The Sprawl Fallacy: Failed Regional Plans in Greater Vancouver

The ‘Sprawl’ Fallacy & Why Mega-Density Kills Affordability

WHAT IS URBAN S-P-R-A-W-L-?-?-?-?-?-?-?

Three planners walked into a bar in Vancouver and bumped into an old class mate from the School of Architecture. She greeted them by holding up a page from a transportation report (pictured above) and proposing a contest: A free round of cocktails if anyone in the group can satisfy all the others with a concrete and measurable definition of ‘sprawl’.

The concept of ‘sprawl’ is a fallacy. There is ‘good’ urbanism, and then there is the ‘other stuff’. We can use the concrete and verifiable measurements of ‘good’ urbanism to fix the ‘bad’ urbanism or sprawl.

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Back at the bar the three planners and their colleague from their days at Architecture School were still at it:

• The most senior planner protested that he was not about to go back to his old textbooks and school notes to dig up an answer for this contest. After all, he declared, “I know sprawl when I see it”.

• Next to proffer a definition was the most recent graduate from the School of Planning. “The picture on the left is sprawl,” he stated unequivocally. “The one on the right? That’s hard to say… What is the geographic context? Does the urban form spread out for many miles in all directions? My guess is that it does, that it steps down from towers to low buildings as the distance from the center increases.”

• The third planner, who had stood as a candidate for city council, agreed with the younger one adding a caveat, “But I would further note that even high density can be sprawl depending on where it is. High density on the fringes of green zones, for example, is also sprawl.”

The Sense of ‘Sprawl’

Clearly the group was in a quandary. They were not able to find common ground. Yet, the definition of ‘sprawl’ cannot be in the eye of the beholder. That would make everyone an ‘expert’. And we can be almost certain that no two people will think alike. Our planners hit upon the notion that ‘sprawl’ can happen at any density—and that should furnish an important clue. Two of the planners agreed that the images of low and high density were both pictures of ‘sprawl’. What is more—reading between the lines—accepting their view it may not be possible to check ‘sprawl’, to put an end to ‘sprawl’ once its built. The third planner also considered ‘high densities on the fringes of a ‘green zone’ as ‘sprawl’. Therefore, are the towers and apartments that line the sides of Central Park in Manhattan sprawl? Or are we not classifying Central Park as a ‘green zone’?

Thus, before the waiter had come to take the order, two methods for ending ‘sprawl’ were already off the table:

(i) Using green belts (or the agricultural reserves) to put up an edge against ‘sprawl’. And

(ii) Using residential towers to break endless mono-zones of single family residential products.

A third strategy, which is the underlying theme of this series of posts, was not mentioned at all—lifting land prices so high than only the ultra-rich can afford to buy a house. That most certainly  puts an end to single family residential ‘sprawl’. But, it puts an end to a lot of other things that we value highly as well. Further, it is clear from the discussion that new, endless ‘mono-zones’ of multi-family residential development are also ‘sprawl’.

One would be hard-pressed to meet three professionals with more conflicted views about the methodology of their field. An area of professional practice that some members have likened to ‘pushing rope’. Of course, one questions whether any planning textbook has ever been written presenting a ‘quantifiable definition of sprawl’. As the Wikipedia is quick to point out:

There is widespread disagreement about what constitutes sprawl and how to quantify it.

‘Urban Sprawl’, Wikipedia (extracted August 2018).

It was not a surprise, therefore, that when the waiter came to take the order the three planners froze…


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Regional Planning in British Columbia And The End of ‘Sprawl’

In search of understanding the origins of the land price lift, or the inflation of house prices that now engulfs the Greater Vancouver region, we turn to the regional plans introduced 1996 and and 2011 by the Greater Vancouver Regional District (GVRD), or the local regional government (see The Great Vancouver Housing Crisis).

In the early 1980s the Provincial Legislature proposed a new planning paradigm in an attempt to jump start the economy. Among the elected officials, were real estate and development moguls, with advocacy lawyers and small businessmen sprinkled in. Their strategy was to bring about ‘the end of sprawl’ by following three prime objectives:

1. Build towers to increase density (read ‘increase profits’).

2. Build Skytrain to lure people out of their cars (the accepted wisdom of the day saw the suburbs and the cars as the biggest part of the problem).

3. Exclude 25% of the urban footprint from development as farming and open space reserves (restricting supply would also ‘increase profits’).

