A greener city is going to need bigger buildings.
That’s one of the ideas that Vancouver’s city council has just adopted as part of a proposed Climate Emergency Response policy. And if it seems counterintuitive, it’s actually a crucial insight: That addressing the climate crisis will involve a huge rethink of the way we do architecture and land-use planning.
Vancouver is on the right track here. City planning staff have developed “big moves” that are meant to support Vancouver’s target of cutting its greenhouse-gas emissions by 2030.
Some of these moves are easy to understand: requiring zero-emissions vehicles, replacing heating systems that run on fossil fuels. But No. 1 is “walkable neighbourhoods.”
Matt Horne, the city’s climate policy manager, explains that there are two aspects to this: “We want to put housing near amenities,” he says, “and we need to add amenities where people are living.”
That means touching the third rail of municipal politics: putting new buildings in existing neighbourhoods. Figuring that out is a challenge of global importance.
Right now, according to city planners, 45 per cent of Vancouver residents live within an easy walk or roll of the things they need daily - jobs, retail and services, schools, parks and community centres. Planners want to double that to 90 per cent.
The logic is simple: If you can walk to where you need to go, you’ll generate zero pollution. “The best commute is a short commute, ideally on foot or a bike," Mr. Horne said.
Planners estimate that with the “walkable neighbourhoods” tactic, carbon pollution would be brought down by 153,000 tonnes, about a sixth of the city’s desired reduction. It will also reinforce other policy changes: improvements to sidewalks and cycling infrastructure, and increased transit use.
“There are many other benefits to planning in this way,” Mr. Horne says, “including improved resilience.” In other words: People are more likely to know their neighbours and to be there to help them in a crisis. The jargon for this is “social resilience,” and it’s a widely documented and powerful force.
All this is sensible enough, but how do you reshape a city to make it possible? It means putting more new housing, and jobs and shops and services, in existing neighbourhoods. In their report to council, staff write that that “will require sensitively introducing more housing choices and essential amenities to neighbourhoods across the city.”
And that is a big challenge.
To be fair, Vancouver is not starting from zero. Its downtown is synonymous with walkable urbanism and, beyond that, the city has very progressive land-use planning policies. But this is still North America. In most of Vancouver, and more so across the region, it’s still convenient to drive. For now, roughly half of all trips in the city are made by private car.
There has already been discussion here that connects density and sustainability. Former mayor Sam Sullivan introduced the idea of “EcoDensity” more than a decade ago, and the city, under then-chief planner Brent Toderian, put in place a series of relevant land-use policies in 2007. Lots where only a single house had been allowed were now allowed to add both a basement suite and a laneway unit.
And yet the topic remains controversial. Last year’s Making Room plan, an attempt by the outgoing Vision Vancouver administration to push for more multifamily housing, got a mixed reception. In this city with a housing crisis, the debate is often about what new housing will or won’t do for affordability.
Some locals - especially some older homeowners on the west side - simply won’t get on board with the idea of a denser city. A recent dustup over a proposed five-storey affordable-rental building in Kitsilano illustrates the point: One neighbour told a local journalist that this modestly scaled building, with polite and elegant design by Metric Architecture, would be “dropping the ghetto in Kitsilano.”
The climate crisis offers a powerful tool to cut through this kind of classist nonsense. The stakes are high: As the staff report makes clear, Vancouver is already feeling the effects of climate change, “including more severe storms, flooding, and forest-fire smoke. Every degree of warming will increase those impacts and make it increasingly difficult, and eventually impossible, to adapt.” The city needs to contribute to a solution.
Every city does. And that means living closer together to each other and to the things we need to get by. Addressing the climate crisis really is a design problem.