Viewpoint (December 01, 2010)

I thought that we should finish the year on an optimistic note. And so, we begin by giving thanks to the federal and provincial governments for keeping so many architecture firms busy with projects funded by economic stimulus money intended to improve our aging infrastructure. Now for some realism and concern. With all of this infrastructure money drying up, our economy–and the public policy that influences it–must now focus on improving the efficacy of large-scale sustainable developments that will result in energy-efficient buildings. Emphasis must also be placed on progressive approaches to urban intensification with all of the attached social, health and economic benefits. However, based on the results of a few recent projects, current approaches to the creation of large-scale sustainable developments need revision.

One example is in Toronto, where the Toronto Community Housing Corporation (TCHC) is leading a $1-billion revitalization project for Regent Park, creating a mixed-income community intended for 5,100 households. Amenities intended to improve the development’s social sustainability quotient include two daycares, space for local community groups, a learning centre, an employment hub, and plenty of retail and commercial services. The energy savings is targeted between 40 and 50 percent of the Model National Energy Code for Buildings. A water and energy reduction program is being put into place and a new district heating plant will effectively reduce the development’s greenhouse gas emissions by 8,000 tonnes a year during Phase I of the neighbourhood revitalization. Yet despite these efforts to transform the area, in early December, 18-year-old Nicholas Yambo became the fourth homicide victim in Regent Park over a two-month period. For Regent Park to be successful as an environmentally and socially sustainable entity over the long term, both the physical and social components need to work in tandem.

Another example is in Vancouver, where the $1.3-billion redevelopment of Southeast False Creek (SEFC) was intended to be a leading model of sustainable development, incorporating infrastructure, energy reduction programs, high-performance buildings and easy access to transit. The first phase of SEFC was the Olympic Village for the 2010 Winter Games and Paralympics, hosting approximately 2,800 athletes and officials. While the development was a hive of activity during the Olympics, it remains far from being integrated into the life of the city today. The buildings are spaced too closely together, the condominiums and townhouses command too high a price (even for the Vancouver real estate market), and a lack of adequate views to the water and the North Shore have all contributed to the project going into receivership. Of the 737 market-rate suites, roughly 30 percent have been sold and just over half of the 120 rentals had tenants by the end of November. A deal for the 252 non-market units with BC Housing is pending. The more successful components of the project include a 67-unit seniors’ residence–Canada’s first Net Zero multi-unit residential building–and a popular community centre. SEFC’s lack of adequate urban planning has resulted in significant weaknesses in this supposedly innovative sustainable development.

A third example where the focus on sustainable development needs to evolve can be found in the EQuilibrium Sustainable Housing Demonstration Initiative led by the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation (CMHC). While the program addresses occupant health and comfort, energy efficiency, renewable energy production and affordability, it must continue to draw upon the experience of builders, architects and planners from across the country to expand upon recent EQuilibrium case studies for clues on how to better disseminate the lessons learned. This might be achievable with the EQuilibrium Communities program, an association between Natural Resources Canada (NRCan) and the CMHC. Funded by the federal government’s ecoACTION initiatives, the three-year $4.2-million demonstration initiative has enabled the research and planning of four projects to date–Station Pointe in Edmonton, the Ampersand in Ottawa, the Ty-Histanis community outside Tofino, and Regent Park in Toronto. Bewilderingly, however, no money or financial incentives will be allocated for subsidizing the hard costs associated with any of the participating projects.

Understanding the shortfalls in large-scale development of sustainable communities is crucial if we are to ever implement strategies that result in socially, economically and architecturally sustainable living.

Ian Chodikoff