How B.C. communities can use the painful
lessons of other cities to defeat an urban monster. Having seen
the monster Sprawl take shape and eat up everything in its path,
the region's planning director sat down to write.
"The story I am about to unfold is that of
ruination… of one of the most remarkable agricultural regions in
the world, and the substitution of a completely irrelevant urban
development of massive size and questionable quality that could
have been placed almost anywhere else and most certainly on more
If you thought he meant the fairly recent,
rampant suburbanization of the Fraser River Basin, think again.
Karl Belser was mourning the loss of a place once called The Valley
of Hearts Delight.
A half century ago, Belser was helpless to
prevent his orchard blossom paradise, so "beautiful" and "wholesome,"
from becoming the thoroughly paved and subdivided sterility now
known as Silicon Valley.
The defeated planner offered this as a prime
lesson in the making of "slurban" America. He prayed others would
learn from it. "Perhaps, by pausing
a moment to find how this magnificent place got into the fix it's
in, we might learn to act more rationally in the decades ahead.
He wrote that in 1970.
Drive today through the Fraser Valley, the
Okanagan, the Nanaimo corridor, and you get the sense we haven't
learned much. And, conditions are ripe for more "slurban"-ization
as developer friendly Premier Gordon Campbell vows to gun the engines
of economic growth. This when the Lower Mainland already has been
absorbing newcomers at a boomlike pace - compared with Calgary and
its suburbs, the Vancouver region added more than twice as many
people last year, according to Jim Sutherland in Vancouver magazine.
All of which make the timing quite propitious
for the emerging anti-sprawl movement in this province, led by a
new group called Smart Growth BC. The organization, in its just
released BC Sprawl Report 2001, defines the beast as thus:
"Sprawl is poorly planned development characterized
by the conversion
of natural or agricultural land to low-density residential suburbs,
commercial centres, and business parks, all separated from one another
by roads and parking lots. Sprawl means long distances between homes
and work or shopping, heavy reliance on roads and automobiles, and
the destruction of the very features that induces many to live in
rural developments - the natural landscape." The report goes on
to tally the evils spawned by sprawl: More pollution, higher energy
consumption, obliteration of farm land and natural habitat, higher
infrastructure costs, economic efficiency, a "loss of community
and sense of place."
needn't be this way was the message that SmartGrowthBC conference
held in Vancouver this week, where many bright people laid out their
strategies for conquering sprawl.
shared visions of " livable communities" scaled to people rather
than automobiles. Communities with home, shopping, schools and work
all within walking or biking distance. Communities kind to nature
and the human nervous system, with the feel of villages ringed by
abandon the "fortress cul-de-sac" ideal. That's how Patrick Condon,
UBC professor of landscape architecture, describes the task.
sat in the audience of several hundred nodding heads, a profound
sense of déjà vu washed over me. During the 1960s, I grew up in
one of those "fortress cul-de-sacs" in Silicon Valley, yearning
to escape a terrain I found desolate yet smothering.
young journalist in California, I marshalled against sprawl the
same arguments SmartGrowthBC makes. I profiled architects and planners
pioneering the ideas that SmartGrowth now embraces, the so-called
later, here I was listening same environmental rational critiques,
the same eminently practical solutions largely untried in these
parts. The temptation was to conclude that that sprawl is an economic
weed, immune to reason and so unstoppable.
conclusion I prefer to draw is this. B.C. is fortunate enough to
be so young and early into its heyday. The human landscape is built
decision by decision. We have time to learn from others' mistakes
and accumulated wisdom. The lessons to be learned, from Karl Belser
and all who have come after him, include the following…
a San Francisco based planner named Peter Calthorpe invited me to
out to lunch and traced on his napkin a new way of designing the
suburbs. Strung along rail lines were clustered communities with
mixed housing on small lots, cross stitched by walking and biking
paths that rarely crossed a street as they led to parks, stores,
called his invention the "pedestrian pocket," and told me it was
the solution to sprawl's ills - but he couldn't get anyone to take
it seriously. I ran a big spread in the magazine I was editing,
and he began to get takers.
