Friday, March 26, 2010

Globe 2010: A few observations

I was interested in the following on-line The Tyee account of a panel discussion that I attended yesterday at the Globe 2010 conference....

No room for single-family zoning in Vancouver's future: panel

Vancouver could halve its greenhouse gas emissions simply through rezoning laws, said one of the city's leading green building architects today.

Peter Busby, of the firm Busby, Perkins + Will, joined Mayor Gregor Robertson and former mayor Michael Harcourt for a panel discussion of the future of cities, part of the GLOBE conference on business and the environment.

Rest assured, said Busby, there is no room for single-family zoning in cities of the future.

"We have this vast area of single-family residents. These are the models that emerged out of city planning post-war, when planning departments were set up," Busby said. "They largely thought this was the right thing to do. . . put all the officers together. . . you live out there in your houses, and over there is where you shop.

"But it's the wrong model today."

By creating 'nodes' around the city of dense, multi-use buildings clustered around major transit stations, the average Vancouver citizen could reduce annual greenhouse gas emissions from five to 2.5 tonnes, said Busby.

While all panelists agree that public education and outreach is key, they acknowledged that rezoning is a contentious issue and political hot potato. Mayor Sullivan's plan to brand and sell 'EcoDensity' was also a focal point for resident backlash against city-wide rezoning efforts.

Robertson said 'EcoDensity' was really just a bundling of existing city practices and planning, and said residential groups felt left out of the process.

"My approach has been, let's embrace this all together," Robertson said. "Keep them in the dialogue."

He pointed to city council's recent approval of laneway housing as a positive for density and individual property values.

Although it will take a "Herculean" effort to change zoning patterns, not just here but around the Western world, Busby said two trends offer a great opportunity for densification: Single-family homes passing from one generation to the next, and growing immigrant populations from countries like Asia where high-rise apartments, walking and public transit are typical.

"Single-family ownership of a place to live is incredibly important in this society," said Busby. "But there can be many forms of that."

Colleen Kimmett reports for The Tyee.

The following are a few observations on this panel discussion, and the Globe conference as a whole...

The first Globe conference took place 20 years ago in 1990, just as concern for the environment was beginning to become a regular front page story. As the President of UDI Canada, I was invited to speak at the inaugural event on the topic of real estate development and the environment. Working with my then speech writer Frank O'brian, we prepared a talk on how real estate developers could actually enhance, rather than destroy the planet. My speech outlined things like brownfield development/site remediation, densification, and transit oriented development as three examples of what should be done.

Just before starting my talk with panelists from other parts of the world, I realized that I was the only speaker from North America. So I decided to start out with how proud I was to be representing not just Vancouver, or British Columbia, or Canada, but my continent. At this point, from the back of the room, a lady stood up and shouted out "And I don't think there could be a more inappropriate person to be speaking!"

She wasn't a delegate, but rather one of the people who had been protesting the Spetifore Lands Development, with which I was involved at the time. She had read in the newspaper that I was a speaker, and had decided to crash the event. I never really recovered from her intrusion!

At this year's event, I attended the session described above in The Tyee story. There was no one there to heckle the Mayor, or Peter Busby, or Roland Aurich, President of Siemans Canada, or Mike Harcourt who moderated the panel. But it was a very interesting discussion and worth commenting upon.

Just after the Mayor finished his presentation, the person next to me whispered "he looks like Clark Kent but sounds like a politician". It was true. However, I will say that the Mayor seemed very comfortable and relaxed talking about the future planning of Vancouver, and comes across as a much better speaker than two years ago, when I first heard him.

