Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Recognizing heterogeneity in Vancouver's urban form - The pitfalls of EcoDensity

In a very recent post, Stephen Rees links to an article written by Erick Villagomez (a Vancouver-based architect, and I might add a very fine writer) on the actual urban densities in Vancouver. Making use of really nice visualization tools, Villagomez shows that East Vancouver is highly dense (despite whatever people's perceptions may be).

Since Rees asked the question "do you think EcoDensity(R) will make a difference)?" I figured I'd answer with a short essay of my own. Furthermore, I wanted to express some ideas that relate to the concept of urban density and the realities of sustainable urban form.

First off, we need to think about what we define as urban density. The statistical figures offered by Villagomez are in dwellings per acre. While one could criticize his data for not actually including the number of people in each dwelling, these data shed some light on whether there has been an increase in urban density (as measured by dwellings per acre) or not. Let's accept his data for the insights they provide - there are more physical units in more denser areas than there are in less dense areas. We don't know if there are more people there, but we could safely assume that it is the case (imagine 10 houses per acre with 4 people each house, vis-a-vis 10 buildings per acre with 10 apartments each with 2 people - the ratio is 40/200 or 1/5)

Clearly, from Villagomez's map (which you can find here) the Downtown core is the most dense area. There are some surprises with areas like northern Kitsilano having a comparable density to that of downtown (or at least so would appear from Villagomez's map). What I find interesting is that there is now evidence to support the statement that the West Side of Vancouver needs to increase its density.

Villagomez's point seems to be that we should look at homogeneous densification processes (e.g., achieving the same densities in East Vancouver and the West Side). That would be a good idea. The problem is that it would go against the realities of heterogeneity in urban form in Vancouver.

That is the point I am making in this essay: That we should recognize the heterogeneity of communities and populations in Vancouver. The West Side has been traditionally considered affluent and wealthy. The East Side houses more middle-income (and in some areas, low-income) population. There are natural heterogeneities in Vancouver's urban form that have been in place longer than I've been on this planet. We should find rational and smart ways to address these heterogeneities, and first of all, we should recognize them.

Now, don't get me wrong - I am not saying that recognizing this heterogeneity means that we should just keep our arms crossed. Not at all! I think what we ought to do is to call things like they are and tell the politicians that we are aware that there should be a middle-ground where some single family homes may need to remain. However, that doesn't mean that densification shouldn't occur. The chasm between the East Side and the West Side can be bridged with smart densification strategies.

One of the problems I see with urban planning consultations is that they are very prone to problems of NIMBY-ism (Not In My BackYard). Sometimes, communities even go as far as to go BANANAs (Build Absolutely Nothing Anywhere Near Anyone). We should try to make it clear to the people living in areas that are potential targets for densification that the intent is not to bring crime to a certan area, but to reduce car trips, build vibrant communities and strengthen social capital. These would all be good objectives of an EcoDensity strategy. And to respond Stephen's question - no, I don't think EcoDensity is making a difference right now. But I would like it to. So, here's hoping...


stephenrees said...

I wonder what the results would have been like if Vancouver had wards instead of the "at large" system?

Andres Duany's system of zoning has built in upgradability to allow for densification over time and he says everywhere it has been used the locals have taken advantage of it. It translates into money!

E said...

You are no poor writer yourself...thanks for the kind words.

I appreciate your essay.

With regards to some of the ambiguities you state with respect to the map data. The number are based on the most recent Census 2006 data - population and dwelling counts. Thus, they were given in persons per hectare. The numbers were then converted to persons per acre and then dwelling units per acre (using the national average of 2.3 people per dwelling).

I used dwelling units per acre since it is widely used in the planning and development field and could therefore relate to other density-research papers.

That said, I think there is a slight misunderstanding concerning the point I was trying to make. It was less for homogeneous densification, than for a more natural densification process.

Years ago, the City embarked on institutionalizing (through bylaws, etc.) a system that artificially created low density areas. Without these bylaws, these areas would have undergone the natural process of densification common to popular urban settlements.

The consequences of this are many.
I describe a few of these in a series of articles called The Flipside of Ecodensity - critically analyzing the arguments brought forth in the initiative.

Check them out at www.regardingplace.com....I think you might find them interesting.

Not to mention it will give us more to banter back and forth about. :)