Land economists point to governments combining big-ticket public projects (2) with big-ticket private projects (1) risking lifting in land prices. Restricting the land supply (3) can only make matters worse.

By the late 1960s, the city and the region were a boiling cauldron of ‘green activism.’ From the founding of Greenpeace in Vancovuer (1969 – 1972), to the founding of the provincial Green Party of Canada at Carleton University, Ottawa (1983), the ‘green’ movement had taken root in British Columbia.

The people living in this ‘supernatural wilderness’ had began to care more about the fate of the salmon and the whales, than whether the streets in their neighbourhoods and towns were safe to cross on foot. Politicians seized this sentiment proclaiming laws that were almost entirely ideological in substance, and cloaked in sheep’s clothing, promoting the profit motive and the Hong Kong urbanism of towers-and-skytrain.



What has received less attention is the back door created for large capital projects—in both the private and public sectors—and their possible corrupting influence on local government. There is a huge discrepancy between the small salaries paid to elected representatives and local officials (department heads and managers of planning, engineering, etc.), and the enormous compensation packages of corporate officers in large development, real estate and transportation businesses. This great disparity threatens to upset the delicate balance that constitutes our democratic system of self-governance. The most obvious cases present as a revolving door that sees officials leaving government to join the private sector, and vis-versa.

The regional plans did not arrive on the scene until fifteen and thirty years after the 1980s recession. But the land freeze was put in place almost immediately, in the early 1970s, and then ramped-up by the end of the decade (see Reforming the Agricultural Land Commission). When the regional plans were finally drawn they retained the three prime objectives, but framed their mandate almost entirely on the dogma of reversing the environmental damage of ‘sprawl.’ In the 1996 to 2011 era in Greater Vancouver there was a dearth of professionals who understood urbanism.

I recall one conversation with a senior planner at the City of Vancouver who downplayed the Neo-traditional urbanism catching fire in the U.S. claiming we would do something different here in Vancouver. On the one hand, it seems impossible to paint Seaside, Florida, with the stripes of ‘sprawl,’ while on the other the appears to be no way in which Vancouver’s Joyce Station neighbourhood can be classified as anything but ‘bad’ urbanism.

In light of the foregoing discussion, the most perplexing outcome of the actions taken by government in the 1970s may have been entrenching of concept of ‘sprawl’ in planning law. One thing is certain: the development industry was 100% behind ‘opening the flood gates’ to the real estate industry.


British Columbia was Supernatural, and that pig would be readied for the international markets just in time for the globalization of capital, the rapidly escalating rates of Foreign Direct Investment (FDI), and the flight capital washing on shore as Hong Kong prepared to return to communist China in 1999.


Next we will examine how in their false, ideological pursuit of ‘ending sprawl,’ the regional plans triggered the Great Vancouver Housing Crisis. Land valuations that stand today 12-times higher than median household incomes are the direct result of the regional planning.


‘Sprawl’ in the Regional Plans

Whether it can be quantified or not, today ‘sprawl’ remains the defining concept of the planning law in British Columbia. The Greater Vancouver Livable Regions Strategic Plan (LRSP: 1996) and the  Regional Growth Strategy, (RGS: 2011) both reference ‘sprawl’ as the ‘great evil’ threatening to tear our society apart. We see no daylight between the original fiat of the LRSP and its subsequent iterations in the RGS (and its many updates). As we shall detail below each document forms part of a continuum in regional planning seeking to end ‘sprawl’—whatever that means—subvert the automobile and make private home ownership the exclusive right of the moneyed classes—of whatever national origin.

First, the LRSP issued a clear salvo:

[L]ow density sprawl, interspersed with pockets of higher density …unconnected by effective transportation services.

This pattern of growth meant a gradual loss of available farmland and green space, reduced air quality, ever-increasing distances between where we live and work, and increasing reliance on the automobile.

Reversing these trends while maintaining Greater Vancouver’s high quality of life remains one of our greatest challenges.

Greater Vancouver Livable Regions Strategic Plan, p.6 [emphasis added]

Of course, we challenge the metrics of the regional plan:

‘Maintaining Vancouver’s high quality of life’ should read as ‘perpetuating lift in the land price.’

• ‘Effective transportation’… lauds the effectiveness of trains-in-the-sky which we will challenge in a future chapter. Issues like narrow gauge, platform access times, gigantism and cost of construction will be examined in greater detail.

