Countering the arguments for sprawl living

Post by Mike Klassen in


Vancouver is increasingly an example to other cities on sustainable living

Province columnist Jon Ferry can be a very good read, but I felt I had to challenge his story in today's paper titled, Suburban Living Offers Quality Over Quantity. First of all, let me say that I agree with him on the idea that it would be nice if we could all have large backyards and good neighbours. A house, a yard, a couple of cars in the (front) driveway is equated with the so-called American Dream.

Ferry writes:

I thought how it wrong it was for politically correct politicians and transportation "experts" continually to rail against suburban sprawl as it were some form of disease. Not everyone loves downtown living, at least if they have a family to raise or an animal or two to feed.

Nor do they thrill to the mantra of forced housing densification, or eco-density, that's become so fashionable among academics and urban planners.

For many Lower Mainland residents, the dream is not to live in a luxury condo in Vancouver's West End or Olympic Village. They'd much prefer a single-family home in the Fraser Valley with a decent-sized backyard, approachable neighbours and some trees their children can climb.

First, let me be clear that I live in East Vancouver, in a house with a big yard. If not for some immense luck of timing I could never have afforded to live here had we bought even six months later than we did. If we were looking for an equivalent property today, we probably would have to look seriously at Abbotsford.

Lack of affordability, which results from the lack of housing choice, is forcing some home buyers into the deep suburbs. Despite Ferry's insinuation, there is no academic or urbanist holding a gun to someone's head to buy a condo in Yaletown. People are still free to buy housing in a sprawl development, and if they have millions burning a hole in their pocket, they can still live in a big yard right in Vancouver.

The fact is that people are choosing to live in downtown settings in greater numbers than Ferry implies because it is a very desirable option. Go stand on the corner of Davie & Pacific in Yaletown for 15 minutes one day and see how many baby strollers and fit moms and dads you see walking by. You'd probably lose count. Families are compromising the cost of owning and maintaining land, and opting for accessible, walkable amenities and public space.

I've been invited out to the Fraser Valley on three recent occasions – one that I documented – where the focus was on urban sprawl. Despite what Ferry says, cities such as Surrey and the Township of Langley are looking at ways to concentrate living, shopping and work in more compact areas, and avoiding brownfield (industrial/commercial) and greenfield (farm/rural) redevelopment for housing wherever possible.

Are there ways that our cities in Metro Vancouver can improve? Absolutely, but the seeds of change are already planted.

Life based around the automobile greatly increases your health risks. How shocking is it that even Surrey's Mayor was nearly creamed in a car accident? That tells you something about the statistical probability of a serious accident when your city's leader is in a fender bender.

Then there is the concern about our limited oil resource, also known as peak oil theory. There is no dispute that oil is a commodity that is becoming even more difficult to find and refine. Look no further than the Gulf of Mexico today. Was this an abberation? No, it was the inevitable result of what happens when you can't find oil on land anymore. They're pushing 250 miles offshore to make sure you and I can drive to the grocery store.

What's amazing to me about the BP oil spill is that no one yet has really made the connection between this environmental, business and social calamity and our endless thirst for cheap energy. It makes us very uncomfortable to think that by driving, we own some responsibility for that crisis. Frankly, no one wants to believe it so they put it out of their mind.

So while I agree with Ferry it would be nice if we all had endless room to build housing, limitless cheap energy to make it happen, and it didn't impact our environment at all to pave some former wetlands, I'd say fill your boots! But we can't ignore that there is a great cost to sprawl living, and when oil hits $200 per barrel as some predict is going to happen soon, it will be interesting how many minds are changed about the benefits of the 'burbs.

- post by Mike


Amen; I'd refer Jon Ferry to the work of Christopher Leinberger, which suggests that the development industry has in fact vastly overprovided the typical suburban product (automobile suburbanism) and supplied far too little walkable urbanism. Society has a wide range of tastes for different kinds of neighbourhoods and the last 50 years of development really hasn't acknowledged that. As a result, older neighbourhoods that have that mix of options and densities (and yes, beautiful 'oldness', too, in some cases) are few and far between and increasingly unaffordable.

Check out or for more.

Density sustains infrastructure. The folks in outlying municipalities are going to bear some heavy costs in about 50 years when it comes time to replace watermains and sewers. Community centres fall into this as well. Look at the District of North Van or West Van. Large service area + homogenous development (no diversity - little commercial, little industrial, little multifamily). Who's paying for infrastructure replacment? The residents or the feds through a grant.

The transportation pitfalls are already well understood, and people seem to follow Malthus' idea of finding their maximum level of discomfort for transportation.

Interesting subject matter.

The End of Suburbia: For those who haven't seen this documentary, it's a MUST watch.

"We're literally stuck up a cul-de-sac in a cement SUV without a fill-up" - James Howard Kunstler

These people are the head. Sprawl development is unsustainably expensive to maintain infrastructure for.

The saying not too long ago was: "Drive til you can afford it." Sprawl is expensive. Single family homes in general, use up more or municipal infrastructure and resources than they pay in and are not sustainable. I'm not going to add too much to the wise article and words above, but the biggest impediment to innovation in sustainability, housing choice and diversity are the single family homeowners. They make up the majority of those we call NIMBY and some are very proud of it. They resist change in their neighborhoods, even at the expense of future generation. Many never stop to think where their children will live.

Great post Mike. We need keep up the pressure to build more housing in Vancouver so people have options. Hopefully council will have the courage to continue in spite of the predictable opposition from people concerned about change.

The issues with STIR in the West End is a good example of this. While not perfect, what is? People who live near downtown are far more likely to walk and cycle to work and have low GHG emissions.

When oil goes through the roof after the great recession, people will not be so keen on commuting from the burbs. Then there will be the toll on the Port Mann in a few years.

Check out!

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