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Shape Vancouver – Is It All Hot Air?

Shape Vancouver is a visioning survey project looking at the future of the City in 2050. The video on the front page of ShapeVancouver.com suggests that by increasing the City’s density there would be “significant environmental benefits” The About page has this to say…

Shape Vancouver is an online poll for citizens of Vancouver and beyond to have their say on the future shaping of Vancouver’s downtown peninsula. What will your city look like? Pay attention to the ‘graphic equalizer’ at the bottom of the screen, and see how your manipulation of the City’s skyline affects Carbon Savings, Energy Consumption, Infrastructure Costs and Automobile Usage.

This is exactly the message that has been promoted by Smart Growth enthusiasts across North America, believing that the act of creating more compact Cities will immediately move the population into a quasi-European power-down mode.

However, a recent article on Planetizen from Dr. Tony Recsei suggests that these claimed facts may not have empirical support…

Advocates of high-density policies (often termed “Smart Growth” but also under other descriptions and euphemisms such as “urban consolidation”, “compact development”, “growth management” and “urban renewal”) maintain these policies save energy and reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

A comprehensive study of per capita emissions in Australia based on household consumption of all products and services appears in the Australian Conservation Foundation’s Consumption Atlas. Unexpectedly, this analysis shows that greenhouse gas emissions of those living in high-density areas are greater than for those living in low-density areas.

Source: Planetizen – Resisting Dickensian Gloom

I think we need to be careful supporting policies that claim to be green, just because they claim to be green. Urban high density patterns have been held high by progressive urban planners as the form of settlement that we should all aspire to living in, and that those who choose the suburbs, or heaven forbid, a rural community(gasp!), might somehow be inferior to those who chose to live downtown in a 40 storey condo building.

The urban/rural divide is always growing, we see it with the spending on the Olympics, on education, on transportation options and on grant funding, the justification for Vancouver to grow should not necessarily be based on environmental or sustainability metrics, but rather the fact that a lot of people do want to vive there and a tighter pattern of settlement permits greater numbers to enjoy the same amenities.

I sense this is a case of good intentions that may possibly backfire, from a revision of the data and understanding of the environmental costs and benefits of higher density forms of settlement.

Mike Thomas

Mike Thomas P.Eng. ENV SP, is the author of UrbanWorkbench.com and Director of Engineering at the City of Revelstoke in the Interior of British Columbia, Canada. If I post something here that you find helpful as you navigate the world of engineering, planning and building communities, that’s wonderful. But when push comes to shove: This is my personal blog. The views expressed on these pages are mine alone and not those of my employer.

One thought on “Shape Vancouver – Is It All Hot Air?

  1. I have been saying for years that we need to study the urban sweet spot. I imagine Dr. REcsei is looking at the “rebound effect”, where people save money with their effective, dense, urban lifestyle, and so they hop on a plane to the South Seas for a vacation. Nonetheless, the impact of the density is much lower.

    However, I don’t think current density conversations capture the scope of the problems we face. So, I think the sweet spot would try to balance food production, energy harvesting, waste disposal, living and jobs all within a walkable area. What would that look like. I know this will never be wholly self-sufficient, but what would much greater self-sufficiency look like?

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