• ‘Gradual loss of farmland‘… Inside the Greater Vancouver Regional District (GVRD commonly referred to as ‘Metro’) loss of farmland should be measured in proportion to available farmland throughout the rest of this immense province of British Columbia. The GVRD holds just 1.3% of the total farm land in BC. Losing a portion of that, especially the non-arable land in the Agricultural Land Reserve (ALR), can hardly be categorized as an assault on our agricultural resources. Furthermore, only half of the ALR land is being farmed. And a quarter of that is used to grow grass feed. Clearly, animal feed could be grown outside the metropolitan heart of the west coast of Canada. Thus, when in 2014 the GVRD reported that 27% of BCs annual farm receipts originate within its borders, they were inadvertently reporting the dismal state of agriculture in the rest of the province. If 27% of agricultural value is produced on 0.6% of the agricultural lands, then ‘bad’ urbanism is not our only problem. Something is horribly amiss with farming in British Columbia. Forestry, mining and the fisheries follow not much further behind. Furthermore, the ‘gradual loss of farmland’ in the core cannot be a key issue since half the ALR could be repurposed without affecting production in the province as a whole.

• ‘Enhanced air quality‘… will not result from any provisions in the regional plans. We will clean the air as a consequence of private innovation shifting the transportation fleet from fossil fuels to electric batteries (see Electric Cars Expose Major Flaws in Vancouver’s Livable Region Strategic Plan and Kiss Kyoto a Goodnite). The push to renewable energy and resources will follow that lead, rather than the flawed regionalism of our mandated regional plans.

• The ‘ever increasing distances between live and work’… This is pure fiction. Commuters have always been after one thing, and one thing only: affordable private houses. The Regional Plans are privileging a different product: residential hi-rise condominiums. Yet, the vast majority of the people would rather own a home on a lot. The 2016 census reports the median one-way commuting distance for workers down slightly, from 7.7 km to 7.4 km. Meanwhile, the time spent commuting to work is increasing due to growing congestion (see The Transit Paradox). Telecommuting and running businesses from home based computers is reported on the rise in Vancouver, Victoria and Kelowna. Yet, among all this good news, in Vancouver the material issue becomes the decreasing size of homes as the regional plans force people to abandon suburban lands and move into tiny apartments.

‘Increasing reliance on the automobile’… This finally, is the core value of many planners and ecologists paint as the evil within us. Might as well paint your face and shake a rattle, ideology has seldom reached higher summits in western culture. As we have noted many times before it is becoming abundantly clear that electric cars—and not the regional plans—will finally free us of our dependance on fossil fuels (see Vancouver to Calfornia …in a TeslaVancouverism @30: The Game Changing Electric CarThe sunset of coal and oil, and the rise of energy self-sufficiency in urbanism2016: The Future is C-O-O-L). Thus, it is difficult to know what to do about the ‘group think’ shared by a core set of city design professionals who want to suppress automobiles in use in our cities, neighbourhoods and villages at all costs. But, who betray a limited understanding of the fundamentals that build ‘good’ cities.

Walking along Robsonstrasse and what is left of the Granville Mall after Vancouver’s ‘remake’ for the 2010 Olympics, one observation rises to the forefront. Repressing automobiles and raising curb-side parking fees has proven dismal for the merchants. Meanwhile, Granville Island presenting an urbanism that mixing cars with people in a barrier-free pedestrian priority district has reached a new mile stone. Four decades of unbridled success threaten to come to an end as, early in 2019, parking meters went up.

Electric cars are taking us where the regional plans promised to go 30 years ago, but failed to deliver. The much maligned private automobile remains a beacon of freedom and mobility while planning practice in our region flirts with fascism. As we explain away more and more of the core principles in the regional plans we are left to confront the fact that the density give-aways, narrow gauge elevated rail, and the exclusion a quarter of our urban lands from development, are the very things that have precipitated The Great Vancouver Housing Crisis. The purpose of all these gyrations remains as old as memory can serve us—tipping the tables to privilege the moneyed few while at the same time showing a disregard for the well-being of the rest.


