Burnaby's push for low density living is hurting our metropolitan environment

Post by Daniel Fontaine in


big bend aerial shot
That big blob in the centre of this image is now a mass of big box stores built in Burnaby

We often think that in 2010, most of our local politicians are fairly enlightened when it comes to the environment. It's assumed in many quarters they won't promote policies supporting increased carbon emissions when planning the future of our cities. That's why a story in the Vancouver Sun today really caught my attention. The headline reads "Country living, city life". It's all about a new residential development underway in Burnaby's Big Bend neighbourhood (see photo above).

If you're not familiar with the Big Bend area, not long ago it housed little more than a lush verdant landscape, some berry farms and the occasional bald eagle. Within the last few years, Mayor Derek Corrigan and his council have approved a massive amount of new development - mostly big box car dependent stores. The green space that once occupied this area has been torn down in favour of massive paved parking lots and retail.

Over the last few weeks, city crews continue their never-ending work to widen sections of Marine Way to accommodate the growing number of single-occupant vehicles that now regularly clog the corner of Byrne Road and Marine. The whole area simply looks and feels ugly. That is unless you love that suburban big box store feel in the middle of a bunch of agricultural land.

Now comes a new residential development which one could argue was inevitable given Council's penchant for slapping in just about anything they can into this neighbourhood. Unlike Vancouver, which up until a while ago was moving toward making density its main policy tool to lower its carbon footprint), Burnaby appears to be going in the opposite direction. Case in point, here is a quote from the Vancouver Sun's story:

The first phase is scheduled to be ready for occupancy by the summer or fall of 2011, with the remaining homes ready over the year after that.

It's the opposite of the trend toward ultra-high density housing seen in so many other urban areas; if you do the math, there's more than 5,500 square feet of parkland per home on the property.

If you didn't know any better, you'd think the story was shouting out saying, "we love the kind of low density and green space that each Shaughnessy home has provided Vancouver residents, and we're going to replicate this out here too."

Just imagine how much farm land we would need to pave over in the Fraser Valley if every development was built with 5,500 square feet of green space per dwelling. Before long, every piece of land from Stanley Park to Hope would be covered in car-dependent low rise single family developments, freeways and big box stores. Very hard to imagine how that would help us to become the "greenest city in the world" or one of the most sustainable regions on the planet.

I would have thought the days of these types of low-density developments, particularly close to the urban core, would have gone the way of the Dodo bird. Rather, Mayor Corrigan and his council are touting this as the future of Burnaby. Quite disappointing.

I don't blame the 96 people who will be able to purchase their low density home on this 12 acre parcel of land. I don't even blame the developers for promoting this type of development. Nope, it's the leadership at City Council that should be held accountable for building these kinds of neighbourhoods in the first place.

Yes the calendar says we're in the year 2010. However, that clearly doesn't mean everyone understands that poor planning decisions today can have massive ramifications on our environment in the years to come.

- Post by Daniel


Usually, okay almost always, people who oppose low density living are those who can't afford low density living and just want to inflict their preferred impoverished, unsuccessful lifestyle on those of us who have worked hard enough to be successful enough to afford the joys of low density living.

Having space is a wonderful thing. And space with good neighbours and good fences is even better.

All that space is indeed wonderful, but look at the infrastructure needed to serve it! Is that really a nice way to shop? Does anyone enjoy waiting for the lights at Byrne and Marine? Does Mayor Corrigan make the connection between that form of development and the oil seeping into Burrard Inlet, or gushing into the Gulf of Mexico? If he's so angry about the former, why is he permitting the latter?

Burnaby says that they're trying to develop mixed use centres, served by transit, but then they're always approving big boxes and office parks on agricultural land, and wondering why the uptake is so slow at Brentwood or Edmonds... there's a huge disconnect here.

As for Fred's comment, I'm not sure wishing for a place to live that has enough density to support walkable shops, good transit, and enough normal people out of their cars walking around that the streets feel watched and safe, all with some high quality parks is inflicting a 'preferred impoverished, unsuccessful lifestyle'. That said, if you want to live in a quiet, low density setting, with massive roads to bring you to the power centre at Byrne and Marine, please pay your own way, rather than dipping into the general funds from everyone's property taxes.

