These days, my neighbourhood near King Edward and Cambie is what the real estate agents call “hot”. There are for sale signs on every block—sometimes up to three. Once the “sold” sign goes up, you watch for the little white stakes on either side of the front yard that proclaim that these usable structures will be turned into a pile of rubble. Next comes the heavy machinery to knock over the house and garden—mature plants and all. Then there is a big hole in the ground followed by months of noise from generators, nail guns, and heavy machinery. After that—voila—another perfect faux-craftsman-style house and with a bit of regulation green in front for effect.
Apparently house prices in Vancouver are now higher than New York and London. Andrew Hasman, a prominent real estate agent, calls the prices “unhealthy” and says the bubble is sure to break soon. In the meantime we are presently surrounded by this sell, teardown, and build scenario. But this speculation is small potatoes compared with the greater monster looming in the wings. This month, our city council approved a major density upgrade in the Cambie corridor. It seems that if you live in Vancouver you have to adjust to constant change because that’s the only thing that stays the same.
Looking at what is driving this endless growth train, our local history displays it perfectly. Like those who came to inhabit the rest of North America, Vancouver’s settlers came, saw, and conquered. In less than 50 years, all the city land was clear-cut of the incredibly valuable massive trees. Which meant the birds, fish, and mammals and insects—yes, insects—had to vacate their premises as their houses came crashing down. Add to this indigenous people who were unceremoniously given their marching papers from their desirable ocean-front property.
This pushing through of humans into natural lands is a gradual process. But slow or fast, it is an invasion. In the case of Vancouver the area has always exuded prosperity. It was a temperate forest and lots of rain made things grow. The local settlers took advantage of this and went on a march. When the trees and fish were vanquished the land became the valued asset. Today the richness is still the desirability of climate and the surroundings, so people want to come and live here. But the land available for human habitation and commerce is limited. Because we can’t manufacture any more land what we have is vastly inflated. Add to this rich global markets and the land values have gone through the roof.
The latest injection of major change to this scenario came the day the Olympics became a done deal. Soon after the whole Cambie corridor and beyond had to endure over two years of Canada Line construction—watching as local merchants shrank and fell one by one to an environment where customers feared approaching the construction zone that posed as streets. But what did we get for our patience? A cool little train that zipped us to the airport and downtown in minutes, so don’t complain! But guess what’s next on the menu? A massive density upgrade of course! Never mind that cool little train is already at capacity at rush hour because Lower Mainland residents who were starved for years of proper mass transit have eaten up the Canada Line and packed it to the gills.
Now—despite the very vocal protests of local residents—change is here! They have been telling us for years that our population will burgeon to three times its size by 2050 (or something like that) and there is the sense that those people have to go somewhere. And since Vancouver is the most livable city in the world and it wants to keep that title, this has to be done sustainably. And sustainable cities mean more density, of course!
Or do they? There is something seriously wrong with this picture at various levels. At the moment the neighbourhood near the King Edward and Cambie Canada Line station is single family homes with large trees and nice gardens. Now there are also laneway homes sprouting in backyards. But a perfectly usable, smallish 1930s house going for well over a million and a half quickly turns into bulldozer feed. Never mind their heritage value or the mature plants gracing their yards or the value their presence or their residents offer the neighbourhood. The houses are deemed worthless by a rampant market and are pushed over and turned into road mulch in a matter of hours.
As for the inevitability of density—this is another one of our “urban myths”. It doesn’t matter that the density in the downtown Vancouver peninsula increased tremendously in the last two decades—apparently the residents are due for major density overhauls everywhere else as well! City hall thinks it’s their job to house people. So they push more density—wherever they think they can get away with it—and we are not talking about housing for the homeless, who really do need a place to live.
This is the equivalent of building a freeway to alleviate traffic congestion. If you build it they will come. If you offer people a place to live in a desirable city they will come and live there. If you don’t they will find somewhere else to go. But creating endless artificial density just to alleviate the symptoms of a population crunch will do nothing but make managing the rest of your city—those other three quarters of a million people who already live there—that much more difficult. Perhaps on paper this formula works, but in reality it really doesn’t. From the point of view of someone who lives in a neighbourhood that is just about to get a lot denser, it feels darn frustrating.