In 2011 The Regional Growth Strategy followed up the LRSP by injecting a new ideological tint into the discussion:

The same concepts of the 1996 regional plan were still there fifteen years later. The novelty in the next iteration of regional planning consisted in the introduction of ‘greenwashing’. The 2011 regional planning message is delivered cloaked in a sense of environmental inevitability:

sprawl[ing urban development] consumes the natural landscape, necessitates costly and inefficient urban infrastructure and adds to the global problems of greenhouse gases, peak oil and climate change

Regional Growth Strategy 2011, p. 13 [emphasis added]

Nuts! The whole thing would be comical were it not that the regional plans are the law of the land. These documents beat a drum which all local governments must follow. Yet, the regional governors themselves are not elected by the people. Rather, the regional Council is constituted from appointments from the local, municipally elected mayors and councillors. It is under this flimsy tent that passes for ‘democracy in regional governance’ that the regional plans have been drafted. Plans that, under close scrutiny, betray mistakes and inaccuracies:

• ‘Sprawling urban development’… is either a made up concept in planning methodology, or merely attests to a timeless fact—cities grow.

• ‘[‘Sprawl’] consumes the natural landscape‘… Here, the Marxist metaphor of pathology introduced to inject environmental protectionism into the plan. It suggests both the rapaciousness of a modern economy commodifying land—including farms—into urban land, and the notion that human processes are somehow in opposition to natural ones. Our modern planning theory seems to have forgotten (or ignored) one of the defining human characteristics: we build the places we inhabit. Like the work of bees, ants and beaver, architecture and urbanism are as much a product of human nature as an expression of collective social values. The history of the city presents urbanism as an endlessly malleable and perfectible product. According to Levi-Strauss: we shape the city, then the city shapes us. Just visible around the corner today is 0-GHG urbanism. Moving a bit further along we can see coming into focus a zero-footprint urbanism where inputs and outputs are finally in balance. However in the regional plans, these historical processes receive no consideration. In the regional plans towers, trains-in-the-sky and constricting the footprint of urban growth, are the imperatives that dominate and distort everything.

• Costly and inefficient urban infrastructure... Building and running Skytrain costs more than building highways; servicing 60-storey towers costs more than servicing 360 single family homes; holding non-arable land hostage in an Agricultural Land Reserve only serves to restrict the supply of land putting further upward pressure on house prices. Renewable energy is where it is at when it comes to revitalizing urban infrastructure. Over the next 20 years each small house will be able to collect the entire daily energy requirement from solar panels mounted on the roof. Walk-up apartments will be able to accomplish that. However, the condo towers will remain towering hogs of energy demand well into the future, or until such time as they are dismantled.

• Peak oil… is behind us. The regional plans show their weakness—or bias—when they fail to understand this point. With the transportation fleet running electric oil in Alberta, and oil in Saudi Arabia, will be worth about as much as the sands holding it in the ground (see Trudeau’s Pipe Dream).

• Climate change… The climate is changing (that is probably a good thing). And air pollution is a problem that we have ignored for far too long. However, in the 16th century we recorded a ‘mini’ ice age in Europe. So, while there are indications of climate change today, and throughout history, there is less certainty about how much of it is cyclical, and how much of it is caused by humans burning fossil fuels. Of course, here we should look to err—by a wide margin—on the side of safety. Further, we must strive harder to understand natural systems at the local, regional and global scales. However, should the predictions of sea level rise tossed around in planning discussions manifest, they can be handled with sea walls not higher than two concrete blocks stacked one on top of the other. So, the furor over ‘climate change’ and ‘global warming’ appears to be energized by agents with other ends in mind. Practices that have a history as old, and mysterious, as the smile on the Mona Lisa.

While theoretically we can create the green house effect by burning ever more fossil fuels, it is also true that today—for the first time in modern history—that the end of our reliance on carbon is finally within our grasp. It is happening as I write this. It is also becoming increasingly clear that the biggest windfall from ending air pollution may be a health benefit felt across the global population generally. While the greatest realignment of wealth is taking place withing the oil-gas-automobile-and-plastics industries. There is a reason to plan locally, and to plan regionally. Yet, that reason is not global warming, climate change, or any other ‘greenwashing’ one group or another may care to propagandize. Some things don’t change. The usual suspects stand behind the latest ideological iterations. Through it all the same project challenges human kind: bringing about freedom, liberty and equal opportunity for all. The smell of an old familiar pig emirates from behind all the greenwashing. But the real problems stay more or less unchanged.


‘Sprawl’ or Just ‘Bad’ Urbanism?

