North Vancouver urban densification: a panacea or an apocalypse of the future?
by Jerome Irwin
A burning question in the minds of many North Shore residents and their municipalities today is whether or not the philosophy that is fueling the current frenzy towards high-rise/infill housing densification will prove to be a panacea or an apocalypse of the future.
The North Shore News just completed a four-part series on “The Changing Face of North Shore Housing” (May 6th-May 28th, 2012). The most damning omission in that series was its total avoidance of two opposing philosophies that challenge the very premise of densification and call into question the sanity of the direction in which it seeks to lead the North Shore of tomorrow.
David Suzuki, well-known Canadian scientist, broadcaster and environmental activist, framed one of these opposing viewpoints in a recent essay (“Environmentalism Has Failed: On Adopting a Biocentric Viewpoint”, EcoWatch, May 3rd, 2012). Suzuki contends the human species everywhere must undertake a paradigm shift to meet the challenge of the world-wide crisis the human species has created for itself. Suzuki advocates adopting a biocentric viewpoint that sees we humans as part of, and dependent upon, the web of life that keeps the planet habitable, rather than an anthropocentric, self-centered viewpoint that sees everything in life solely revolving around the needs of we humans.
At first glance, Suzuki’s viewpoint might seem like quite a stretch regarding the issue of densification on the North Shore, but it really isn’t. Being part of a community or neighbourhood on the North Shore and being dependent upon the web of life of a neighbourhood that keeps the community habitable are light years away from the precept that the individual owner has the anthropocentric right and privilege of dominion to basically do whatever he or she so pleases on their property, including tearing down a heritage home or a house with character or by removing all the mature trees and established landscapes and extensive gardens for some massive infill housing project. Historically, municipal laws and bylaws have basically protected those anthropocentric rights while essentially ignoring any biocentric needs, attachments, claims or desires that the surrounding community and non-human residents may have had to the lost habitat. The surrounding human community’s historical enjoyment of the wild beauty of the property and local wildlife’s dependency on a property’s plant life and ecosystems typically receive little importance or precedence. This is an example in microcosmic terms of what David Suzuki is talking about and underscores the kind of paradigm shift in attitudes that needs to occur.
The North Shore News series made only passing reference to the enormous magnitude of the potential loss of heritage, character and natural habitats in the face of the proposed radical changes to the North Shore’s housing stock. Only briefly stated or implied were such critical matters as:
- redevelopers, whether outside or inside a community, showing little empathy or effort to create dialogue with the surrounding community about their plans;
- inept and/or crass forms of architecture that don’t suit any part of the community’s surrounding land- or streetscapes;
- the greed that craves to build and expand on evermore allowable square footage of a property;
- the continual changes to building laws and bylaws legalize what was formally illegal;
- developers engaging in block-busting strategies that the regulating authorities cast a blind’s eye towards;
- the wholesale abandonment of little-valued historical bungalows, cottages, and homes;
- the pre-eminence of profits over the sustainability of a community and its established way of life;
- the lack of regulatory laws and protection to ensure a heritage home or community’s right to exist and survive;
- the major disconnect between the majority of North Shore residents and the natural world, mature trees and landscapes that less and less surround their homes which are becoming concretized fortresses of alienation from nature.
In a nutshell, what the four-part series in the North Shore News alluded to is the actual gross lack of intimate relationships that we humans on the North Shore have, not only with Mother Nature and the North Shore’s ancient forces of life, but with our own individual mothering nature and the healthy, nurturing, life-affirming direction that nature would intuitively direct us towards if only we would heed it. This same failure to adopt a biocentric view of life could be said about Canada, and, indeed, the world as a whole. This is the ultimate paradigm shift on a grand scale, of which David Suzuki speaks.
Yet another damning omission in the North Shore News series was its total avoidance of yet another opposing viewpoint that also challenges the very premise of densification and equally calls into question the sanity of the direction that far too many would lead the North Shore society of tomorrow. Pete McMartin’s piece in the Vancouver Sun, May 29th, 2012 (“Is Vancouver’s Goal of Urban Density Just Plain Dense?”), criticizes Vancouver’s urban density and its avowed “twin-pillared” gospel of the intrinsic benefits of densification and subsequent replacement of private vehicles by public transport. This could just as easily be applied to the wildly optimistic densification goals of the municipalities on the North Shore. McMartin puts forth as his basic argument various points made in a paper by Wendall Cox (“Mobility & Prosperity in the City of the Future”; MacDonald-Laurier Institute, May 23rd, 2012)
Cox, a futuristic thinker and principal of an international public policy firm that specializes in urban public policy, transport and demographics, basically contends that the quality of life in many of Canada’s major cities has been seriously harmed by urban planners’ radical densification policies. Cox puts forth several arguments against the basic premises of densification philosophy. Among those points raised are those which contend that densification’s attempt to pack people into tight urban spaces and forcing them to use public transit is “hopeless”. Rather than minimizing the cost of living, maximizing discretionary income, minimizing traffic congestion or improving economic growth, it does just the opposite and instead drives up housing and land prices beyond the affordability for many, fails to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and can actually retard economic growth.
Cox points to such failed densification plans as those in San Diego where for the next forty years half of all its transportation development monies are to be spent on public transit, yet today less than 2% of their citizens use transit, and projected transit usage will remain under 4% by 2050. Cox also says it is a fallacy that public transport is quicker than automobile trips. His studies in Toronto, Montreal, Vancouver, Ottawa-Gatineau, Calgary and Edmonton found that transit trips take 50% longer than trips by cars.
Given the basic truths espoused by these two opposing viewpoints, what ultimate madness or fallacy can be said to be behind the current frenzy on the North Shore that drives its municipalities to build or propose so many high-rise towers, high-density village-town centres and infill monster houses or to commit to tear down and demolish what little remains of its former heritage and character and the North Shore’s once-iconic look?