EcoDensity Initiative bends to criticism

When Vancouver mayor Sam Sullivan launched his EcoDensity Initiative shortly after the World Urban Forum in June 2006, he received a favourable reception in many quarters. Even some former political opponents were positive, among them sustainability activist John Irwin, who initially described EcoDensity as a "good concept". UBC professors Patrick Condon (landscape architecture) and Bill Rees (community and regional planning), both respected thinkers in the wise use of resources, have pointed out the merits of providing more housing choices and reducing residents' ecological footprint, but have continued to question the expansion of the regional road network through the provincial government's Gateway program.

Over time, however, opposition has developed among homeowners living in various neighbourhoods, who fear that EcoDensity is just a glib phrase from the mayor that masks an intention to cram extra density into single-family areas and enrich developers. Earlier this year, West Side resident Jack Volrich, a former NPA mayor, and East Side retired librarian Joseph Jones raised concerns about the impact that higher density could have on property taxes assessed to single-family homeowners. There was even a protest outside City Hall in September by opponents of EcoDensity, led by former provincial NDP candidate Alicia Barsallo.

It appears that the planning department has heard those concerns, and is now coming back with new recommendations. The director of planning, Brent Toderian, told the Georgia Straight in a phone interview that staff plan to bring a "revised draft" of the EcoDensity charter before council on Tuesday (November 27), along with a series of recommended actions. He said that the document is evolving into a "commitment charter", rather than a "series of principles".

"The document that we're doing is our best attempt at reflecting the various voices that we've heard in the dialogue so far," Toderian said. "We've revised the charter to be more of a document of commitment, if you will, regarding how density design and land use relates to our ecological footprint."

Council will receive the staff report, which will carry no recommendations. The report will form the basis for public discussions leading up to a special meeting near the end of February 2008.

The mayor and Toderian have promoted EcoDensity as a way to lower the consumption of resources and to enhance the livability of neighbourhoods. In conversation, Toderian often mentions the importance of global warming and planning for "peak oil", a term used to describe the point when global oil production peaks and begins to decline.

In one EcoDensity document, Mayor Sullivan points out that if everyone in the world lived the way people do in Vancouver, it would take four planets to sustain the population. EcoDensity has been touted as a means for using existing infrastructure more efficiently; increasing housing choices, particularly for the elderly and young families; and increasing public safety. That's because denser neighbourhoods have less crime on a per capita basis.

"A greener performance is a must," Toderian said. "There is always a debate over whether the best way is through carrots or sticks, but ultimately the greener performance has to happen. And so far, the current package of market forces and market choices are not necessarily resulting in that greener performance in a business-as-usual way. We have many exceptions–outstanding individual projects... The challenge is how to get green projects that are business-as-usual, rather than the exception."

He acknowledges that some citizens are under the impression that EcoDensity will lead to windfall profits for developers. But he insists that this isn't his motivation for championing EcoDensity. "At the end of the day, Vancouverites will have to judge if we've done a good job of balancing reasonable developer profits with our public goals, which to my mind are really driving our exercise," Toderian said. "I'm not at all sure if developers at the end of the day will make more profit as a result of this, because there are many things we are trying to achieve through this process."

As the Straight went to press, the City hadn't released its report, which goes before council on Tuesday. For more information, visit