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Max Fawcett is a freelance writer and the former editor of Alberta Oil magazine and Vancouver magazine. He previously worked in Alberta’s Climate Change Office.

You might not think that a proposal for modest three-storey infill townhouses in one of Edmonton’s oldest neighbourhoods would be cause for angst and anxiety. But for both pro-density advocates and local residents, that’s exactly what happened when one was brought to council in early November – and voted down in the face of the city’s own pro-density mandate.

“If we are not adding density in our mature neighbourhoods, we are going to be building in the suburbs,” local urban planner Ashley Salvador told the Edmonton Star-Metro. “That means that we are going to have more car use and more emissions.”

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This is the sort of Kafkaesque hellscape that many Canadian cities find themselves in, pulled between the need to increase density and create more affordable housing and the political clout of local homeowners who want nothing of the sort in their backyards.

This conflict between the politics of the present and the priorities of the future makes the work of urban planners more difficult. It also has an existential effect on the lives of young people in Vancouver and Toronto, where the idea of paying 30 per cent of their pretax earnings on shelter (the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corp.’s definition of affordability) is more dream than reality.

As Paul Kershaw and Sutton Eaves of research and advocacy group Generation Squeeze noted in a study, Straddling the Gap, they published this summer, home prices would need to fall nearly $800,000 in Metro Vancouver in order for the average millennial household to meet that standard, and $523,000 for millennials living in the Greater Toronto Area.

But in the same week that Edmonton’s city council voted down the apparently neighbourhood-destroying townhouses, a potential solution to the corrosive impact of NIMBYism emerged in Vancouver. And ironically – or maybe, in the spirit of reconciliation, appropriately – it involves giving back land that was taken many generations ago. As reported in The Globe and Mail, the Squamish Nation plans to build 11 towers and 6,000 units of housing, including one 56 storeys tall, on land they own and control at the foot of the Burrard Street Bridge. Better yet, it will be mostly rental and mostly without any attached parking, both features that will reduce the cost to its eventual residents.

A rendering of the proposed Senakw development at the foot of the Burrard Street Bridge.

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This is double the number of units they’d initially proposed for the project they’re calling the Senakw development, and probably 10 times as many as some local residents might prefer. But here’s the kicker: For once, that doesn’t matter. The city’s zoning laws don’t apply to Squamish land, and NIMBYism has no purchase with an Indigenous community that counts all of Vancouver as a shared backyard. They plan to engage with the community on design aspects of the project, but at the end of the day, the final decision will come down to a vote Dec. 10 among the members of the Squamish Nation, not Vancouver City Council.

This is the same approach that’s being used for the redevelopment of the Jericho Lands in Vancouver’s West Point Grey neighbourhood, where the federal and provincial governments sold their respective interests in a huge 36-hectare parcel of land to a joint venture of three Indigenous communities and Canada Lands Co. for a total of $717-million. The partnership hasn’t tipped its hand about exactly how much density it plans to add to a neighbourhood that has traditionally been allergic to it, and leaders from all three Indigenous communities have promised to listen to the local community’s concerns. But it stands to reason that it will be multiples of what the community would tolerate under more conventional circumstances.

This ability to bypass local resistance to change, and the politicians who have a habit of folding in the face of it, is one of the potentially transformative aspects of Indigenous ownership. Another is the focus it places on affordability and sustainability – values that Khelsilem, a councillor with the Squamish Nation, told the Vancouver Courier earlier this year will be front of mind as the Jericho Lands are developed.

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“We see the opportunity of the development of these lands as a way to help solve our housing crisis as well."

This is something that other cities struggling with affordability could tap into. By selling or returning land to local Indigenous communities, governments could do an end-run around permitting and zoning processes that tend to sacrifice priorities such as density and affordability at the altar of political expediency.

This could put some real meat on the bones of reconciliation – and help deliver the kind of affordability that young Canadians deserve. That’s one significant return on investment.

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