cities made that choice much sooner – to retain the amenities and cultural significance of their central areas. ) Not just better energy efficiency, and cleaner air – though both are worthwhile improvements – but in greater interaction between people. More sociability, greater opportunities to meet other people – more culture, more entertainment, more choices of where to go and what to do.  Indeed the pursuit of higher densities remains a central plank of urban and regional planning – the subject matter of most of this blog – made possible by increasing the choices of transport open to residents. More trips that can be made without needing a car, by walking, cycling and public transport. That produces happier, healthier places. It doesn’t just protect the environment it increases economic activity.

Note too that one important lesson of developing a dense urban core is that green spaces – that’s Stanley Park in the foreground – can be successfully protected and made available for many more people to enjoy, rather than the large areas that get fenced off to keep people out in low density suburbs and exurbs.

Written by Stephen Rees

March 29, 2017 at 9:26 pm

Eco Density fight continues

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A Group of Vancouver Neighbourhoods is continuing to oppose the proposals for EcoDensity® . The third draft goes to Council on June 10 and a letter writing campaign is being ogranised to set out the concerns of the citizens and members of this alliance of neighbourhood groups.

The text that follows is the suggestion of material that the Mayor and Council need to consider. I think many people will probably be tempted to cut and paste, but of course if the recipients start to notice that the communications are all the same that will probably reduce the impact a bot. Much better for citizens to use their own words I think, but I do recognize that takes time and effort. Which, of course, is exactly why more personal communications work better.

And, for what it is worth, I find these arguments compelling – especially the bit about public input. It seems to me to be a very risky strategy to upset a lot of people just before an election.

We support the letter from Neighbourhoods for a Sustainable Vancouver (NSV) dated May 28, 2008.

Please post this letter to the City’s website for public access as soon as you receive it, as per Council direction at the meeting of April 15, 2008.

The previous six main concerns remain:  EcoDensity is not required for the ‘eco’ part, EcoDensity is not required for the ‘density’ part, EcoDensity is not required for implementation, concerns about density bonusing, advantages of reusing existing buildings for increased density; and protection of rentals.  The third draft fails to address these concerns and in many cases, increases our concerns because of new language in the draft.  We especially emphasize our third concern (EcoDensity is not required for implementation) because of new language that undermines the work of CityPlan Community Visions and residents associations.

1.  EcoDensity is not required for the ‘eco’ part.

The Community Climate Change Action Plan can handle the ‘eco’ part .  In 2005 Council passed the Community Climate Change Action Plan (CCCAP), which covered all aspects of environmental sustainability including smart growth through implementation of CityPlan Community Visions for more compact neighbourhoods.  The Community Climate Change Action Plan needs the City to put more resources into implementation, not to waste more time on EcoDensity.

2.  EcoDensity is not required for the ‘density’ part.

The third draft contains misleading density projections.  EcoDensity continues to create an illusion of scarcity of density which is simply not true.  Based on the City’s own estimates, there is easily enough existing zoning capacity for well into the next few decades.

3.  EcoDensity is not required for implementation.

CityPlan Community Visions and local area plans are how smart growth have been planned through a neighbourhood grassroots process of consultation and implementation, which should be respected by the City.  New language in the third draft undermines this community consultation and implementation.

4.  Concerns about density bonusing.

The role of density bonusing, and how this is being managed, is of continuing concern.  The third draft still facilitates governments to use density to fund an ever widening list of under-funded programs.

5.  Advantages of reusing existing buildings for increased density.

There needs to be more explicit action to craft zoning so that additional infill and secondary suites are used as an incentive to retain and upgrade existing character buildings.  In areas like the Downtown Eastside and Heritage Districts, zoning needs to be used more creatively to make retention of the existing buildings the highest and best economic use.  This means outright zoning heights must be lower than the existing building heights.  We note that ‘Action 12 – Increased building height and density in Gastown, Hastings, and Chinatown Districts’ in the second draft has been changed to ‘Action B-1 – Historic Precinct Height Study’ which continues to promote increased height and density in these areas.  Therefore, we continue to oppose this action which will undermine heritage retention and put increased pressure on land values that make affordable housing options less viable and increase evictions.