Me and most of my fellow “close to Cambie” residents ticked a lot of No boxes when all those consultations happened. I have been part of city planning consultations for years. I remember spending many evenings contributing to “City Plan” in the ’90s. I even had a monstrous copy of the results weighing down my office drawer for 10 years before I recycled it. I also did my duty and participated in the Riley Park-Little Mountain visioning process. I remember this—lots of maps and diagrams, lots of stickies for ideas and comments, serious-looking city employees surrounded by worried-looking residents asking them questions about what would change about their area. A number of these consultations happened just after the Olympics were given the go-ahead and the city employees were sent out into the hood to allay our fears of change.
Well guess what? We got change and we got it big. The Olympics brought an increased local infrastructure in the form of a new pool, which is now packed; skating rink; and library at Hillcrest. Our well-loved small storefront neighbourhood library is disappearing in favour a more efficient large new spanking one few of us on this side of King Edward want. And now we have to watch the local merchants who stuck it out during the Canada Line construction and lost money shake their heads in disbelief as their rents skyrocket with the news of increased density. Too bad for the little guy!
As nice as the Canada Line is to zip from north to south on Cambie fast and efficiently, it was not a project I supported. A massive amount of money was spent on one route as happened for the previous two SkyTrain constructions. These large projects were about too much money giving too little back to too few. I was not asked if this rapid transit should invade my neighbourhood; it was a deal that was hatched by high levels of government, none of whom live in the places they chose to alter. I would much rather have seen the money used on vastly improving the bus service all over Vancouver which is often highly inefficient. For example at the moment during the morning rush hour near King Edward and Main you frequently have to wait and watch three full buses pass by. They likely filled up at the SkyTrain stations to the east. When these scheduled buses don’t stop, the looks on the faces of the cluster of university and high school students huddled under the bus shelter to avoid the rain is priceless; they certainly must be wondering who is in charge and secretly planning for the day when they can buy their first car.
No doubt people will cry NIMBY—“Not in my backyard!” Why should the green, leafy single family folks not have density in their space as well? The answer is: a city without some breathing space is not a livable city. What gave us the idea that all people on Earth are happy living in boxes one on top of the other? Television, computers, and mod-cons help keep us locked away in those boxes for a little while but at some point all those people will come down on the street and that is where they are going to want to breathe some real air and visit some real green spaces.
I also thought that having spent for the first two decades of my adult existence in small town homes and apartments I had done my time and now I could advance to a greener, quieter neighbourhood. But it’s following me.
The trend towards allowing neighbourhoods to change so quickly is a disturbing one. Essentially you are pandering to the market’s whims. A house close to ours was recently replaced by a much larger house which fills the lot. I greeted the owner with his young child when they moved in, welcoming him to the neighbourhood. Now a year later this owner—obviously a developer—is leaving the area in search of his next tear-down. His contribution to our street was nothing but a new great big house. His benefit was a nice increase to his bottom line. His young son spent one year at the local school and will learn life is about moving to greener pastures where more money can be made. Vancouver is continuing a time-honoured tradition—making money from the land—in this case the land value.
What once made Vancouver unique was bottom up community planning. Now with our new green city council you would think this would have been enhanced and yet it feels like this process has been thrown out the window. It doesn’t make sense to have these large community issues discussed in city council meetings with hundreds of angry residents lining up to make their case against increased growth. This top down governing doesn’t make anyone except the developers happy. And what happened to all that city planning where residents had a chance to voice our opposition to too much density? Why was all that time and money wasted? Now the Greenest City group is asking for input on transportation planning. Why bother contributing when the plans have already been made? How about using all those old discussions to save some money? Not much has changed in 10 years—the ideas will all still be the same.
Bulldozing neighbourhoods does not a green city make. The value may be in the land as far as the market is concerned but as far as people are concerned—and cities are supposed to be about people—the value is in green spaces and positive human community. All the LEED-standard green buildings, small rapid transit lines, and efficiency planning in the world do not build a priceless human level neighbourhood. This is something that cannot be legislated—we should instead treasure what we have. Stop letting developers tear the darned place down! Give people a chance to get to know their neighbour, let the trees grow unencumbered, and the quality of life increases exponentially. These contended residents will not drain the public purse. They will contribute to the urban economy rather than milk from it.
In Canada, the forces in power—markets and governments—are held in check by common decency, most of the time. Why then should growth and density not be subject to the same restrictions? There is nothing green or sustainable about endless growth. There never has and there never will be.