Vancouver's density debate pits Sullivanism versus the ideas of Jane Jacobs
From where former Vancouver mayor Sam Sullivan sits on this blustery April day, the past and the future are equally visible. Across the mouth of False Creek from Kits Point rise the towers of the West End. They are the legacy of Sullivan’s Non-Partisan Association (NPA) and its 1960s developer-cum-mayor, Tom “Terrific” Campbell, who called hippies “scum” back then and those who opposed his plans to densify the West End, Kitsilano, and Kerrisdale “pinkos, commies, and hamburgers”.
His nickname was used sarcastically by people who couldn’t abide his fierce high-rise plans. But Sullivan tells me he has just come to a shocking discovery. Considering the fact that suburban sprawl is—with its spacious, energy-consuming homes and requisite commuting—a disaster for the planet, then, to Sullivan’s mind, Campbell was right. Stacking people was right. Towers are good. And all the New Urbanist, low-rise, Jane Jacobs–loving, fuzzy-wuzzy antidevelopment forces were wrong when they brought a halt to the city’s concrete and steel densification in the early 1970s.
Jane Jacobs wrong? She was the author of the 20th-century urbanist bible, 1961’s The Death and Life of Great American Cities. She is why international experts come to Vancouver to study its renowned livability. She’s the mother of Vancouverism. To Sullivan, she was once god. So the revelation that Jacobs had gotten it wrong was, to the man who invented EcoDensity, apostasy. It was like saying: “Let’s log Stanley Park.”
And yet, Sullivan says: haven’t Vancouver’s critical housing issues—almost nonexistent rental opportunities, the near impossibility of middle-class home ownership, and ongoing suburban sprawl—all been produced by the Jacobs-inspired shortage of affordable places to live within the city? Short supply plus high demand equals sky-high real-estate prices. With the average cost of a home on Vancouver’s West Side now $2.4 million (and on the East Side $943,000), isn’t this why Vancouver is the second-most-expensive city in the world?
Sullivan and I leave Vanier Park and weave through the leafy Kits Point enclave where, Sullivan knows, I once owned a home. “Can you see the whole thing as big, shiny high-rises?” he asks of Kits Point. He sees the expression of horror on my face and adds, “Okay, some mid-rise buildings too.”
He tells me the densification of Kits Point will fit right in with the 35- and 28-storey towers the Squamish First Nation will begin building next year on their four-hectare site at the southwest end of the Burrard Street Bridge. He gestures up to the towers that mark the aborted ’60s effort by Tom Campbell to turn Kitsilano’s hillside into a second West End. “Big, shiny towers,” he repeats, laughing as I cringe. Along the Fairview Slope and Mount Pleasant, all along Broadway and Cambie at major transit stops: “Big, shiny towers. Or mid-rise. Whatever the market wants.”
With thousands of newcomers moving into Vancouver annually, the city’s population is predicted to almost double in the next 50 years. That’s 500,000 new people. But with virtually no undeveloped land in the city, where will they go? There is no money—and few government incentives—for developers to invest in rental or social housing. And the scores of laneway houses and secondary suites now under construction will absorb only a fraction of pent-up demand. Says Sullivan: “The market is screaming! It’s the result of a planning regime that’s deaf to the city’s needs. And left-wing rage against development and towers means they’re on the side of the one percent. When I understood Tom Campbell was right and Jane Jacobs wrong, I couldn’t sleep for days. I realized I wanted to bury Jane Jacobs under concrete.”
This thought comes as a surprise to the articulate man giving me a tour of Marine Gardens, a 70-unit rental complex located on the corner of Cambie Street and Southwest Marine Drive. The 1970s three-storey minivillage—an icon of Jane Jacobs New Urbanist thinking—sits directly across from a billboard that promotes the first two Marine Gateway skyscrapers that will, in time, cluster with others around the new Canada Line station there.
“Sam Sullivan told me my mother was his hero,” says Ned Jacobs, the bearded 62-year-old son of Jane and one of the myriad Vancouver left-wingers who oppose the high-rise densification that, under the guise of what Jacobs calls “greenwashing”, Vancouver’s politicians are selling. Ned finds it amusing that Vision Vancouver, in what he calls its recent alliance with the NPA, has approved the kinds of towers Campbell once advocated for and Sullivan advocates for today—and which most Vancouver communities, like most people of South Cambie, abhor.
Jane Jacobs died in 2006, but her vision of what makes urban life livable cannot, says her son, be attained by the neighbourhood-killing 25- and 31-storey towers that are about to rise directly above Marine Gardens. Their appearance, Jacobs argues, will convince banks to “red-line” the adjacent neighbourhood: circle on maps with red felt pens those aging properties, like Marine Gardens, that should not receive financing for upgrades.
So the landlords, held hostage by banks and seeing their land values inflated by new high-rises, sell to developers, which then further shrinks the already deplorable amount of low-rise rental and low-income housing in Vancouver. And this, of course, only further propels sprawl, as working-class families, elderly renters, students, and new immigrants seek affordable accommodation in the suburbs.
It was precisely this destruction of North America’s metropolitan low-rise districts in the 1950s, and the subsequent construction of dreary high-rise towers, that Jane Jacobs originally railed against. In their stead, she advocated the virtues of low-density row houses and three- to six-storey, eyes-on-the-street, kids-on-the-sidewalks apartments. There, people were really neighbours—like in New York’s Greenwich Village, where Ned grew up and where his mother found inspiration for her famous book.
And yet… In South Cambie, Marpole, Mount Pleasant, Oakridge, and Kitsilano, and out along Kingsway, a dozen big, shiny towers are slated to appear in the next few years. All sanctioned by Vision Vancouver’s bicycle-riding, Greenest City–promoting, Jane Jacobs–touting mayor, Gregor Robertson. “Vision rationalizes towers by calling them green,” Jacobs says. “But the development industry’s really running the show. They’re not interested in affordability or neighbourhoods. The higher the tower, the more the profit. When you look at what Vision is doing, you see they’re dancing with the devil.”
As I reflect on the contradictions I’m hearing, I glimpse evidence of a seismic shift in what being green means. When activists formed Greenpeace in Vancouver more than 40 years ago, the priorities of the environmental movement were about stopping nuclear testing, saving whales, and protecting the wilderness. It was primarily about nature. It suited the ethos of those simpler times. No one then had heard the words global warming, ocean acidification, urban densification, or peak oil. Few knew it wasn’t just whales that were in trouble but the planet itself. Or that the main culprit was carbon dioxide.
The new environmentalism, though, is primarily about cities, where today more than half of all the world’s people live and where almost two billion more people will live by 2030. The environmental crisis facing Vancouver and the planet is mostly about urban densification, consumption, and affordability. How do cities affordably house all their incoming people? And how do you mitigate the calamitous effects of suburbia, where people produce five to 10 times more greenhouse gases than transit-using downtown residents?
When traditional green values like nature, peace, and community bump against new green values like the pragmatic need for massive, legislated urban densification—especially via high-rise towers—people balk. Green is no longer out there. Green is no longer just sorting the trash. It’s right next door in the threat of a 35-storey residential skyscraper looming over Kits Point, or a 16-storey tower in Marpole, or a 19-storey condo building in Mount Pleasant. It affects—for better and worse—local real-estate prices, neighbourliness, traffic, and long-established class structures. And by mandating this green agenda, municipal politicians enter a minefield of compromises and conflicts. In Vancouver, green is becoming grey, the colour of concrete.