Viewpoint (August 01, 2008)

During a speech in 1967, Prime Minister Lester B. Pearson said, “Urbanization with all its problems has become the dominant social and economic condition of Canadian life.” Pearson knew very well that a lack of adequate tax revenue and a poorly defined accountability structure between levels of government had exacerbated problems in many Canadian cities–problems such as housing, traffic, pollution, poverty and urban sprawl. Over 40 years later, despite the rhetoric of subsequent political figures who pretend to be concerned about the fate of our cities, federal and provincial politicians continue to hold our municipalities hostage, stifling their abilities to devise financially innovative ways to raise money and fund a long list of projects, the result of which ultimately affects the health of the architectural profession.

Many of the difficulties inherent in the ability of our cities to raise sufficient revenue to finance and support new initiatives are convincingly discussed in Alan Broadbent’s recently published book Urban Nation, which argues for a redefinition of municipal powers given to Canada’s largest cities while noting that existing political and legal systems (some dating back to the time of Confederation) inhibit funding for new construction in our urban centres. Despite these obstacles, there continue to be initiatives such as Vancouver’s EcoDensity Charter that attempt to circumvent the perennial challenges of limited revenue-earning powers granted to municipalities. Unanimously adopted by Vancouver City Council on June 10th, the EcoDensity Charter is a procedural tool designed to promote a variety of sustainable issues ranging from public transit to affordable housing (see page 14). Incentives such as the Interim EcoDensity Rezoning Policy help encourage urban-intensifying projects so long as they achieve a minimum LEED Silver rating.

Vancouver’s EcoDensity Charter is intended to serve as a performance-based–rather than a checklist-based–approach to sustainable development. Inherent in the EcoDensity plan is the support of housing in Vancouver in a variety of ways, such as the provision of affordable housing and sufficient rental properties. Other initiatives that the City wants to encourage include, for example, its ongoing policy for laneway housing, as well as the removal of zoning and other barriers preventing the existence of secondary suites in single-family houses.

Beyond incentives associated with small-scale urban infill projects, EcoDensity promotes other more impactful initiatives that introduce a more varied, sustainable and affordable range of housing in all areas of the city, such as the Housing Demonstration Policy or the Neighbourhood Centres Program, which is located in 18 city-defined areas and which encourage higher-density housing. Additionally, new large-scale developments like Southeast False Creek and the East Fraserlands are being touted as models for EcoDensity development, which collectively feature sustainable architecture, renewable energy, water management, fish and wildlife habitat enhancement, and urban agriculture. Without the help of the provincial or federal governments to support Vancouver’s EcoDensity, there may not be enough economic clout backing the political will. As land and construction costs continue to rise, somebody has to make up for the roughly 25% shortfall in financing typically required to make a non-market housing initiative viable.

Without additional political support, the long-term fate of the EcoDensity Charter may be in jeopardy. EcoDensity was the 2006 initiative of current Vancouver Mayor Sam Sullivan, whose political party, the Non-Partisan Association (NPA), is headed for a municipal election this fall, albeit without Sullivan as the mayoral candidate. In early June, the NPA voted to change its leadership. Thanks to the support of Vancouver’s downtown business establishment, NPA councillor Peter Ladner narrowly beat the incumbent Sullivan by a margin of only 80 votes–1,066 to 986.

What remains to be seen is how Vancouver, a municipality granted limited revenue-earning opportunities, can afford to leverage its Eco- Density Charter to create a higher-density city approaching carbon neutrality, and to decrease its reliance on fossil fuels.