We have already noted that ‘sprawl’ does not exist as a physical, material fact. There is good urbanism, bad urbanism, and the well established fact—but perhaps little understood phenomenon—that ‘cities grow’. Our purpose here is to catalogue and uncover best practices that stand behind the ‘good’ urbanism. Whether growth is planned or left unchecked to the market forces matters a great deal. In a democratic society the difference hinges on whether government acts on its mandate, or just gives free rein to free market capitalists (sometimes in return for something). We elect politicians to fashion policy that will mediate economic and social forces to benefit the communities the politicians campaigned to serve. Increasingly, what we see instead is city halls and planning departments turning into great leviathans operating on the profit motive.

Good urbanism has a clear primary goal: building a whole greater than the sum of the parts. One reason to plan, is to prevent governments from triggering land speculation. Thus, the Great Vancouver Housing Crisis can only be seen as the damning verdict on regional planning. More broadly, it points to the failure of municipal and provincial professionals acting to ensure a growing region follows ‘best practices’ in western vernacular. In stark contradiction—almost from its inception—regional planning in British Columbia has made it its business to bottle up growth inside existing municipal boundaries, hoarding the cash and remaining blind to the mounting pile of evidence. Our regional plans are the cause of this (really bad) towers-and-skytrain urbanism and the runaway inflation it has triggered in house prices.

The results of our ham fisted regional planning has been both predictable and toxic. The solutions are just as obvious: when cities and freeways fill up, we must build new ones. The alternative we are pursuing today, jaming everything and everyone into what is already brimming full, holds no promise for the future of the next generations. One a few invested individuals can profit from it. The middle class today has a knife pointed at its belly, and unless house prices correct to be at PAR once more with median Canadian incomes, it will be disembowelled. The regionally adopted towers-and-skytrain paradigm has proven to us already that it has the power to destroy our social fabric and corrupt the organs of our democracy.

Why such a lack of imagination in a province as vast and rich as ours?  Why the lack of recognition that these (poorly wrought) regional strategies and the runaway inflation in housing prices are hard-wired in the age old dialectic of cause and effect? Why remain blind to the fact that towers and the trains-in-the-sky are building ‘bad’ urbanism? Or that allowing urban land to lay feral along transportation corridors and fully serviced regional and local roads represents defaulting on untapped wealth created in our communities, by our communities, for the future benefit of our communities (a not exclusively the developers)? We know that leveraging the private sector to pay for the inefficient and blighting Skytrain is driving the construction of towers specified in the regional plans couched in the delusion about ‘ending sprawl’. But, why the failure recognizing that a problem of ‘scale,’ and failing to support higher levels of social functioning in public space, is driving us away from building ‘good’ urbanism? Indeed, why the attempts to blame it on the cars?

Consider that small footprint urbanism built at human scale—and it is not too far to suggest that the regional plans are calling this ‘sprawl’—does not ‘necessitate costly and inefficient urban infrastructure’. Most professionals consider the ‘sub-urban infrastructure’ relatively cheap to build and maintain. As importantly it can be administrated by small city halls. Small local government is a better fit in our municipal system. Too many large cities—and top-heavy city bureaucracies—are a bane to innovation and change. Small-footprint urbanism along the feral transportation corridors, lining the historic highways unchanged for a hundred years, and along the shores of the Great Salish Sea can house affordably generations of Canadians to come. Linked together with modern super highways offering free electric charging (see SCSH: The Sunshine Coast Super Highway) the will usher in the urbanism running on renewable resources. The highway system, when it is well designed and managed, is characterized by low overhead and enhanced mobility. There are no driver salaries to pay, vehicle fleets to maintain, or schedules to update. Highways require a policeman with a radar gun, someone changing the cobra lights once in a while, and very little else by way of maintenance. Keeping overhead low in government is a key to supporting a healthy economy.

The freeways drive themselves. A Single Occupancy Lane (SOL) delivers 1,200 pphpd (people per hour per direction). That is the equivalent of a bus, but with far greater freedom of movement and choice, never mind economic implications. High Occupancy Lanes (HOV) deliver multiples of that capacity. At two people per car, they rival express bus service (B-Lines in Vancouver). One HOV plus one SOL match the levels of service of bus rapid transit (BRT). Highways build four, six and more lanes, and regularly and predictably lure traffic to the point of standing-still congestion. There comes a point when adding more lanes is simply impractical. At peak hour a 2-car tram can deliver 16,500 people per hour in one direction. That is the equivalent of 12-lanes of highway. Clearly, there are urban footprints that must be serviced with more than just freeways.

