Climate change: urban design solutions

Vancouver Mayor Sam Sullivan adds his two cents: good urban design, through higher densities and good public transit, needs to be part of the solution.

It’s time to talk about urban density

Tue 13 Feb 2007

As mayor of one of Canada’s biggest cities, Vancouver, I am frustrated with the nature of the debate on global climate change in this country.

Over the past several months, I have watched as environmental organizations, government agencies and the media provide advice on how Canadians can make small changes to our lifestyles, yet continue living in a fundamentally unsustainable fashion.

Instead of telling Canadians to simply check the air pressure in their tires to ensure better mileage, or put energy efficient light bulbs in their suburban homes, we should be talking about how better urban planning and densification of our cities can significantly reduce our impact on the environment.

Not once have I seen any prominent national news coverage on the link between increased urban density and the impact on our global ecology. It is time that we have this debate.

My concern for the environment was the primary reason I introduced the concept of Eco Density to the citizens of Vancouver in June, 2006. After several months of planning, this innovative program will be launched this month with multiple events and workshops aimed at engaging our citizens in developing new plans for future residential development, through an environmental lens.

As noted by Professor Patrick Condon, who holds the James Taylor Chair in Landscape and Liveable Environments at the University of British Columbia, Vancouver has become the first city in North America to formally establish an official policy of well-planned high quality densification.

Prior to becoming mayor, in my 13 years as a Vancouver city councillor, the “D” word was not popular. In fact, the mere mention of increased density often meant the kiss of death for a civic politician’s career. But, with an ageing population, rising home prices and an increased public interest in protecting our local and global environment, the time has come for us to embrace density as a tool to make cities more sustainable and livable.

Why do we need to embrace density? The science is very clear on the link between density and the environment. Densification reduces urban sprawl. When people live closer to where they work, they travel less often in carbon-emitting vehicles and they produce fewer carbon emissions. Increased density also leads to neighbourhood town centres becoming economically viable with an increased selection of local shops and services.

Although many Canadians are accustomed to the traditional suburban form — detached homes with garages and expansive lawns — it is not sustainable to continue stripping our agricultural land and forests to develop vast tracts of single family neighbourhoods. By continuing this pattern of development, we are hard-wiring our dependency on fossil fuels well into the next century.

Increased suburban development also places significant demands on limited infrastructure funding for critical public amenities such as transit, community centres, libraries and parks. In sprawling communities, infrastructure is instead allocated to bridges, roads and sewers, which do little to improve our quality of life.

Recently, I made a presentation to my fellow Canadian mayors at the Federation of Canadian Municipalities’ Big City Mayors Caucus, urging them to adopt Eco Density or similar policies of high quality densification in their communities.

Clearly, all levels of government, the business community and individuals need to take immediate action if we are going to address climate change. But we need to do more than simply tinker around the edges.

At a local level, cities should be seeking every opportunity to immediately use density as a tool to ensure we provide new and innovative forms of housing so that people can live closer to where they work. Through the creative use of our zoning powers, cities have a responsibility to become a major partner in the battle against climate change. But that will mean showing leadership beyond our three-year mandates and making the tough but necessary choices which may not always prove popular.

I also believe that provincial and federal governments should be demanding that cities commit to carbon-reducing strategies such as Eco Density before they provide infrastructure funding.

For too long, cities have built out to the far edges of our downtown cores, and then run cap in hand to senior levels of government demanding billions of new infrastructure dollars to fund these unsustainable planning and zoning decisions. Although it would be a departure from the status quo, future investments in infrastructure should be directly linked to the environment.

Cities need to be part of the solution and the time for action is now. It is my hope that through the Eco Density initiative, Vancouver will not only continue to be one of the most livable cities; we can become a world leader in battling climate change.


  • Hooray for progressive municipal governance.

  • More than just density though, what is truly needed is Green Development. That is, Green buildings that are designed within Green Communities or the concepts of New Urbanism. Dockside Green in Victoria is just one example of how new communities can be built Green.

    However, we cannot just design all our communities from scratch. The building stock that we have currently is what we’re left with for a long time. This building stock is responsible for roughly 30-40% of the GHGs that are emmitted into the atmosphere annually.

    There are a couple things I suggest that we do with these current buildings.

    1) Retrofiting these buildings should be a top priority. I’ve heard that in Germany, the government is offering subsidies of 1.5 billion Euros/year for the retrofitting of the building stock.
    2) Build distributive energy grids by providing subsidies to building owners (including homeowners, schools, hospitals, etc…) so that they can deal with the upfront costs of installing solar thermal windows or solar panels. The government of Ontario is currently offering subsidies for solar projects that feed back into the grid. Unfortunately, this doesn’t at all help the average person put a solar panel on their roof, therefore, it doesn’t help build distributive energy systems.
    3)Bring nature back into the city. We have the technology to help rebuild habitat within urban areas, including green roofs and green walls. This can have a number of positive affects, from air quality to temperatures in the city, to aesthetics of the city, to carbon sequestration.

    Better City Planning is absolutely necessary, but it doesn’t stop at density.

  • It is also worth noting that Sullivan’s Eco Density does not have a truly coherent plan for affordable housing, which is another part of sustainability. A current problem in Vancouver is that many people who work here are being forced to the distant suburbs in order to find an affordable place to live (read: more driving, more commuting).

    Sullivan believes that increasing density will lead to more affordability through greater supply and smaller units. I am skeptical that the real estate market works this way. I would rather see some portion of new developments be mandated to be affordable, either through some form of covenant, or dedicated units would go into a pool of city-owned affordable housing.

    Denisfication means there will be a big lift in the value of properties, and it is important that the city capture some of that lift for public purposes.

  • What a great discussion! I am delighted to see the talk of dense urban design in the contrext of CO2 emissions and long term sustainability. As noted above, there are economic and social issues surrounding sustainable urban design that need to be addressed. The vision of Mayor Sullivan is a great first step for deciding what we need to have true sustainability. The next step is figuring out how we constrain/direct our economies to work toward this. And to do this quickly.

  • Cities, by their very nature, are always in a state of change. Responding to the myriad of internal and external forces placed upon them, they ebb and flow continually. At certain times throughout history, the profound changes have shaken the foundation of cities and the human made systems that create them – many of which decline as a result.

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