The Lower Mainland has succeeded in saving hundreds of hectares of land from development and kept its older neighbourhoods populated by packing most of its new residents into existing urban areas, according to a new report.
While that kind of densification has provoked anxiety and even backlash from some of the region's residents, it's a model for good development that other Canadian cities should follow, says the report from a Toronto foundation that tracks patterns of growth for Canadian cities.
Vancouver's compact development is in stark contrast to the Toronto-Hamilton region, where 86 per cent of the million new residents between 2001 and 2011 went into new subdivisions on virgin land, says the report from the Neptis Foundation. Most were still in single, detached houses.
"Growth in Vancouver has been directed more strategically – it's a real learning for the Toronto area about what to do," said Marcy Burchfield, the foundation's executive director.
The Growing Pains report warns that, even though there's a condo boom in downtown Toronto and some signs of more compact development on the fringes, the city is still largely accommodating new residents by sprawling ever further.
In the Lower Mainland, on the other hand, 69 per cent of the 400,000 new residents in 2001-2011 were accommodated in the region's existing urban neighbourhoods, with only 31 per cent going to "greenfield" land on the edges.
That was welcome, though not unexpected, news for the chair of Metro Vancouver, Port Coquitlam Mayor Greg Moore.
"As a former urban planner, there's nothing that thrills me more than infill development," said Mr. Moore, whose own small community is being transformed as single-family lots get converted to duplexes or row houses.
"A lot of that intensification is not just big towers around SkyTrain."
He said Metro's projection is that 75 to 80 per cent of future new growth will be absorbed in existing urban areas.
The Neptis report also emphasized the success the Lower Mainland has seen in meshing development with transit.
Almost half of the region's new residents, who are now more likely to live in row houses or apartments than Torontonians, are moving to neighbourhoods close to high-frequency transit. A quarter moved to within 800 metres of a SkyTrain or Canada Line station.
In Greater Toronto, only 18 per cent of new residents moved to places close to frequent transit.
Many of Toronto's older suburbs are also losing residents. That means Toronto's infrastructure – sewers, water lines, roads, community facilities – is underused in some areas, while it is spending money to build more of the same for the suburbs popping up on the edge.
Again, cities in the Vancouver region are going the other way, with new people moving into older suburbs and central-city neighbourhoods, keeping the populations up there, and making good use of schools and other facilities.
Ms. Burchfield said Vancouver is a model for Toronto.
"It's a perfect example of diversification of housing stock."
While Vancouver may be a city planner's dream, the pace of change and redevelopment of existing neighbourhoods has alarmed current residents all over the region, from Vancouver's west side to Burquitlam to south Surrey.
Ms. Burchfield said she understands that anxiety.
"But they need to understand they're not the only ones living in these neighbourhoods. And it's up to local politicians to explain the larger vision."
Mr. Moore said people are often upset by growth in any form, whether it's densification or sprawl. But there isn't much local governments can do about that, since growth is a product of domestic and international immigration.