Tuesday, 5 June 2012


The Simon Fraser Centre for Dialogue, as part of its Carbon Talks project, has produced a document called “Density in a City of Neighborhoods”. The Primary author is former NPA City Councilor, Gordon Price.

Density is made possible because of cycling. Price sees cycling as a means of displacing carbon producing cars. Everyone can bike 10 km from their homes. If they live in a dense urban area they don't really need to go much further. Plumbing tools or cellos strapped to the back fender, Joe the Plumber or Yo Yo Ma can all pedal to work.

Much of the paper seems to be an attempt to provide  the ontological proof that the perfect dense city exists. We must all get with the program.

If you would rather hear about Parmenedes click above

Price follows in the footsteps of the Philosopher, Parmenedes, who invented  reality. If  Parmenedes had written the paper it would have gone like this: (A) One can imagine the perfectly dense City. (B) Now try to imagine that it doesn't exist. (C) But, if it does not exist then it wouldn't be perfect. Right? (D) Therefore, the perfect, high density city, Vancouver,  exists. That is the ontological argument.  If Vancouver is not quite perfectly dense it is because residents don't fully understand that what is good for the development industry is good for them and the rest of the country.   Price doesn't put it exactly this way but its close enough.

 If Parmenedes discovered Reality, Price transcends it. He says, at one point  “Beyond the downtown pensinsula, however new forms of density were rarely greeted with enthusiasm.”  and “Rarely in the past does a stable neighborhood embrace a fundamental change in its character.  In the past it was imposed, as happened in the 1950's.” (underlining added)

We have to embrace density and fundamental change if we are to live up to Gordon's expectations.

No individual or neighborhood is likely to embrace a fundamental change in their character, unless they are serving time. In that case the change is insincere. Price is really saying that stable neighborhoods should have no choice but to embrace fundamental  change by densification. That's how it was done four score and seven years ago. As long as it is prescribed by those who know what is best that is what must happen. Implicitly to deny density is to deny climate change which in turn results in the loss of species including barn owls and frogs and causes the retreat of glaciers all of which leads to disappointment. 

The good news is that we have been embracing change for our entire history. We do not have much of a choice.

In stable neighborhoods where there has been no proper planning process, forced change will lead to trouble. The rezoning of the Marathon lands by the CPR at 25th and Arbutus Street brought 1200 people to a public hearing.   Mayor Tom Campbell opened the hearing,  scanned the crowd and said cheerfully, “It’s a sell out!” 

Pediatric Surgeon David Hardwick, an accomplished heckler, from the back of the auditorium shouted, “Tom, it was a sell out before the hearing.”  That rezoning went ahead but the NPA paid a price. It was turfed in the next election. There was a feeling that Council was lint in the pockets of developers.  

Substantial increases in density are likely to be accepted under two circumstances. The first is where the increase is pursuant to a plan that the public prepared in their own neighborhood with the assistance of a City Planner.  Almost all neighborhoods that participated in City Plan, an initiative of the Vancouver's Planning Department in the 90's accepted increased density. The Dunbar Plan was quite specific and called for it to be on arterials and assume certain forms. The West End willingly accepted increases in density in the 70s under a local area planning process that took two years to complete. That plan also added parks to intersections and generally reduced traffic.

Other neighborhoods like Fairview Slopes accepted more housing because they had been in transition for a while. They had been bought up by speculators and absentee landlords.  I remember in the 70s when Fairview slopes was  rezoned upwards  to facilitate  as it turned out, the construction of  leaky condos.   I was in the Social Planning department and attended the public hearing. We expected opposition. Someone stood up in  the audience and said to council; "We all know why we are here--- lets get on with it." There was virtually no opposition.  It was rezoned. Upwards.

Price says “by mid-decade as part of a strategy called Eco Density reinforcing the environmental connections with the compact city- Vancouver aimed for density that was invisible, hidden or gentle, while still meeting the challenge of growth and environment. Hence the legalization of secondary suites across the city and the introduction of lane houses, encouragement of housing along arterials and frequent transit routes.

New speak, the term introduced by George Orwell in his novel,  1984, refers to the practice of giving words new but opposite meanings.    War is Peace, Love is Hate etc. Terms like “hidden” or “gentle” density are  new speak. The intention is to associate density with something with which it is unrelated. Newspeak  destroys language.  Laneway houses reduce the amount of landscaping and open space by 50%.    "Gentle Density"  is plan-ese for doubling the site coverage of an area. There is nothing gentle about it. The developer of an apartment building will have to supply certain amenities and pay development cost charges. The developer of a laneway house will not. 

Gentle-fication is happening to much of the City. Owners are being taxed out of their houses. Housing stock is replaced with mega houses.  There are many investor owned vacant houses. Eventually they will become apartments. Newly renovated houses are being demolished.  Gordon Price is one of the drum majors.

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