Peter Busby's presentation is a must see for anyone who cares about the future of the city. While he somewhat wavered on whether we really need to replace all lower density single family housing around the city, his basic notion of creating a network of mid and higher density mixed use 'nodes' is worthy of careful consideration. Essentially, he is proposing an arrangement that would result in densification not only along main arterials, but at the intersections of secondary arterials...such as 16th, King Edward, 49th, and 57th and corresponding north-south streets. This would allow people to walk to shops and offices, rather than always having to get into their cars. The following image was not in his presentation, but is an illustration of an idea his firm put forward in a recent Vancouver design competition....Peter illustrated the GreenHouseGas impacts of different forms of development...comparing the West End with Kerrisdale and lower density areas. His conclusion was that the nodal approach would allow single family areas, with a mix of low and mid density forms to continue, while still allowing us to reduce GHG's significantly.

The first questions from the floor all addressed the most obvious to get neighbourhood residents to accept increased density nodes, on lands currently occupied by single family homes. The mayor correctly talked about the need for political will. I'll be curious to see if he is prepared to demonstrate such political will when rezonings do come far he and his councillors did rightly support a higher density proposal at W41st and Balaclava.

However, I do have to somewhat disagree with the Mayor's assessment of why EcoDensity failed and the beneficial impacts of Laneway Housing. While I have been a longstanding proponent of this housing forms, and statistically he is right...there are 70,000 single family properties where laneway houses could be built, I doubt whether we will see any really significant take-up of this idea, as it is currently structured.For one thing, the forms of housing most people would like...a small flat over a two-car garage, or a single story inexpensive 'modular' home, such as I was proposing, are not permitted on most lots. Secondly, with the complex approval process and considerable fees, the total cost for a small rental unit is too high for most homeowners. (My understanding is that to date, about 33 laneway homes have received City Hall approval, and another 36 are in the system... quite modest numbers. I am also told the total cost is closer to $250,000 than $150,000 for a unit not much more than 500 sq.ft.) If the units could be sold off, the response might be quite different.

After listening to Peter promoting grey water recycling and a variety of other engineering innovations, I had to ask the panelist how to deal with government bureaucrats who are usually reluctant to allow such innovations to be constructed. Former Mayor and Premier Harcourt jumped on the question, pointing out how the Fire Marshall often determines the width of roads in communities, to ensure that two fire trucks can pass each other....etc. etc. The Mayor astutely observed that it is often a question of risk, and politicians have to encourage and support officials to take these risks when they have environmental benefits. He pointed to the 'district heating' system at South East False Creek as a good example of what can be done.

As for the gentleman from Siemans, he preferred to focus on the global perspective...his company is one of 70,000 truly global operations, with a very impressive array of products in energy, transportation, health care, etc. His company is keen to serve the increasing number of mega-cities rising around the world. So the challenges of a rezoning in Dunbar didn't really cross his radar. But he had some nice pictures.

In the afternoon, I moderated a panel on Smart Cities with David Helliwell, co-founder of Pulse Energy (a company that can measure energy consumed by buildings and communities), Eamann Percy, President of Powertech, BC Hydro's subsidiary specializing in clean energy; Anthony Haines, the new President of Toronto Hydro, and Hellmuth Frey, a gentle engineer overseeing a major project in Germany. I learned about new technologies that allow electric power to be distributed and energy to be priced according to the time of use, and other innovations to reduce consumption and GHG's.

In the audience was Dianne Watts, Mayor of Surrey and some of her councillors. I was impressed that they would take the time to attend Globe and learn about such innovations. It seems that Helliwell is already working with Surrey....he's someone to watch! And so is the Mayor of Surrey!


Brenton said...

What do you think about the "Node" planning? The speaker at the Think City event the other night made a good point, I think, and I really don't want to see condo/high-rises popping up at Fraser and Kingsway.

David McPhee said...

Was there any discussion about requiring that firetrucks be made smaller so they could pass each other on the street.

Anonymous said...


Increased density like what you discuss does not reduce total aggregate GHG emissions across a community. Please don't tell me that if you take 8 sf lots and build 50 condos there that there will be a net decrease in emissions - it simply isn't true or currently possible. Based on current NRCAN average energy use data for homes by built form, there would be a net increase (and a substantial one at that) in total emissions from a development like this. And to expect all developments over the next 20 years to be LEED Platinum is simply not on.