Thus, as long as there continue to be peak destinations created by the 19th and 20th century hub and spoke urbanism, the need will continue to service these centres using the railway arteries of the same era. In urbanism, the expense of subways, or any grade separated transit (Skytrain), has been off-set by give-aways in density at great social cost. This equation is no longer necessitated as the Central Business Districts flatten out in a job market being refashioned by the new internet economy. Most metropoles do not need to realize greater levels of transit service than can be delivered by multiple-car Modern Tram.

Certainly that is the case in Vancouver where the 2010 Canada Line tops out at 10,000 pphpd; and the driverless Skytrain is restricted by Transport Canada Operating Certificates to 15,000 pphpd. One line of 4-car Modern Tram can deliver 33,000 passengers per hour in one direction, running a tram-train every two minutes. Either the frequencies can be increased to one minute, or tram-trains can be lengthened on some routes doubling the carrying capacity to subway levels of 66,000 pphpd.

Human scale urbanism built from renewable materials in the local vernacular is a decade or two from collecting 100% of its daily energy requirements from roof-mounted photovoltaics. Here governments have a bonafide role to play incentivizing private sector innovation. Similar approaches are possible today for water, sewer and waste management. Small councils elected by small communities acting locally appear to offer the best model for effective environmental stewardship. Thus, small towns and neighbourhoods built near sensitive environments can form part of a region-wide strategy to oversee the protection of these areas.

As for the wild flights of fancy in our regional plans, ‘global problems of green house gases, peak oil and climate change,’ these are convenient delusions distracting us from stuff more near at hand. For example, the huddled masses of the mentally ill that have been allowed to grown unchecked over the same three decades that saw the introduction of ‘regional planning’ in our communities. Save for the by-monthly welfare cheque, these folks have gone mostly uncared for. Not even the massive transfer of wealth enacted by the regional plans, giving away density to a handful of powerful global corporations, gave created sufficiently enhanced revenue streams to address the most dire of our social problems.

Riding the wave of the Great Vancouver Housing Crisis we stand at the culmination of 3 decades of a regional planning process hell bent on declaring that ending ‘sprawl’ is our greatest achievement. Nothing could be further from the truth. Congestion grows annually. Meanwhile, a fundamental decoupling has been perpetrated between density and lifting land prices beyond the reach of the middle classes. A dissociation all the more alarming because using the regional plans as a pretext, is was made the law of the land:

Growth without sprawl implies greater density of development.

Ibid, p. 6

In our view this statement is a fallacy revealed by substituting ‘sprawl’ with its quantifiable equivalent:

Growth without ‘bad’ urbanism implies greater density of development.

That of course is blatantly false. There is no correlation between ‘good’ urbanism and density. In either formulation this is a Janus-headed statement bordering on gibberish. Nothing implies ‘greater density’. The only thing that ‘growth with good urbanism’ implies is development itself—an urban extension, perhaps. Or better yet, as already discussed, new small towns run by new local councils and staffs dotting a landscape the quality of which is actively preserved by their stewardship.  ‘Good’ urbanism results from applying the tried and true methods of the great cities and towns building out throughout the dawn of western history. These are concrete and verifiable characteristics that raise the level of social functioning by making towns and cities more responsive to human needs—including the provision of affordable houses in great quantities. This latter concern is sorrily missing from the regional plans full of bombast about weather and transit.

Thus, it takes looking in the opposite direction to see the cadre of multinational developers profiting disproportionately as our governments release massive amounts of density to them in order pay the bills of building trains-in-the-sky. There are only a handful of corporations with sufficient capital to realize the public and private mega-projects inflicted upon us over the last three decades. Communities are better served planning towns that can be constructed by small local businesses—mom and pop operations—in place of the behemoths of the free market system.

‘Good’ communities—like Fort Langley, Aldergrove, Lions Bay, Belcara and Anmore—achieve full build out and stop growing. In the regional plans we see communities slated to grow 60% or even 100% while others cap their growth at 10%. The particulars of each place matter. However, in the aggregate it is the latter group—managing a slow and steady process of development—that are the ‘strong’ communities. Furthermore, they represent our only hope in reversing the runaway inflation in house prices.

Peddling their vision of living in the clouds and riding trains-in-the-sky the regional plans are prepared to offer us everything:

Growth without sprawl implies greater density of development. Carefully structured, this can reduce congestion, improve the economics of transportation infrastructure and public services, increase the viability of retail and service centres, foster the creation of vibrant centres of culture and community activities, and maintain an attractive and diverse urban environment.


