Urban sprawl causing a big stink

Post by Mike Klassen in


What are the real solutions to prevent urban sprawl?

We often salute the good work of Vancouver's media, and we'd like to commend The Province newspaper for its cover feature on the battle between sprawl development and farming in the Fraser Valley. Reporter Glenda Luymes has successfully captured the issue in her report, and goes on to elaborate on some of her findings on her "Valley Girls" Province blog.

One of the concerning matters Luymes mentions is the upcoming vote by the City of Richmond which will have consequences for the use of farmland within city boundaries.

Richmond council will vote in two weeks on whether to scrap a controversial bylaw amendment limiting houses and outbuildings on ALR land to the first 50 metres of the property fronting the street. Over the summer, the city’s planning committee heard from hundreds of homeowners who had narrow properties and wanted to build beyond the setback. The overwhelming response led the planning committee to vote to put the matter before council.

Last year on CityCaucus.com I wrote about the Castles of No. 6 Road, and the pressure to development agricultural land in east Richmond.

Luymes on her blog explores some options on how to mitigate or prevent the problem of residential develpments complaining about farming from occurring. Of course, the real solution is to not allow any housing development to happen in these areas. So how do you prevent that? Luymes says:

Government also needs to take a more active role in encouraging smart development (by creating better buffers between rural and urban land and ensuring people who choose to live on the ALR are aware it is a place for farming, not simply a site for an idyllic country estate).

Professor Christopher Leo from the University of Winnipeg has been on our CityCaucus.com links since we set that page up last year. Leo writes about how cities are ill-equipped to resist the temptations of development – the political influence and the easy-money. The professor has been developing a policy paper in response, which you can read about on his blog.

Vancouver has a somewhat unique model that might be copied more widely to prevent bad development. The Development Permit Board is that tool which helps Vancouver to succeed on this score. Here is how it works:

The Board comprises the Director of Development Services, who is Chair, the General Manager of Engineering Services, the Deputy City Manager and Director of Planning.  The Chair does not vote except when Board members present at a meeting are equal for and against a question, in which case the Chair shall have the right to exercise the casting vote. 

Each Board member, except for the Director of Development Services, has an alternate or alternates.  If the Director of Development Services is unable to attend a Board meeting, she may appoint a Board member or any alternate of any Board member to act as Chair at that meeting on behalf, and in place, of the Director of Development Services.

The Board makes all decisions but is given advice in all deliberations by an Advisory Panel consisting of nine members appointed by City Council. Two members represent the development industry, two are from the design profession, one represents the Vancouver Heritage Commission and four represent the general public. As advisors to the Board, Panel members are polled for their opinions but do not vote.

The DPB advisory committee are non-voting members, and the ultimate decisions are made by staff and not elected officials. This is a critical difference. Keeping the final decision-making away from politicians, and leaving it to professionals on staff, while including the advice of the public through the advisory committee has worked well.

While no system is perfect, Vancouver's model has prevented more often than not the overriding influence of money and the development community. There are other aspects to the Vancouver system, such as the community visions, which help frame the higher goals of the community, and the existing zoning guidelines.

If such a system existed in places like Abbottsford or Chilliwack, would the community deliberately choose to threaten farmland? It's quite likely by taking these decisions out of the hands of those who cannot possibly be impartial, that you can reduce the likelihood of bad developments.

Sprawl is a cancer. It's estimated that in BC we're losing five square feet to greenfield development every second! Cities in Metro Vancouver are contributing to this problem by opting for short term financial gain over long term problems caused by this kind of development.

Thanks to the work of Professor Leo and The Province's good reporting, more of us are involved in the debate. But for the City of Richmond and other parts of the Fraser Valley, it will take motivated citizens to help prevent more bad decisions from happening.

- post by Mike


I read this. More important, I will re-read it again later. Given your experience, it's good to see you flex your planning chops Mike - good post.

