Vancouver Sun: “Call it EcoDensity or EcoCity –either way it’s a hard sell”

In Vancouver, residents are concerned that ‘densification’ will harm cherished neighborhoods of single-family homes…

Call it EcoDensity or EcoCity –either way it’s a hard sell (2/19/08)

There have been more than a few rhododendrons come down in Vancouver in the last 30 years — literally and figuratively — and in their place have sprouted monster homes, condo conversions, illegal suites and a creeping densification, mostly on the east side of the city…

For all of this, though, Vancouver has remained a city of neighbourhoods.

Despite Yaletown, almost 70 per cent of the city is single-family housing. Vancouver, essentially, remains an urban suburb. And there is a reason for this.

People love it.

They love the city’s garden-like nature. They love the stability and social cohesion of a single-family neighbourhood. They like having neighbours they know…

…A group called Neighbourhoods for a Sustainable Vancouver — which itself has said it is in favour of densification, but only if properly planned — has signed up almost 30 community organizations in every neighbourhood in the city to oppose “the city’s plan to densify neighbourhoods without plans to ensure adequate safeguards or amenities.”

…Why, I asked, would they expect anybody — anybody! — to jeopardize the existing livable village reality with wide-ranging social engineering that appears to have been formulated on the back of a napkin?

“The key issue,” [former Vancouver mayor Mike] Harcourt, replied, “is, how do we maintain that sense of intimacy [the village model affords] with a growing densification?”

Good question. I listened closely, but I’m pretty sure I didn’t hear an answer…

See also:

Gazette: “Island bucks the development trend” (2/27/08)
Alexandra Dawson is Chair of the Hadley Conservation Commission. She reports back from a vacation on Sanibel Island, Florida:

…I saw that Sanibel, crowded as it is in season, has hold of some good juju…

Here are just a few things the small city government has succeeded in doing:

  • Zoning that limits the size and density of both residential and commercial buildings and requires natural landscaping and preservation of wild lands behind the buildings.

  • Protection of fresh and saltwater wetlands, in a state with little respect for either.

  • Building height limits measured to palm tree elevations…

Suburban ‘Raise the Drawbridge’ Sentiment Motivates Some Smart Growth Policies
Steven Greenhut, a columnist for the Orange County Register, says that Smart Growth policies that ignore people’s living preferences will fail and make things worse (11/23/04):

Bozeman is an interesting case study because it is small and because the Smart Growthers have strong control of the city…

…the real problem is that city and county officials are trying to stop suburban growth around the city by imposing Portland-style growth controls. Officials insist that new developments are far more densely packed than the market demands…

On a practical level, these Smart Growth policies are counterproductive. Restricting growth in the city, or creating unattractive high-density projects in a place awash in open space, only pushes people farther out into the countryside. In Belgrade, eight miles away, one finds market-driven suburban-style subdivisions. That city does not have many restrictions, and those who cannot afford Bozeman or who want a bigger place simply move away, thus promoting the sprawl that Smart Growthers are trying to stop…

Most appalling in Bozeman: The newcomers who sold their houses in the Silicon Valley and Seattle have plenty of money to buy the fancy log houses on 20 acres with views of the mountain ranges. Now that they are here they are doing everything they can to a) stop newcomers from coming; b) force anyone without their income levels to live in drab high-density housing. They get their piece of the Montana Dream, and everyone else can take a hike…

Berkeley, California: Cautions on Infill
Citizen input into long-range planning is excellent—which is why citizens are so astonished when their plans are entirely ignored by the current Planning Division. Developers sometimes work successfully with neighbors to create good and popular developments, but a long list of appeals, lawsuits, and despised large developments indicates a major problem. Staff routinely stonewalls, obfuscates, refuses to respond, and ignores neighborhood concerns. In contradiction to our own ordinances, staff makes no genuine attempt to facilitate cooperation between applicants and neighbors. Instead, propelled by their simplistic “smart growth” philosophy, staff encourages developers to build the largest possible projects over neighborhood objections…

The “performance-based zoning ordinance” means that instead of following any definitive rules, staff must merely convince five decision-makers, who are completely dependent on staff advice because they are too busy to read very much and are prohibited from talking with their constituents, that a development will not be “unreasonably detrimental”—whatever that means…

In 1990, 60 percent of New Yorkers said they would live somewhere else if they could, and in 2000, 70 percent of urbanites in Britain felt the same way. Many suburbanites commute hours every day just to have “a home, a bit of private space, and fresh air.”