6.  Protection of rentals.

We are pleased that the third draft acknowledges that existing purpose-built rental buildings are more affordable than new and need to be retained.  But there are no actions to protect these buildings from redevelopment.  Recent development applications show that the Rate of Change Policy is not adequate when affordable market rental older buildings are redeveloped with less affordable new rental units at a rate less than 1 to 1 replacement and developers are given 50% density bonuses to do it.  Replacement should be required at no less than a 1 to 1 rate, (based on equivalent sized units) and not bonused.  The Rate of Change Policy should be improved, expanded and extended indefinitely. There should also be tax incentives for owners to upgrade and maintain the existing purpose-built rental stock.

New Concerns in the third draft:

The previous concerns raised by NSV remain, and new wording raises fresh concerns about the rights of neighbourhoods to be involved in shaping their future and includes significant proposed changes to zoning and land use policy which we do not support.  The third draft:

  • proposes an Interim EcoDensity Rezoning Policy that would allow direct implementation of housing types that Visions had labeled ‘Not Approved (Uncertain)’ because they had relatively small neighbourhood support (Action C-2 of the draft Initial Actions),
  • allows the creation of ‘a new city-wide plan, that builds on … the many Community Visions’ and would ‘build on existing density and population potential under existing policy and zoning’ (Action C-1), but ‘build on’ seems to mean ‘take as a starting point’, allowing Visions and local area plans to be overridden,
  • defines consultation as including ‘future or un-represented voices’ (Part VII. a. of the draft Charter) that could be used to override the actual voices of the existing community, and
  • allows Visions and local area plans to be overridden (‘consciously reconsidered’) by Council ‘after appropriate process and consultation’ (Part VIII. c. of the draft Charter), based on a flawed consultation process (see above).

After three unacceptable drafts, we request that Council withdraw the entire EcoDensity Charter and Initial Actions. The City should simply move ahead and implement the Community Climate Change Action Plan, CityPlan Community Visions and local area plans which are already well thought-out, supported by the individual neighbourhoods and Council-approved.

This draft of the Charter raises new concerns about community consultation and land use policy, and fails to adequately address our previous concerns, we also request that Council allow citizens to directly address the Council meeting when this latest draft is brought to Council for consideration. In a democracy, the community deserves the right to directly address Council about such concerns at a public hearing.

Further, since there is no provision or process at all for the incorporation of the public’s comments on the third draft, we are concerned that Council intends to ignore the public’s comments.

We demand a more democratic process that allows the public to speak when the third draft comes back to Council for consideration, and a process for revision of the third draft to incorporate the public’s concerns.

Written by Stephen Rees

June 3, 2008 at 12:07 pm

Posted in Urban Planning

Tagged with

New Ecodensity Charter

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Brent Toderian wrote to me to let me know that the revised Charter and its accompanying documents are now available on the City website.

Now I have been gamely plodding through all this, and my first reaction is that it could have been made a lot easier to follow. The full text of both versions of the Charter are there, but as separate documents. It would have made reviewer’s life easier if there had been on one set of pages with the changes highlighted. Most word processing software packages can do this easily (“tools/compare versions”).

The staff report is thorough, and is at pains to point out what the staff heard and how those concerns have been addressed. But I was not at any of the events where concerns were expressed, so I have no idea how those who did express them will feel about how well they have been addressed.

One thing that did jump out at me however was this

New housing will also come through some additional large sites that are yet to be planned (e.g., Arbutus Village, Little Mountain, and the former Transit Bus Barns in Oakridge).

I do not know anything about Arbutus Village but Little Mountain is happening right now – so “yet to be planned” seems a bit of an odd phrase to apply to it. And the Oakridge “Bus Barns” (they are not called that by the people who run them) are going to stay as a Transit Operating Centre for some considerable time. They are currently being used as a Community Shuttle base, a place to commission new trolleybuses and a storage space for buses awaiting disposal. Early plans to redevelop the site to high density housing were rejected by the City, throwing a large wrench into Translink’s financial plan for disposal and use of the funds elsewhere. My advice would be not to expect too much new housing here any time soon. Finding sites for new operating centres is harder than redeveloping existing occupied housing.

