Jacobs: note the tower tucked behind the house – it probably pays for a local amenity
Harvard economist Edward L. Glaeser blogs at the NY Times website, and he's written what amounts to blasphemy in some planning circles. He says that legendary urbanist Jane Jacobs – who recently topped a list of urban thinkers – was flat out wrong on the subject of density in our cities. Why should you care? Well, if you've ever stopped to wonder whether you, or your kids or grandkids will ever be able to purchase a home in Vancouver, it might be worth considering how we got here.
There's no question that the affordability of housing is becoming one of key issues of living in Metro Vancouver. There are many expensive cities in the world, but few are as out of whack in relation to average income and the cost of housing than here. Basic economics tells you that our low supply and high demand for housing has prices spiking well beyond the 100%-plus increases seen in the past decade.
In his article titled Taller Buildings, Cheaper Homes, Glaeser credits Jacobs as a woman of many accomplishments:
Jane Jacobs is one of history’s greatest urban thinkers. In most areas, Jacobs was a peerless analyst of urban life. She understood the virtues of busy neighborhoods, the economic opportunity that comes from urban innovation and the value of small firms and industrial diversity...But she wasn’t always right.
What Glaeser points out is that the resistance to higher density development – a trend that caught on like a virus in the 1970s – led to housing scarcity and therefore significantly higher prices. Jacobs' ideas heavily influenced the mandates of City governments beginning in the 1970s. It's said (and a senior City engineer confirmed this to me) that there wasn't a single residential highrise built within Vancouver city limits between the early '70s to the end of the following decade!
It's no wonder we saw an explosion in the cost of real estate after Expo 86 – there simply wasn't enough of it to meet demand from baby boomers moving into the market. If you need a symptom of sprawl and high housing costs in Vancouver today, ask yourself what more housing choice could have done to mitigate this over the past 25 years.
Jacobs feared high densities because she thought that they would lead to too little diversity, but there are good reasons to think that she get things backward. Restricting new construction and keeping buildings artificially low means that housing supply cannot satisfy demand. The result is high prices and cities that are increasingly affordable only to the prosperous.
Glaeser also cites an interesting paper published in 2004 that argues that regulations suppressing development are among the root causes of the high cost of housing in Manhattan. Further he adds:
Restricting supply led to higher prices and a city with space only for the rich. In the 1950s and 1960s, middle-income people, like Jane Jacobs and my parents, could afford Manhattan. Equivalent families today can’t afford the city, and that’s a pity. By contrast, Chicago, with its longstanding pro-construction ethos, remains far more affordable even in prime locations.
Think of Vancouver city council's recent rush to limit a number of skyscrapers in the downtown core as an example where policy decisions can lock us into inflated housing costs.
Of course there is the thorny issue of where exactly do you put density, given that it's about as politically salable as a plague of locusts no matter where you go. Speaking to an acquaintance from Ottawa last week, he complained that any talk of density in that city is toxic. The City of Vancouver began a debate about density under Sam Sullivan's term of government that resulted in five nights of public hearings (half expressing support, the other half raising concerns), and endless skepticism from the Vision Vancouver opposition (who eventually voted unanimously for the EcoDensity Charter).
Now that the shoe is on the other foot and Vision is governing, look what is happening with Vision's STIR program in the West End. The appearance of an arrogant government ramming density into a community has resulted in an outbreak of grassroots opposition. It would have helped Vision Vancouver greatly to have the leadership within their ranks who could sell the plan before fasttracking it, but as we have seen to date Mayor Robertson is not someone who likes to get his hands dirty.
Of course, most people will vigorously defend their high-carbon lifestyles. During a recent visit out to Langley I spoke to a resident who opposed that any of the ten lanes on the new Port Mann bridge be used for anything other than car commuters. And the other day Province columnist Jon Ferry argued that BC's Agricultural Land Reserve was the cause of high housing costs.
Ferry's column titled ALR helps keep Vancouver land prices sky high is based upon a Fraser Institute study telling us that we have too much land left undeveloped or set aside for farming. On the contrary, says a BCBusiness magazine interview with local farmer Jack Bates, who points out that we're continually losing good land to developments.
“When the horse farm goes, you can still farm it,” Bates muses. “The old saying is that blacktop is the last crop; once it’s paved over, nobody’s farming it.”â€©
Bates points to the numerous zoning battles that have seen Delta lose close to 400 hectares of farmland to development in recent years...â€©It’s a familiar refrain across the Lower Mainland: the 215-hectare Southlands property in Tsawwassen ceded to developers; 51 hectares of prime riverfront land in Vancouver dedicated to the East Fraserlands development; the 55-hectare Garden City Lands recently bought by the City of Richmond.â€©
We regulary receive emails from opponents of densification, and people who see planning for denser communities as an affront to their way of life. I'm not sure if they realize that it is our low energy costs that permits the suburbs to have a very large carbon footprint.
To make his point Edward Glaeser dispenses with another sacred cow – the revered Dr. Suess! In his essay titled The Lorax Was Wrong: Skyscrapers Are Green, he says:
In almost every metropolitan area, we found the central city residents emitted less carbon than the suburban counterparts. In New York and San Francisco, the average urban family emits more than two tons less carbon annually because it drives less. In Nashville, the city-suburb carbon gap due to driving is more than three tons. After all, density is the defining characteristic of cities. All that closeness means that people need to travel shorter distances, and that shows up clearly in the data...
The policy prescription that follows from this is that environmentalists should be championing the growth of more and taller skyscrapers. Every new crane in New York City means less low-density development. The environmental ideal should be an apartment in downtown San Francisco, not a ranch in Marin County.
For those who think that density is really rejected by the public, then you have to wonder why there was a long line-up last weekend to see Vancouver's first laneway house. Clearly there are many out there who think having more of us per acre could be beneficial to us all.
Ideas like Glaeser's you don't hear every day, which is why they bear repeating. There are not many environmental organizations who are driving these points home, nor are their many elected officials who have the intestinal fortitude to withstand anti-density public backlash. But as the cost of energy and the impact of greenhouse gases on our environment grows, I won't be surprised if many begin to ask why we are taking so long to embrace the views an irreverent economist like Edward L. Glaeser.