…We cannot let planners and developers decide what we will do with our lives. I never hear planners discussing psychological health and cultural values. Planners have a different approach. As one Berkeley planner told me, no matter what they build, eventually those who can or must tolerate the new, worse environment will replace those who can’t. As this happens, resistance to further degradation lessens. But I reject this “race to the bottom.” And with enough time, planners and developers could also train Americans to live like drones in anthills—but why let them?

Los Angeles Times: “Developing a hotter L.A.” (9/9/07)
Los Angeles’ accelerating quest to create centers of higher population density — especially downtown, in Hollywood and in Mid-Wilshire — may be on a collision course with California’s crusade to slow global warming by reducing its greenhouse gas emissions. And the potential trouble comes from an unlikely source — buildings…

One effect of high-density development that can potentially increase energy consumption is a phenomenon known as the “urban heat island…”

Packing taller residential buildings closer together to increase density, without making room for significant areas of green space, such as parks or shaded plazas, only worsens the effect…

Comment on Planetizen (10/23/07)
With midrise buildings, you can plant deciduous trees to shade the buildings during the summer and expose them to the sun during the winter, reducing the burden of heating and cooling. This doesn’t work for highrises, which are much taller than trees.

Our Column in Today’s Gazette: The Hidden Risks of ‘Smart Growth’

The Portland, Ore., metro region is considered a smart growth pioneer, going back to the early 1970s. Portland adopted urban growth boundary restrictions to preserve open space outside the boundary. Transportation initiatives have emphasized public transit over road-building.

Problems emerged, however. With space restricted for building, home prices soared. By 1999, the Portland region was the eighth-least affordable housing market in America, according to the National Association of Home Builders. Pressures for development threaten the remaining greenspace within the boundary: 10,000 acres of parks, fields and golf courses have been rezoned for infill.

Many homebuyers, especially those with children, began to avoid Portland in their quest for affordable, conventional homes with yards. This ironically fostered sprawl (PDF) and traffic as people migrated to cities outside the region’s authority, such as Vancouver, Wash.

Planetizen: “Trouble in Smart Growth’s Nirvana” (6/30/02)
Densification is no more popular in Portland’s neighborhoods than it is in Berkeley, Boulder or Bozeman. As a result, a recent citizen’s initiative sought to limit Metro’s (the land use regulation agency) densification power. Metro feared passage so much that it placed a competing densification referendum on the ballot, which passed with 66 percent of the vote. The citizen’s initiative received a respectable 43 percent…

The New Draft Sustainable Northampton Plan: Balancing Compact Growth Against Taxes, Urban Greenspace, Homeowner Preferences
Mishandled campaigns for density can trigger an intense political backlash. In suburban Portland, voters recalled a mayor and two council members over dense development and a neighborhood light-rail alignment (Farris, p.23). Farris, an Associate Professor in the Department of Planning and Landscape Architecture at Clemson University, recommends a smarter Smart Growth approach that takes into account the facts on the ground and citizen preferences:

…smart growth advocates should be realistic about the amount of development that will occur in built-up areas versus outlying open land as various stakeholders consider future policies. The U.S. population is expected to double in this century. It is hard to imagine that a large percentage of that growth will occur in existing built-up areas.

Smart growth advocates should focus especially on encouraging higher-density quality development on open peripheral land. The discussion in this article suggests that this is where most development will occur. Perhaps up to 20 percent can be infill in cities and the older suburbs (this would be a big increase from present patterns).

Pictures of Kohl Construction’s Condo Plans
[These condos are slated to go into a neighborhood of 1-3 family detached homes. At a 2/7/08 meeting of Northampton’s Planning Board, one member characterized condo developments like these as “carbuncles”, as they are out of character and poorly integrated with their surroundings.]

Pictures of Northampton Streets at Various Densities