Calthorpe is America's leading sprawl-buster. His firm has developed
master plans for many regions including Seattle and Portland, and
is laying out a city of 13, 000 housing units on the grounds of
Denver's abandoned airport, the largest such development in the
approach contains the basic elements he sketched for me on that
napkin. Instead of everything covering the land with single-family
homes on big lots, he prescribes denser neighbourhoods of two-to-five
storey mixed-income housing, allowing nearby farms or wilderness
to be left undeveloped. Instead of separating out "bedroom communities"
and "industrial zones" with the occasional mall in between he zones
for a mixture of all those human activities close to each other.
are narrow with alleys, homes have neighbourly porches, and the
spine running through all of it is a robust transit system. By delivering
all the advantages of a denser community without the aspects of
big city cores, he wins over residents.
Patrick Condon, who is helping the City of Surrey develop some parcels
along these lines, says the Lower Mainland's Liveable Region Strategic
Plan makes a gesture towards Calthorpe's ideals, but falls far short.
Yes, it strings denser nodes of development - Metrotown, Lougheed
Mall, Whalley - along the SkyTrain line. But then the plan pays
too little attention to the details of how those communities are
important about the pedestrian pocket," says Condon, "is that is
all about how you defeat sprawl street by street, block by block"
through enlightened zoning specs for roads and housing stock. If
Metrotown seems a boring mess it's because most of Calthorpe's principles
were ignored at ground level.
own specialty adds another layer of fine grained detail - the salmon
factor. Wherever possible, he and his UBC colleagues design out
storm drains and swaths of pavement, substituting ponds and fields
that percolate away clean water at a regular rate, rather than sending
polluted water sluicing through fish spawning grounds.
between here and Eugene, is a unique bioregion characterized by
special kind of rainfall, streams, and salmon who inhabit those
streams," says Condon. "That all has implications for neighbourhood
the evil side effects of sprawl, from choked freeways to choking
air pollution to eye-smarting strip malls, began to poison Northern
California, citizens roused themselves to oppose it.
because there was no regional authority with any teeth to redraw
land use patterns throughout the Bay Area, the anti-sprawl movement
morphed into a Not In My Backyard revolt, the NIMBYs shouting: Take
your growth somewhere else!
developers obliged, which merely pushed the sprawl farther beyond
the edges of established suburbia. By then it was too late. The
big-lot-and-drive everywhere infrastructure of the burbs had been
laid down, and stopping growth did nothing to change it.
see the results in Silicone Valley today, where home prices are
astronomical in part because housing density is so low. Result:
housing supply is hopelessly out of sync with demand.
the Vancouver region's high-tech dreams do come true in the next
several decades. Will we find ourselves in the same boat, thanks
to the toothless nature of the GVRD and Translink?
regions where war may be waged over agricultural lands, regional
authority is equally crucial. An admirer of Napa Valley's strict
rules for preserving vineyards and architectural quality, writer
Trevor Boddy fears the worst for our own wine region, the Okanagan.
revocability of the Agricultural Land Reserve demonstrated in the
fractured squirmish several years ago near Kamploops will wither
in comparison to the battles soon to come in the Okanagan, especially
with the change of provincial government," the architecture critic
has written in the Georgia Straight.
the long fight over a golf course / housing development in the Naramata
shows how few planning tools residents of the Okangan now have to
control wall to wall development." In his blistering attack on sprawl
titled The Geography of Nowhere, author James Howard Knustler lays
into the engineers who draw up suburbia's specs.
the modern profession called urban planning have anything to do
with making good places anymore? Planners no longer employ the vocabulary
of civic art…All the true design questions such as HOW WIDE SHOULD
ELM STREET BE? And WHAT SORT OF BUILDINGS SHOULD BE ON IT? were
long ago 'solved' by civic engineers and their brethren and written
into municipal codes.