I agree with the gist of your density comments but isn't this the old New Haven site? Its quite a distance from Big Bend. Yes they are in the same city and south of Marine Dr. but making that connection and using the accompanying photo reminds me of the Orpheum Theatre cutaway in the Gastown video feature you mentioned last week.

@Rick. Thanks for your comment. I am definitely talking about two separate pieces of property in the same general vicinity known as Big Bend. The photo above covers the Byrne Road/Marine Way area and was used to help illustrate the big box component of my post. As for the low density residential development, I don't believe that image captures it.

Overall, this area has been rapidly developing over the last several years into business parks, big box retail and now some low density residential. There is little to no transit to speak of and you definitely need a car to do anything in that neighbourhood. Not quite what I would define as long-term environmentally sustainable planning.

Fred, please at minimum realize your line of thinking is outdated.

For the amount I have paid for a smaller unit in a high density area I could have purchased a much larger home in a low density area. Thus it is been my decision (not laziness or an unsuccessful lifestyle).

Sounds like Maple Ridge might be a better fit for you. Or maybe a nice gated community in South Surrey? You can compete with your neighbours over who has the nicer fence, better SUV and you can all mow your lawn in unison on Sundays.

My first reaction was much the same as yours, but having actually examined the webiste I'm not sure this is a great example of low-density sprawl. It's not all that high density, really, but it's a townhouse development and it appears higher density than the neighbouring single-family homes. At the same time, it's not a place where you would want to put in towers, obviously, so that kind of density isn't that far off. And at least it provides units with four-bedrooms, something that's impossible to find in most new townhouse projects in the denser parts of town, which is tremendously disappointing.

Also, most of the greenspace in the project appears to be behind the development in a park-like setting. I wouldn't say this development is ideal, but the criticisms levelled here are overblown.

Until we can start providing family-appropriate housing at a reasonable cost in the urban centres, then we're going to have this issue, really. That's where the failure lies, I think - in that barely a single unit is built in the new condo projects that have three bedrooms or more that aren't penthouses way out of reach of most families.

Also, the photo is very misleading - you could have provided a photo of the actual development site, which is here: http://maps.google.com/maps?f=q&source=s_q&hl=en&geocode=&q=4250+Marine+Dr.,+Burnaby&sll=49.209089,-123.009582&sspn=0.003147,0.009366&ie=UTF8&hq=&hnear=4250+Marine+Dr,+Burnaby,+Greater+Vancouver+Regional+District,+British+Columbia+V5J+3E5,+Canada&t=h&z=16

I should clarify that other projects, such as the big box store listed above, are pretty awful, and Burnaby in general has shown poor commitment to smart growth principles.

@tessa. "Until we can start providing family-appropriate housing at a reasonable cost in the urban centres, then we're going to have this issue, really."

There are two ways to do this. Build out everything you can on existing green space and farm land...and you can get some "affordable" housing. That is, until you run out of land to build on. Not a great option in my opinion.

Or the alternative is to think smarter when it comes to the use of existing land. Back lanes, surface parking lots etc...close to the urban core should be developed first to help increase housing supply where people actually want to live, near work. We should also look at building up vs. out.

Look at the squat buildings at the Olympic Village compared to the north side. Much more should have been done there to increase the density on that prime sight, but old-time politics got in the way. A lost opportunity.

You talk about poor planning decisions? How about the decision to build a city that bans families by building towers with mainly bachelor and 1 bedroom apartments? Even today, 2 bedroom apartments in Vancouver are difficult to find, and for anything 3 bedroom and over, you have to shell out close to a million or move to the suburbs.

A lot of couples want to have kids...sometimes, even more than 1 kid. But Vancouver makes it nearly impossible in density neighbourhoods because of their poor planning decisions that will have massive ramifications on our city in the years to come.

I had the same feeling as Reality Check when I wrote this piece on my site about looking for utopia (with a high street). Any comments or suggestions would be appreciated!



I don't think you can say that Burnaby has shown poor commitment to smart growth principles, not at least in the last fifteen, twenty years. If you look at nearly all development in this time, it's been focused around the expo and now millennium lines.

I agree it had god awful development patterns before then, but lately the focus has really been around it's town centres. This particular development is a rare one outside of them.

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