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Public transit is the key to a sustainable city

The posters that appeared up and down Vancouver's Cambie Street said it all: A monster-movie illustration of a giant beast - a living collage of condo buildings pieced together in human form, towering some 40 storeys into the sky with a family of three held in its steel clutches.

The caption: "Attack of the 50 Foot Condos."

Across the chest of the massive beast, the logo of the city's ruling civic organization, Vision Vancouver, and on the right arm a billboard bearing the message, "We're only in it for the money."

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So harrowing was the image, I almost forgot that a 50-foot condo building is roughly five storeys tall - the same height as the newish development at 16th and Cambie, one storey higher than the aging office and retail building on the northeast corner of Cambie and 41st.

The poster was, presumably, a last-ditch effort to convince Vancouver City Council to vote against a plan to increase density along the Cambie corridor from 16th Avenue south to the Fraser River.

It didn't work. Council approved the plan earlier this week.

This is not some spot zoning density increase.

Introducing the final draft of the plan to council, city planner Brent Toderian called it "arguably the most complex and significant planning exercise ever undertaken outside the central business district."

Call it EcoDensity. Call it Greenest City 2020. Call it whatever you like, this is what density looks like. The city's current mayor, and the one before him, have both made it clear it is where the city is headed. It's what city planners have been planning.

Density is not about row houses and townhouses and people living above delightful garages like Arthur Fonzarelli.

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Sure, those things are nice, but they are not what makes a sustainable city. True density is why Manhattan is the greenest, most ecologically sustainable borough in North America - 1.6 million people living on 59 square kilometres of land.

New Yorker staff writer David Owen argues as much in his book Green Metropolis. His mantra, in four words: "live small, consume less." Give up your car. Do your grocery shopping on foot, use public transit for longer rides.

In fact, public transit is key to density, Mr. Owen argues. Transit is best when it concentrates people into dense urban cores. Do it badly, he says, and you facilitate sprawl.

What the Cambie corridor has going for it is an excellent transit line. A $2-billion, highly efficient, underground people mover that can grow in capacity by adding trains and increasing frequency. While it may marginally slow down trips to the airport or Richmond, the proposed stations at 33rd Avenue and 57th Avenue need to be built sooner rather than later, so the line serves people who live in the corridor, and not just those who are passing through.

Before Monday's vote, council heard a raft of opposition to the plan - residents with legitimate worries about the potential loss of privacy that could come with the construction of nearby apartment buildings. They also worried about their views, and traffic, and parking, and their property values. They worried that the character of the neighbourhood in which they had invested so heavily would be substantially altered.

They say the Riley Park South Cambie Vision plan, which was created five years ago at considerable expense, has been ignored.

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All of those are valid concerns, but they have to be weighed against the stated goals of the city to grow up rather than out. And really, what did these people think was going to happen when the Canada Line was dug beneath them?

The Expo SkyTrain line spawned the Citygate towers, the development around the Joyce Street SkyTrain station, and other efforts to densify up and down the line. The Millennium Line has done the same in Burnaby.

Transit lines spawn development and therefore higher density.

And people will accept higher density if the city of Vancouver keeps up its end of the bargain. There have to be services and amenities - community centres, parks, playgrounds, libraries, recreational facilities, opportunities to shop - all within walking distance.

Convincing people that density is a good thing can be difficult, but it's not impossible. In the end, the result has to be a community that people actually want to live in.

Stephen Quinn is the host of On the Coast on CBC Radio One in Vancouver, 88.1 FM and 690 AM.

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