Oakridge deadline

I welcome the attention now being paid to affordability, and the seeming willingness to allow existing homeowners to add secondary suites and lane houses. I am sure there are a lot of empty nesters who would like to stay in their neighbourhoods but have less lawn to mow and a new source of rental income for their retirement years. A lot of density can be added that way, but I think we need a bit more of a codified approach that people can understand ahead of time. The sort of approach advocated by Andres Duany, which eliminates much of the staff – and political – discretion in these issues. Duany says that is more efficient. I think it is more important that it is more transparent and fair. Since I think what caused the uproar was that the citizens of Vancouver have a very low level of trust when it comes to the City dealing with property development issues. At least, that was what I heard in the voices raised against EcoDensity Mark 1. And that is not Brent Toderian’s fault. It is Sam’s – and by making himself the man proposing the change it became political – and personal – and not about the virtues of the idea itself but the credibility of its source.

Frances Bula has a very short piece in today’s Sun which does not add much, but notes that towers for eastside seem to have been dropped.

Written by Stephen Rees

May 15, 2008 at 10:57 am

Posted in housing, land use, Urban Planning

Tagged with

Neighbourhoods for a Sustainable Vancouver

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While I am scanning documents I thought I should also pass along those from the community groups opposing EcoDensity, since that is a subject which has generated discussion here recently

February 24, 2008

Mayor Sullivan and City Councillors City of Vancouver
453 West 12 Avenue
Vancouver, B.C. V5Y 1V4

Dear Mayor and Councillors:

Re: Draft EcoDensity Charter and Initial Actions – Report to Council dated Nov. 20. 2007

Neighbourhoods for a Sustainable Vancouver is a citywide ad hoc organization of 30 groups that includes residents associations, CityPlan committees, ratepayers associations, civic groups and coalitions. Please accept for your information and consideration, the attached group summary statement dated February 19, 2008 and the detailed letter dated December 19, 2007 (with updated list of groups represented).

We understand that the proposed recommendation to Council from staff is for “…Council (to) instruct the Director of Planning to report back with revisions to the draft Charter and draft Initial Actions, in response to public input received.” Concerns remain that the revised documents will not reflect the fundamental changes required.

In order for staff to do their job, they must be also directed by Council to change it from a density charter where density is the number one tool, to one based on a holistic approach to sustainability where density is one of many means but not the goal. Density must not take priority over affordability and livability. We request that Council do the following:
1. withdraw the charter and initial actions;
2. engage communities in an open, democratic, and extended process to devise effective strategies for managing growth;
3. create a comprehensive and balanced plan for Vancouver founded on a holistic approach to environmental, economic, social, and cultural sustainability, where density does not take priority over affordability or livability.


Neighbourhoods for a Sustainable Vancouver
(See page 2 for a list of the supporting groups.)

Cc: Brent Toderian, Director of Planning
Ronda Howard, Assistant Director of Planning – City-Wide and Regional Planning
Kent Munro, Assistant Director of Planning – Community Planning Division
Rob Jenkins, Assistant Director, Current Planning Initiatives Branch
Thor Kuhlmann, Planner, City-Wide Regional Planning

