Growing metropolis needs unified vision

Friday, May 28th, 2010

Miro Cernetig

Vancouver, get ready for the population bomb. Statistics Canada reckons the provincial population might reach seven million in the next 25 years, up from the current 4.5 million people. Since two out of three new arrivals to B.C. come to Metro Vancouver, that means the city’s population could swell from 2.3 million to at least 3.8 million people by 2036.

Translation? Our days of being that mid-sized city by the Pacific that’s the perennial darling of livability studies may be numbered.

We were voted No. 1 again in North America a few days ago, this time by the Mercer survey of 221 cities around the world. But in a generation, if the numbers coming out of Ottawa hold up, we’ll be close to the size of Toronto today, now a busy metropolis that’s a pressure cooker of humanity, traffic jams and subways that pack commuters in like sardines.

What will Metro Vancouver look like in a quarter century or so, with close to four million people? Can we escape Toronto’s fate and stay atop the livability surveys?

Well, it’s anyone’s guess.

At the moment Metro Vancouver is a collection of almost two dozen municipalities, with mayors who generally see their towns and tiny cities as their own principalities. While there’s lip service given to the Metro Vancouver district government, which valiantly tries to put together long-term sustainability strategies and has a well-considered plan, the reality is that the various city halls and town councils run their shows in an intensely parochial way.

There’s no unified voice on where, when or how to build up public transit. It’s unclear where future development will be, where the industrial parks will be, where the new skyscrapers will go, or, for that matter, what land will be preserved as green space for posterity. We’re an exploding metropolis waiting for a unified vision, to ensure we stay atop those livability studies.

There are some obvious signs, though, of where we are heading. The first is we’re going to be a much, much denser place. Hemmed in by the sea, mountains, the U.S. border and agricultural land reserves, life has got to be more constricted when your city increases its population by 50 per cent in 25 years. There’s no way to go now other than squeezing in more homes on every lot, or going higher and higher to build condos in the sky. That’s already started. Laneway houses and the duplexing of homes in leafy neighbourhoods is a densification trend that won’t go away. So is the recent move to build more 50-and 60-storey buildings in the heart of the city.

But that’s only the start. We’re going to see an acceleration

toward mini-city centres of Hong Kong-style urban density that many Vancouverites have long resisted.

If you want evidence of that, look no further than the phalanx of residential and office towers the Squamish First Nation aims to build at the south end of the Burrard Street Bridge, or the 30-storey complex that is being proposed on Marine Drive, at the Canada Line station. The latter will be the tallest building outside of the downtown, just the start of a move to bring high density to other parts of the city.

Of course, it means a more crowded place. And that will change street life.

One of the consequences is that it will be increasingly inconvenient and costly to drive downtown. We’re already seeing the start of that urban trend, too.

Vancouver Mayor Gregor Robertson is pushing to replace car lanes with bicycle lanes, a policy that will accelerate. The city is already charging and taxing drivers more for parking. And while there are no official plans afoot, you can bet city planners are already eyeing the idea of a future congestion tax, or hefty permits, for people who want to drive from home to their downtown offices rather than take public transit.

As for those buses and trains we’re all supposed to be climbing aboard, you can bet on them getting a lot more crowded. Unless there’s a rapid move to invest in such services, which at the moment seems unlikely, population growth will out-strip the growth in service.

As for real estate, well, don’t expect it to get any cheaper. There will inevitably be ups and downs in the market. But with a finite land supply and a supercharged population growth, the only direction for land prices to go is up, up, up.

The coming population bomb means it’s finally time for a Metro Vancouver urban development strategy — and a leader who can implement it.

© Copyright (c) The Vancouver Sun

Comments are closed.