has been established, for example, that the suburban streets…ought
to be as wide as two-lane country highways, regardless of whether
this promotes driving at excessive speeds where children play, or
destroys the spatial relationship between the houses on the street."
behaviour by planning engineers is perfectly understandable from
their own perspective, given that their mission in life is to standardize
whenever possible, and above all, eliminate risks. Streets are wide
so fire trucks can pass each other, and they are stripped of eccentric
curves and intruding trees lest some speedster aim his car incorrectly.
a lesson Patrick Condon has learned first hand while trying to manage
his anti-sprawl zoning specifications through the Surrey bureaucracy.
city engineer ever got a promotion for taking a risk. Their job
is to make this system run as problem-free as possible." Thus, Surrey's
engineers want to install traditional storm drains to back up Condon's
nature based approach, should it not work. And that adds the cost
to the project, which makes the developers balk.
a city engineer, the environment is someone else's job, or concern.
Citizens are concerned, the federal government is concerned, the
United Nations is concerned, but none of them has the power over
the incremental decisions that are pushing our planet into the crapper,"
says Condon. The solution, for prototypes like Condon's Surrey project,
is for higher levels of government to step in and assume some of
the risk, and the costs it creates.
of it as public investment. Once the experiment is shown to work,
developers will be more likely to replicate it.
was the case for Peter Calthorpe. Reached in his California office
between jet trips, he concurs that fear of risk has been his biggest
obstacle in getting his ideas accepted.
something new, a developer not only has to finagle city hall to
change zoning, he or she has to talk financers into backing something
that hasn't been built, or sold, before.
That's what keeps sprawl going," says Calthorpe. "Banks and developers
like to repeat the past." He senses a change in those dynamics,
though, as demographics in North America shift rapidly from the
Ozzie and Harriet home buyers of the past.
show strong market demand for the kinds of housing and neighbourhoods
he creates, and developers like his mixed housing approach because
they can sell out quickly to a broad spectrum of buyers, freeing
up capital for the next project. In short, gradually, it is becoming
financially riskier to build sprawl than not.
environmentalists have been pointing out for years now, the car
is a highly subsidized mode of transportation. If drivers had to
pay the true cost of roads and other infrastructure, as well as
the costs of car-related pollution and injuries, other ways of getting
around might begin to look better.
known are the many other ways sprawl is subsidized through government
policies, which gives the lie to the idea that this way of building
communities is merely the market's response to people's choices
on a level playing field. One example: Surrey charges developers
a Development Impact Fee of $18,000 per dwelling unit, no matter
how large the lot.
the same price whether the developer wants to build a single-family
mansion with a six-car garage on a 12,000 square-foot lot, or a
smaller dwelling on a lot one-quarter of the size, fitting neatly
into Condon's pedestrian pocket neighbourhood.
mind that the big lot, multiplied many times over, becomes the cellular
essence of sprawl, creating a community of relatively few people
living on large lots driving great distances to get a quart of milk.
developer does a simple calculation, and finds that he fixed cost
of $18,000 is a much smaller percentage of the over-all cost of
the lot, leaving more of the eventual sale price for profit. Why
lose money moving denser parcels? Welcome to the economics that
feed the monster.
now the business of SmartGrowthBC, along with Patrick Condon and
every other opponent of sprawl, to study such lessons, add to them
and make the case for something better. The West Coast Environmental
Law offices have prepared a binder full of legal tools the average
citizen can use to oppose sprawl.
at UBC's Sustainable Development Research Institute, John Robinson
is putting the final touches on his computer model of the Georgia
Basin, which allows users to punch in various policy options and
see how the traffic, pollution and land use patterns play out over
the next many decades.
installed at Science World, audiences will be able to vote their
future with buttons by their seats.
such education and advocacy, sprawl busters find themselves in a
far better position to win victories than did poor Karl Belser as
he watched his, and my, Valley of the Hearts Delight disappear 50
Beers is a regular contributor to
the Vancouver Sun and the author of Blue Sky Dream, a memor of growing
up in Cold War suburbia.