Page 2

Group contact email: agroupofvancouverneighbourhoods(at)
Neighbourhoods for a Sustainable Vancouver
Supporting Group names:
• Arbutus Ridge Concerned Citizens Association
• Arbutus Ridge/Kerrisdale/Shaughnessy CityPlan Vision Implementation Committee
• Britannia Neighbours in Action
• Building Better Neighbourhoods
• Burrardview Community Association
• Citywide Housing Coalition
• Douglas Park Residents Association
• Dunbar CityPlanVision Implementation Committee
• Dunbar Residents’ Association
• East Fraser Lands Committee – Sharon Saunders **
• Friends of Southlands Society
• Grandview Woodlands Area Council
• Hastings Sunrise CityPlan Vision Implementation Committee *
• Kensington Cedar Cottage CityPlan Vision Implementation Committee
• Kitsilano Arbutus Residents’ Association
• Kitsilano Point Residents’ Association
• Marpole Oakridge Area Council Society
• Norquay Neighbours – Joe Jones **
• North West Point Grey Home Owners’ Association
• Reinstate Third Party Appeals
• Riley Park / South Cambie CityPlan Vision Implementation Committee
• Shaughnessy Heights Property Owners Association
• South Hill Initiative for Neighbourhood Engagement (SHINE)
• Southwest Marine Drive Ratepayers’ Association
• Upper Kitsilano Residents Association
• Victoria Fraserview Killarney CityPlan Committee – Andrea Rolls **
• Victoria Park Group – Gail Mountain **
• West End Residents Association (WERA)
• West Kitsilano Residents Association
• West Point Grey CityPlan Vision Community Liaison Group *
* Members of the group indicate support for the letter, but have not voted on it yet due to
** Signed as an individual member


Neighbourhoods for a Sustainable Vancouver is a city wide ad hoc organization of 30 neighbourhood groups that includes residents associations, CityPlan Vision implementation committees, ratepayers associations and community groups. This is the first time in the city’s history that such a diverse, broad representation of neighbourhood groups from across the city have come together to carefully consider and address a City initiative. We oppose the Draft EcoDensity Charter and Initial Actions. The summary of our recommendations are outlined below:

Sustainability – We support the concept ofcreating a truly sustainable future for Vancouver based on a holistic balanced approach that accommodates the full definition of environmental, economic, social,
and cultural sustainability. EcoDensity as currently proposed does not accomplish this.

– To date, the community consultation process leading up to a public hearing on February 26,
2008 has been inadequate and imposes an impossible timeline. At this point many still feel that the
meetings and workshops staged by the City are more about selling the EcoDensity initiative than
engaging the public in a dialogue to bring genuine community input into creating the Charter and
Actions. Although staff has indicated they will be recommending substantive changes in a third draft of
the Charter and Actions, any revised proposal should be released for additional community dialogue
and feedback prior to consideration by Council. We need a new process that is democratic,
transparent, and community-based. The process must be extended over a reasonable timeline, not
just rushed through. Many feel that the City should put the Draft EcoDensity Charter and Initial Actions
to referendum as part of the November 2008 civic election.

The Charter – The question of whether or not the city needs an EcoDensity Charter has never been
debated publicly. There are many who feel that it is not required at all and object to the use of the
word ‘charter’. Its role in this context and what its powers are in relation to other city policies has never
been clearly defined. If we do proceed with one, we need it to use a balanced sustainability approach,
not making density the main priority and tool. This must NOT be a direction-to-policy document that
may be used to change inconvenient policy or to circumvent due process. Even if it would not
immediately change existing policy, Council could at any time approve ‘Actions’ under the Charter to
selectively alter existing policies, such as Initial Action 2 that would override existing Community
Visions. This erodes confidence in the public process and discourages public participation. The draft is
an overly prescriptive document that mostly lists actions or opinions, and fails to establish a higher
level statement of principle for sustainability. The only section in the entire proposed draft Charter that
we support keeping is the “ECO-CITY” section as follows:

• Champion new, holistic ways to align density, design, and land use with other tools for
environmental, economic, social, and cultural sustainability, to achieve mutual benefits – including strategies for transportation and parking, green building strategies, heritage conservation, affordable housing strategies, urban agriculture and food policy, recycling, new energy systems, social development planning, and the many other related City initiatives.”

We recommend adding the following text:

“Density is one of many tools for sustainability, but density must not take priority over other City objectives, including affordability and liveability. Conserving embodied energy through the retention of existing buildings is an important element for achieving sustainability, with particular emphasis on retention of character and heritage buildings.”