Sure, there may be a net decrease in per capita emissions, as transit use increases and heating costs decrease (even this is debatable given the low persons per unit of most condos) but aggregate emissions across a community? No way. Not with the current growth paradigm.

For there to be a net decrease in GHG emissions, the total emissions from the new development would have to have lower emissions than the buildings it replaces. Given the high costs of land and the number of units required to make a development economically viable, you would need to have extremely low per unit energy use, way below what is currently possible. The difference in the energy use coefficients between each type of built form are simply not large enough to make that possible.

In my work I have modeled scenarios like this, and in no realistic growth scenario to date have I seen a net decrease in aggregate emissions, even in the most optimistic scenario. Population growth simply blows away any gains made in building more efficient structures, which is essentially is what you're speaking of here (including the energy from transportation modes).

I appreciate that Globe is the land of the techno-optimist and that your background is in development, but let's be frank here: all this "GHG reduction" stuff is hooey if you are talking total aggregate emissions. (Likewise, the provincial targets are likely unachievable as they current are, especially because outside of large cities there are no opportunities for the land-use change you speak of) On a per capita basis you may see reductions, but aggregate? No way.


michael geller said...

Brenton...I like the concept of 'Nodal' planning, but the scale has to be right...I hesitated to use the Busby 'Formshift' illustration since it demonstrates precisely what many don't want to's the wrong scale..just like Kingsway and Knight, which is the wrong scale. I still can't understand how it ever got approved!

David, you are right...smaller fire trucks are part of the solution, and I have discussed this with firefighter Joe Foster who knows much more about this topic than me...In Celebration Florida, they have a combination of vehicles, and I think we're already heading in this direction (if you'll pardon the pun!)

Corey, very interesting arguments. I will follow up with Busby and solicit his response. I believe he is generally thinking in terms of reduced GHG emissions resulting from reduced automobile traffic...I'll also ask David Helliwell of Pulse Energy to comment, and post their responses.

To all three of you, I never really expect people to read my I truly appreciate your comments!

Anonymous said...

Yes, I agree that there are gains to be made from a mode shift away from cars, however I don't believe that this is large enough to offset the growth in other emissions that are attendant with land use intensification.

Even if the buildings are net zero, there is still growth in businesses that serve residents and a host of other sources of indirect emissions as a result (goods manufacturing to serve increased populations, etc.)

This is not to say that I am against land use intensification of this kind however - as long as the government pursues a "growth at all costs" model for Canada, it is really the only way to avoid the destruction of more unbuilt land. (Refusing to take more immigrants from abroad or even from within Canada would be a tricky proposition indeed.)

And yet so many of the social and environmental problems that we face today would disappear or be substantially reduced if growth stopped. Of course we'd have to find another way to keep a viable economy without the growth paradigm, which would call for some radical rearrangements of how we do things, but we certainly wouldn't be worrying about increasing GHG emissions!!


Jon Petrie said...

Re "the average Vancouver citizen could reduce annual greenhouse gas emissions from five to 2.5 tonnes, said Busby."

The circa 5 ton GHG emission figure is highly misleading --- does not include any of the GHG cost of the goods consumed by Vancouverites, air travel, port activity. industry ... (1)

And the figure does not include the GHG cost of new construction --- cement production is responsible for perhaps 5% of GHG gas world wide (2).

I am wondering if anyone has done a convincing analysis of the GHG life cycle cost of a 1000 square feet in a new concrete building -- perhaps Leed certified -- versus, say, the same 1000 sq feet in an existing three story walkup threatened with demolition to make way for the concrete building.

1) The Seattle GHG web site does make some estimate of air travel GHG figures and marine activity, our web site does not. a


Michael said...

You are right...if growth stopped, and everyone moved into smaller, more energy efficient homes closer to transit, GHG's would be reduced. But the likelihood of all three happening is slim, especially the growth stopping!

Hopefully Busby's work will foster more comprehensive analysis along the lines suggested, so that we can plan based on facts, rather than urban myths.

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