In my BC days, I was supportive of hardline, provincial control of the ALR precisely because municipalities had a mini tragedy of the commons attitude toward protecting it. Yet I just looked at the summary numbers on the ALR, and somehow, it's still nominally at the same 4.7m hectares it was in '74, albeit with many trades in and out. If someone is offering a refresher course in how that happened, I'd take it.


Take away the water and it looks similar to many places in Metro Vancouver.

Why is there no stink about the Highway 1 widening? Billions of dollars, barely any public consultations, expropriations and barely a whimper. But put a bike lane in Vancouver...my god it's the end of times!

Boo, I'll agree with you on this one that in terms of scale the bike lane is sucking up too much oxygen when compared to what's happening on the Highway one widening. The sad fact is both the BCL and NDP had to promise to dual track Port Mann to win the ridings in the Tri-Cities. There's no question that widening Hwy 1 will create conditions for more sprawl. This is why local governments needs better tools to control this.

Town centres linked by better networks (e.g. rapid bus) should be the focus, not more car-oriented communities, malls, sport complexes surrounded by huge parking lots, etc. Some good things are happening with Surrey's town centres initiative. Pitt Meadows, Maple Ridge are a mess of strip malls – it's awful. I pray that Richmond can improve the quality of urban design and become more walkable/transit-oriented thanks to Canada Line. Burnaby had no business building Byrne Road, but it's doing some good work building up Brentwood, Metrotown, etc. I've not explored enough to comment on other boroughs, but I was very encouraged by the town centre planning in Port Moody.

I find it interesting that the bike lane debate hasn't popped up on CityCaucus.

Is it fair to say the cross-party support makes it difficult to take Vision to task on this one?

"I find it interesting that the bike lane debate hasn't popped up on CityCaucus. Is it fair to say the cross-party support makes it difficult to take Vision to task on this one?"

Chris, what exactly do you mean when you make smarmy comments like this? Why are you always here itching for a partisan argument? Then when you get one, you complain that everyone is being partisan. Give it a rest.

It's likely because the bike lane is in the city of Vancouver, whereas Highway 1 is seen as a suburban issue. Not that this is correct, but that's likely how it's perceived.

On the bike lane topic, here's a good streetsblog post talking about how they create a false sense of security:


Miguel that is exactly it. If it's west of Boundary it's irrelevant. Shame because the impacts this highway development will have on Vancouver FAR outweigh some silly bike lane.

What does the bike lane debate have to do with sprawl onto ALR? Really!

You offer an interesting perspective Mike on perhaps a better way to control such abuses. It might work for the ALR, which I strongly defend, but it has other benefits as well in preventing abuses. The reason it can help in the case of the ALR is because it is provincial legislation. The problem on the municipal side is a council makes & can change policy. The DPBd are required to follow council policies.

In the case of Vancouver, you are quite right. the DPBd has served us well. We set it up in the 70's for just those reasons. But, it still depends on having an enlightened council. It is an area which should be reviewed. I'm sure improvements can be made which will strengthen the system. And, you're also right, other cities would be wise to adopt our system. It has been an important part of creating much of the good things in Vancouver's urban fabric.

Unfortunately, we don't have an enlightened council @ present in Vancouver & we are seeing gross abuses by the Vision majority such as the plethora of spot rezonings which ignore community plans & existing zoning safeguards. They are effectively destroying all of the good policies & procedures which have been created over the past 38 years & in the process are destroying neighbourhoods & pitting one group of citizens against another. This is a very sad spectacle to watch.

Hi Tommy:

Nothing smarmy about it. Just expanding on Mike's comment and noting that it's unusual that this issue which is getting a lot of coverage in the media isn't rating a post on CityCaucus. My question is perfectly reasonable given the general direction CityCaucus takes.

I'm sure Mike or Daniel will post something about it once Council approves the Hornby bike lane. Don't worry, you'll have your chance to bleat on about how bad car drivers yet again.

Check out BCWineLover.com!

Paid Advertisement

Paid Advertisement