Eco-Density / Condo-Destiny

I was a guest of Radio-Canada's national afternoon show "Ailleurs c'est ici" on Wednesday. They had me in to discuss Eco-Density, Vancouver's trade-marked take on denser mixed-use developments. You can listen (in French) here. It was a basic introduction to the plan and the environmental advantages of livable dense communities. A trickier issue that we didn't get a chance to cover though -- and an important one -- is the way these environmental and social benefits are being undercut by Vancouver's poor track record when it comes to protecting both office space and lower income housing downtown.
Cities are dynamic places. When you throw a new gear into the works, the behaviour of the whole system can change. In this case, the opening of progressively more zoning to residential development and the resort economics of Vancouver's real estate market has meant that high end condominiums have rapidly choked out all other forms development in the downtown area, often displacing existing offices. 5 to 1 returns on condos compared to office space has meant a 10 to 1 imbalance in new developments. While city officials are supportive of office space, the actual square footage being built hasn't changed in the past three years.

Non-market rate housing is in the same boat. By definition it is not meant to turn a profit, and the city government has been either unwilling or unable to competently defend either against the tide of condos. See for example the Mayor's 2006 reduction of -- already agreed upon -- affordable housing in the Olympic village, and the CCPA's excellent report on the links between affordability and sustainability.

This started years before the recently released Eco-Density Charter came into effect, and some say there's no need to worry. Matthew Kahn, an economist at UCLA, argues that cities win when they attract high-payed (and high-property-tax-paying) professionals to their downtowns. And if they buy property but don't live there (as is the case for many vacation-home condos in Vancouver) "It's a free lunch, with these people moving in, paying taxes, and demanding no services at all."

Common wisdom about free lunches aside, his argument stands up in a very limited way. But as soon as you look beyond the tax base you realize that this type of development undermines the key principles now used to justify it: Eco-Density's commitment to build more sustainable and livable cities. What you end up with instead is a dormitory resort downtown whose residents reverse commute to suburban office parks, crossing paths in the sky train with the suburbanites who are commuting into the core to work low-paid jobs as coffee clerks in so-called mixed-use towers. I simplify for effect, but you see my point.

The balance is a tricky one, and the (real estate) market is certainly not going to sort it out for us. This seems like a clear case where the question is not whether the government should intervene in the market, but how. It is also makes a good example of the need to combine social and environmental sustainability. Often, as here, you can't have one without the other. You can't have the truly mixed-use localized communities that Eco-Density stands for unless you protect the ability of a variety of income groups to live, work and play there.

UPDATE 08.19.2008: WorldChanging has recently put what is happening in Vancouver in a broader context of a shift that is taking place in cities throughout. The discussion was sparked by this interesting article by Alan Ehrenhalt in The New Republic the "demographic inversion" that is once again turning cities centers across North America into homes for the wealthy rather than the poor.


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This is a blog for news and views on the future of sustainable cites. A major revamp is in the works. Until then I am keeping this version up as an archive of my past writing.

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You can also find my writing on urban redesign and sustainability in ReNew Canada, The Mark, Sustainable Cities Canada, WorldChanging, and other more specialized academic publications.

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