Vancouver Urban Forum: Let’s talk density!

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Yesterday, I visited the Vancouver Urban Forum which was hosted by the Global Civic Policy Society and its Centre for Fourth Wave Urban Reform that were both founded by Vancouver’s former mayor Sam Sullivan. 20 urban thinkers including Edward Glaeser, Alan Broadbent, Gil Penalosa or Bill Rees discussed the topic of “Fourth wave urban reform: Achieving urban densification”.

In the face of urban sprawl, rising housing prices, demographic changes, climate change, globalization, economic transformation and global urbanization, The Vancouver Urban Forum explored how density can address the environmental, social, political and economic challenges that Vancouver and other growing cities worldwide are facing. While there was a clear message that higher density is a powerful answer to many of today’s urban challenges, it also became obvious that there is no “one size fits all” solution.

So, what is “the case for density”? First of all, there is a clear environmental argument. According to Bill Rees, who created the concept of ecological footprint analysis, densification is necessary as the urban ecological footprint is increasing rapidly. In fact, we are using land in hinterland vastly more to support our modern cities which are all in eco-deficit and rely on the abundance of fossil fuels. So, in the face of global warming, peak oil and scarce natural resources, we do not really have any choice but to densify.

According to Dan Zack, the Downtown Development Coordinator for the City of Redwood City in California, density has positive effects with regards to the environment (preserving space, water and other scarce natural resources), the municipal budget (sprawl (infrastructure!) is expensive), downtown revitalization (density supports services and amenities that people enjoy) and changing tastes and needs (Millennials stay in the city). Nevertheless, it is important to design density right in terms of location (put greatest densities in the core of the city), walkability (design great streets) and liveability (people need to love density).

The importance of designing great streets was also mentioned by Gil Penalosa, the founder of 8-80 Cities and former municipal leader of Bogota, as streets are the largest public space and street space is the most valuable asset in cities. In his opinion, we know so little about what makes people happy because otherwise we would build cities differently. So, he aims at building vibrant, dense cities with healthier communities and happy people, thereby increasing quality of live and economic competitiveness. This is not a financial or technical issue, it is simply a political issue and therefore we need to build broad alliances to create great cities for millions of additional people.

During his time as Vancouver’s Director of City Planning, Brent Toderian developed the city’s transformative EcoDensity approach. In his opinion, density done well is not talking about densification at any cost but thinking about how density can enhance livability, quality of life and sustainability. Density done well needs an alignment of land use and mobility (prioritize walking, cycling and transit and foster compact, walkable cities), high quality urban and architectural design as well as enough services, amenities and the diversity (waterfront, parks, etc.) that makes density enjoyable for people. So, density done well means reduced energy use (in buildings and getting around), more green design options, less sprawl, more affordable housing choices, more safety and better public health. And it will be the key for Vancouver to become the greenest city by 2020.

Edward Glaeser, Harvard Professor of Economics and author of “Triumph of the City”, also made a strong case for density as the answer to rising housing prices (resulting from short supply and high demand) and criticized increasing regulation, declining buiding permits and urban preservation areas that have, in his opinion, preserved the past at the expense of the future. According to Glaeser, America’s densiest cities have the highest income and population growth, life satisfaction increases with urbanization and cities have an enormous potential to transform society. In his opinion, urban success depends on education, skills and human capital and density allows us to borrow the ideas of the people around us (“We get smart by being around smart people.”).

Thanks to Sam Sullivan and his Global Civic Policiy Society for hosting such a high-level discussion that made a clear point on density. There were so many further interesting insights at yesterday’s event, like Matthew Soules talking about cities’ function as an agent for peace (age of “Pax Metropolitana”), Andrew Ramlo speaking about changing urban demographics, Stephanie Chang exploring the question if density increases urban disaster risk or Trevor Boddy introducing the concept of seeing Vancouver as a “Meme City” that constantly creates innovative, new ideas that go global.

For more insights, I recommend to take a look at the articles on Spacing Vancouver, the Vancouver Sun and the Georgia Straight and the enormous amount of #VUF tweets that were also featured during the event thanks to its innovative social media table (aka “Twable”).

Posted on June 7, 2012 in Urbanism

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About the Author

Andreas Lindinger is a Vienna-based business consultant, sustainability expert and urban thinker passionate about livable cities, sustainable transportation, renewable energy and civic engagement. Andreas offers a transdisciplinary business, finance and sustainability background, industry expertise in energy, mobility and environmental consulting and broad international experience gained in Vienna, Vancouver, Berlin and Dublin. Make sure to also check out Vienncouver.com and to follow @lindinger on Twitter.

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