Published: Monday, October 15, 2007
These are troubled times for the EcoDensity Initiative, introduced with great fanfare by Vancouver Mayor Sam Sullivan in the days leading up to last year’s World Urban Forum.
At the time, there was an enthusiastic buzz about creating more compact neighbourhoods in the city. The mayor held up his urban planning brainchild as a means of “reducing our ecological footprint as a city, and . . . to expand housing choices and improve affordability for all residents.” Since then, the cheers have given way to a vocal and persistent group of boobirds.
Last month, about 100 residents rallied at City Hall to voice their dissatisfaction with densification plans aimed at their neighbourhoods.
Residents in the east Vancouver neighbourhood of Norquay also have complained about rezoning slated for their tree-lined streets.
It would be too easy to write these folks off as Nimbys. They love the existing character of their neighbourhoods. In some cases, they have inherited long-standing community charters, or vision documents, created by previous governments.
Some point to dense neighbourhoods such as Yaletown, arguing they cater to the young and well-heeled, but that the luxury condos are largely unaffordable for working families.
More ammunition for EcoDensity bashers came this past summer, when reports surfaced that Sullivan had personally applied to trademark the “EcoDensity” term.
This mix of bad publicity and neighbourhood activism has created a perfect storm for the concept.
It has also created some colourful theatre at City Hall — to the particular benefit of Sullivan’s opponents.
Here’s the problem: Beyond the affected neighbourhoods, folks who know better have turned EcoDensity into a political football, with the intent of making Sullivan and his allies look bad.
But this debate shouldn’t hinge on political grudges, because EcoDensity is not about Sam Sullivan. At the root of this initiative is crucial public policy that can’t be dismissed.
A key part of the plan is making housing more affordable for Vancouverites by making better use of what little developable land there is — in the spirit of Manhattan or the great cities of Europe.
Improved public transportation and environmental benefits are also part of the formula. These are high-priority issues.
If EcoDensity can succeed in Vancouver, it could set a pattern for handling the population surge across Metro Vancouver.
Which is why the fearmongers should be careful.
Highrises and row houses may not be for everyone. But the naysayers run the risk of perpetuating current ills: sky-high housing costs, mediocre transportation choices and increased air pollution.
If EcoDensity flops in Vancouver, its chances of mustering support in other cities are slim.
And love it or hate it, EcoDensity deserves a fair debate.