And, finally, there must be adequate accountability, conflict resolution and public appeal provisions,
including restoration of the longstanding right of third-party appeals to the Board of Variance.

Draft Initial Actions – There are so many initial actions proposed that it is impossible for the public to
properly understand and consider the actions with all their complex implications. It is therefore,
premature to be proposing their adoption or implementation. The City should first be engaging in a
comprehensive planning process for both the short term and long term, including improved community
consultation that is democratic, transparent, and community-based. The community must be part of
creating the concept with their opinions incorporated. The initial actions should be limited to a very
small number for further consideration only, with much more time for consultation. A summary of a few
of our recommendations regarding the initial actions include the following:
• Sufficient and sustainable public transit must be in place prior to increasing densification.
• Green buildings should be required, not bonused.
• LEED is not an adequate rating system for sustainability. It does not give enough weight to the conservation of the embodied energy of retaining existing buildings, with character and heritage buildings of most concern.

Written by Stephen Rees

March 8, 2008 at 1:12 pm

Posted in land use, Urban Planning

Tagged with ,

Tyee on EcoDensity

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I am sure that a lot of you have RSS readers set up for the Tyee’s web page, especially those who have contributed to the longish debate that occurred here last time I picked up something by Erick Villagomez. Well he’s back with more but this time the focus is on affordability.

On the face of it more homes per acres or hectare should be cheaper other things being equal. Land costs are the largest element of most ground oriented houses, so it you can get more people into the same space then you would have thought that the cost per dwelling for high density isa lower than fro low density.  But land values are not the same over time or across space, and the comparisons that Erick produces introduce both dimensions. He also makes statements like

the costs of renting (or buying) such dwellings is still intrinsically tied to the land value of the lot on which it lies. So — similar to the situation described above — if land values continue to rise, so do the costs of rental.

Which seems to be sound theoretically, but runs contrary to actual experience. Landlords acquire property as a store of value, and in the expectation of capital gain. As long as the rent they collect covers their holding costs, and they have good tenants who are problem free and take care of the premises, raising the rent may not be the most important concern. Of course there are corporate landlords who will try to raise rents as much and as often as the law allows, and they often wonder why they have such a hard time getting and retaining good tenants. Or rather their unfortunate building managers do: the corporate executives being above such mundane concerns.

The point of all this of course is just to stress once more that density is not in and of itself the answer to anything. It can reduce costs, both of land and servicing. It can be affordable, if the land use is done properly and people can save on other costs. I was looking recently at new packages of timber frame housing being sold in Britain: the unit cost seemed to me to rather high, until I realized that the occupants would not have any energy costs. So initial capital outlay may be high but life cycle cost should be economical. Above all, the people who distrust politicians who come up with brand names for simplistic solutions are right to be wary.

Written by Stephen Rees

March 3, 2008 at 12:13 pm

Posted in housing, Urban Planning

Tagged with ,

The argument for density: Livable, affordable and kind to the climate

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Peter Busby, Special to the Sun

Published: Tuesday, February 26, 2008

I think that we need to know what is tacked on the end first

Peter Busby is managing director of Busby Perkins + Will Architects Ltd. in Vancouver.

Now he is, no doubt, a Good Bloke. But he is hardly impartial, as he depends for his living on developers. Architects do not work for anyone else. And he makes some good arguments. But once again I have to repeat that calling people names is not a way to answer their legitimate concerns. And they are not necessarily NIMBYs, and as property owners would probably like to see the value of their investment rise. But they are right to be suspicious.

Fundamentally what is wrong with ecoDensity ® is that it is being proposed by Mayor Sam Sullivan. And the people of Vancouver do not trust him. Even people in his own “non party” do not trust him, and will not give him a clear run at the next election.

As always, the devil is in the details, and the City of Vancouver cannot deliver on one of the most important. The City of Vancouver gets better transit than the rest of the region already. To make increased density outside of the present dense areas work, there will need to be more transit – and it is not up to the City to deliver it. And municipalities outside of Vancouver are getting very fed up with being promised more transit only to see those promises broken – and more than once. And as long as the Province thinks that the Gateway and a tube tunnel under West Broadway are the most important priorities, there is not going to be more transit for the rest of the region – or more bus service for the currently low density areas of Vancouver.