The list is as impressive as it is improbable:

Reduce congestion… Census Canada metrics show commuting times are growing, not declining. Skytrain has done nothing to improve congestion during this latest manic phase of growth in our region. Rapidly increasing population numbers within our borders has triggered demand for ever more lanes of freeway. When they are finally built, the fix lasts for about 300 days before the freeways become as congested as before.  The principles of induced traffic and ‘triple convergence’ describe how transportation networks present self-adjusting relationships between routes, times, and modes achieving the most balanced distribution possible. Thus, by taking transit off the streets skytrain and other grade-separated modes of transit free up road space, attracting more vehicles, and increasing the volume of congestion.

Improve transit... Transit is used by a small fraction of commuters getting to work and back, by young students, and those who can’t afford or choose not to drive. In the 2016 census they represent 15% of all transit trips in Surrey, the second largest municipality in the region. In Vancouver the figures are skewed by the inclusion of the residents of the West End, where transit use and walking is through the clouds. Studies conducted throughout North American cities built with rapid transit systems show that no amount of transit investment will increase transit’s mode share beyond this 15% range. Meanwhile, we estimate the cost of building the Broadway subway are 12-times what it would take to return Modern Tram on its historic alignments (see Vancouverism @30: The Great Urban Train Robbery). In a future post on reactivating service on the South of Fraser Interurban we will show how transit doesn’t need more ‘improvement,’ in Greater Vancouver the routes are all still there but lying feral… The days of building skytrain are over and with it will come the reevaluation of the flawed regional plans.

Improved cultural, retail and service centers… locating culture, retail and services in gargantuan hubs like Metrotown and Cambie Gateway create undesirable and de-humanizing places lacking in opportunities for social mixing in public open spaces (including immense underground parkades with foul smelling air). Metrotown and Cambie Gateway are completely detached from any sense of community. In spite of proclaiming themselves as transit hubs, they are surrounded by immense thoroughfares meant to handle gargantuan levels of car traffic. The people that live in the towers that dot them feel no sense of connection with the shopping arcades below. And why should they? The critique of the regional shopping centre—and the 19th century Paris arcades before that—has always been that they present a simulacrum of urbanism, in place of ‘real’ public spaces supporting high levels of social functioning. Local governments must not abdicate to commodity markets their responsibility of building and maintaining functioning public open space. The level of social functioning in these mega-places is well below what was found in internationally recognized sites like Granville Island, Gastown, Chinatown, Granville Mall, Stanley Park, Robson Street, Davie and Denman, Kerrisdale, South Granville, and local revitalization districts like Mallairdville in the decades leading up to the 2010 Olympics. However, the tide has been turning in these places as new policies put the urban centre out of reach of visitors from the periphery arriving in cars, and the local populations are priced out by the stratospheric inflation in the cost of housing. Foreign owned houses with multi-million price tags stand empty, starving local merchants of much needed revenues and lowering the levels of social functioning in these once renown people places.

Maintain an attractive and diverse urban environment... This is not to be found in the skytrian-and-tower sites (see When TOD is NOT-TOD). Skytrain is building ‘bad’ urbanism everywhere it goes in our region.


Affordable Housing

Can Vancouver be considered a ‘livable region’ when housing is experiencing runaway inflation in prices? Should regional plans peg housing to the median wage as part of the definition—the core principles that stand behind the vision—of a high quality of life? Or is ‘high quality‘ meant to be equated with ‘soaring real estate prices’?

Are we satisfied housing the rich and leaving the rest to live in whatever is left to them to buy (or rent)? Is it the intention of the regional plans to make the high quality of life exclusive to high income earners?

Answering these questions shifts the discussion away from the ‘delusions’ of the regional plans, to bread and butter issues of ‘good’ urbanism. Something more sinister—a mix of surfeit and deceit—appears to be moving just below the surface in the pages of the regional plans. The plansappear to shift what is to be understood by ‘affordable housing’:

[P]roviding affordable and appropriate housing for residents at various stages of their lives

Regional Growth Strategy 2011, p.6

When regional plans address providing affordable housing, do they mean building government subsidized non-market housing? That is not what ‘the affordability crisis’ and land price lift is about. What we are after is market housing that is affordable to the middle and working classes, not social policy. Perhaps finally this is proof that the regional plans have distorted our economy to the point where owning a house is for the rich; owning an apartment is for the not-so-rich; and the rest are left to either rent or queue for government built housing. The latter, one can anticipate, will continue to lag demand.