UPDATE February 28

An op ed piece by Micheal Geller in today’s Sun continues to bang the drum for eco-density:

 We’re beginning to get the ‘Eco’ — but what’s Density?

It seems to be mainly about building height, as if that were the only concern. There is also this mnarvellous bit of throw away

Concerns about traffic and parking can be addressed through better transit, and creative off-site parking solutions.

If you do it properly, you can actually reduce the need for parking. Because walkable, multiple use dense development reduces the need for motorised trips. And it is much more than “off site parking”. But getting more transit has to be the crunch issue. And I would say that the chances of getting enough transit to even satisfy existing demand are pretty low, because once again a massive rail rapid transit project – designed mainly to get transit out of the way of the cars on Broadway – is the centre piece. Not better bus services.

He is of course using the word “get” to mean “understand” – because we are not “getting” any more “eco” in these proposals as far as I can see. When I worked on these issues a few years ago with what is now the Community Energy Association, the big issue was the restrictive municipal rules and regulations which tied developers to a building type which was actually contrary to best planning practices. And while we looked at the issue through the lens of energy consumption (which neatly converts to greenhouse gas emissions) we also pointed to the need to deal with issues like community safety (i.e the size of fire trucks) how you deal with waste – solid and liquid – drainage and so on.  Mandated single use of land doesn’t help either: mixed use and distributed retailing have to be added in. Not to mention parks and schools – which tend to be a bit of an afterthought (see current issues in downtown Vancouver with lack of primary schools and kindergartens.)

In fact, height may be the least of the problems with eco-density – or rather the current proposals in Vancouver. It has to be done right – and so far it hasn’t been.

Written by Stephen Rees

February 26, 2008 at 8:42 am

EcoDensity raises fears of crowding without amenities

with 7 comments

Frances Bula, Vancouver Sun
Published: Monday, February 11, 2008

resident groups have banded together to express their concern that the policy — marketed as a way to make Vancouver a more environmentally sustainable city by promoting compact living and green building — may result in density just being shoved into their neighbourhoods.

As well, they worry there isn’t enough emphasis on creating affordable housing or complete neighbourhoods with libraries, transit and community services to go with the density.

They are right to be worried, because the city does not control transit. Vancouver gets much better transit service than the rest of the region now – so the idea that  it can get more when nobody else has nearly enough is bizarre. Except of course now the province is making decisions the next rapid transit line but one will serve the Premier’s constituency. Can you see a lot more density in Point Grey? The eastward march of the towers into Chinatown and out to Commercial Drive is much more likely I think.

Brent Toderian is quoted as saying “It’s an unusual process and it was launched in an unusual way, so it’s a challenge for the community.” And there is a lot more to that than meets the eye. Vancouver has long had an enviable policy of consultation with neighbourhoods as part of its planning process. That is in strong contrast to what happens in other municipalities. I think Sam Sullivan has very badly misread what his supporters will let him do. While I am sure the people who contribute such huge sums to his campaign funds like this initiative, it is not going down well with the voters – and mainly not because of what it says but because of the way it is being done.

I also think that the city may be able to screw a few more libraries and community centres out of the developers – but that requires huge projects. And the way density needs to be done to be acceptable is gradual change. A sort of “natural” process as the neighbourhood changes  at a rate that residents can adjust to. Also known as the “boiling frog” syndrome. The residents won’t notice incremental change as that happens all the time. But go away and come back in a few years and it will look very different. Cities are more like organisms than most planners and developers are prepared to acknowledge. They like to go for the urban equivalent of “heroic surgery” – but that is going to have a much bigger effect on the body – and the city – than less invasive procedures. But a bunch of small scale projects will not provide the huge gobs of cash and land that municipal services need.

Written by Stephen Rees

February 11, 2008 at 9:51 am

Posted in Urban Planning

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