Failed Regional Plans

Where does housing affordability fit in the regional strategy for a livable Vancouver? Readers will be surprised to hear that the regional plans fail to reference lifting land values, housing affordability or addressing mental illness and homelessness. The dual fixation on curbing automobile use and reversing ‘sprawl’—whatever that means—appears to have taken over. As we have shown, the regional plans lack a any clear understanding of what makes good urbanism or secures high levels of social functioning for the places people call home.

The the towers-and-skytrain solution was imposed from above and the planners were directed to do whatever was necessary to make it work. Their jobs and the welfare of their families depended on it. Back when the Expo ’86 site was being prepared for the Fair—fifteen years before the first regional plan—it was serviced to support residential towers after the Fair closed. Indeed the entire look and feel of Expo ’86 was that of a temporary and removable installation. The message was clear: the moment the Fair is over this is brown field ready for redevelopment.

Thus, the towers-and-skytrain paradigm was baked into the regional planning long before the regional plans were ever written. In response to the interest rate crisis of late 1970s, and the subsequent recession in the 1980s, the provincial government in Victoria chose the Hong Kong model—skytrain-and-towers—as the way to build ourselves out of the economic doldrums. They could have elected to incentivize mining, forestry and fishing instead. But they settled on the real estate markets and the new international money flows. The ‘new vision’ was sold at the international Class-B World’s Fair, when Vancouver ‘welcomed the world’ in 1986.

Municipal councils in the region were already marching in lock step to build towers-and-skytrain when the Livable Regions Strategic Plan was adopted ten years later in 1996. Then, when sales were not picking up, the 2010 Olympic Games were hosted to show case the ‘new’ Vancouverism. The airport subway was built for the Winter Olympics and the very next year a new iteration of the regional plan was adopted: the Regional Growth Strategy. Senior levels of government have never relented. All subsequent planning strategies and official community plans have built towers-and-skytrain. They continue to do so today as the entire enterprise spins out of control triggering the Great Vancouver Housing Crisis threatening to spiral the economy into Third World status where working people and the middle class cannot afford to buy a house.


     *                   *                   *                   *                  *

Back at the bar the waiter brought the tray with four double gin Martinis, neat. The architect explained to her colleagues as they raised their glasses in a toast that the contest was premised on a trick question: There is no such thing as ‘sprawl’.

     *                   *                   *                   *                  *


The ‘Sprawl’ Fallacy

The notion that all low-density urbanism is sprawl is a fallacy. 

There is ‘good’ urbanism and then there is the ‘other’ stuff. And we have to much of that ‘other stuff’ around. The right way to stop ‘sprawl’ is to build ‘good’ urbanism.

It serves little purpose to use a pejorative term to classify what is, regrettably, an all too common occurrence in every region—‘bad’ urbanism. Of course, building towers will do nothing to improve the ‘sprawling’ suburbs. Neither will connecting the tower zones with fast and frequent transit. ‘Bad’ urbanism doesn’t improve by having a subway stop put in the middle. And most tower neighbourhoods are easily quantified as ‘bad’ urbanism: they destroy the ‘sense of place;’ fail to support high levels of social functioning; they lack ‘human scale;’ and impart on the residents a sense of alienation.

The quantification of ‘sprawl’ is not too difficult to imagine. As Leon Krier has observed, the same tools used to design good urbanism can be pressed into service ‘fine tuning’ the bad urbanism. We can plan the revitalization of places, districts and neighborhoods underperforming in the quantifiable, physical characteristics that nurture and support the ‘sense of place,’ human scale, and social functioning. That will fix ‘sprawl,’ because it is the only way we know how to build ‘good’ cities, neighborhoods and towns.

Among the set of ‘primary elements’ in urbanism we will find the economic tools that can be used to stop land values from spiking. In urbanism, growth can function as the engine of change. But, like in any other natural process, growth can get out of hand.

Spiking density and building grade-separated rail—both elevated and subterranean—has always triggered lift in land prices. And I have yet to experience a place built with towers where the sun shines on the sidewalk. We can built towers, alright. We posses the technological and financial tools to do it. However, the only reason to build towers is to elevate profit margins for what is typically a very narrowly defined corporate interest. Municipal governments try to get their pound of flesh in the permitting process, but it is a losing stake in a game where the long view usually wins out. In the tower zones the whole is not greater than the sum of the parts chiefly owning to the inescapable fact that each one of the parts is just too big.



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