Wednesday, January 2, 2008


Each decade seems to concoct a new label for snake oil. In the early eighties Burnaby civic planners hatched a sweeping scheme to rezone neighbourhoods across the municipality so that more people could be packed into them. It was “progressive” you see, that being the term for something that was forward-thinking as opposed to your nimby attitude. They called their Grand Scheme “compaction”. Not a good choice of words. Most citizens did not like being compared to garbage. A revolution ensued at public hearings and the planning staff pulled in their horns and retreated to their lair never to be seen again for years afterward. Instead, council chose to push their compaction program through the back door by ignoring illegal secondary suites. Meanwhile, Vancouver council adopted exactly the same “see no evil” look the other way strategy when there fancy “Coreplan” scheme failed.

In the 1990’s a new phrase was born to advance the same agenda: “smart growth”—the most oxymoronic composite of all time. It swept North America and is still parroted by environmental organizations and “progressive” developers. The Provincial NDP’s environment critic, Shane Simpson, a frontman for such “green” developers, prefers to call it “managed growth”. The notion is that population growth does not cause sprawl. Oh no. It’s not whether we grow that is the issue, it’s how we grow. Hell, half the world can come to Canada, half of Canada can come to the Lower Mainland. It doesn’t matter. We’ll just re-direct them into dense neighbourhoods behind tightly defined boundaries and keep them there, so that farmland and wetlands will be preserved.

Trouble is, Portland, Oregon, the poster child of smart growth, among other places, tried that and failed. The British are having the same experience. Their greenbelts are being invaded by housing developments after 60 years of strict land use protection. People keep coming and the development pressures build up and eventually they spill over into those precious greenbelts. You can only jam so many sardines into a sardine can. With constant migration, you end up with both density and sprawl.

Now it’s 2007 and along comes the PR masterpiece of all euphemisms: “Eco-Density.” The arguments are the same, but the insertion of “Eco” was ingenious for it jumps on the green bandwagon. Pity that no one told Vancouver’s mayor that people who live in dense urban areas, in the tallest rabbit warrens (highrises)--also consume resources, generate wastes and emit GHG. In fact, according to Dr. William Rees, more so. They very much have “an ecological footprint”.

Our era abounds with so many sweet-sounding buzzwords like “sustainable”, “livable”, “affordable”, “diverse”, “vibrant”, “inclusive”, “pro-active”---the vocabulary of deceit. Attach these adjectives to anything you want to sell---any self-serving development scam for example—and you can sell it as easily as ice cream to a little boy on a hot day. My personal favourite is “sustainable growth”. In a finite world or a finite city, how can growth be “sustainable”? Put yeast in a Petri dish, how long can it grow “sustainably”? Vancouver is growing a rate of 3% annually. At that rate it will double its population in just 23 years. Where will another 600,000 people then live? Replace every house with an apartment tower, and then grow for another 23 years? Ad infinitum?

There is an alternative to “growth management”. It is growth “control”. Instead of endlessly attempting to accommodate growth, you “cap” it. Never been done? Robert F. Kennedy would have said that that would be no excuse not to try. But in fact it has been done. Okotoks, Alberta, Qualicum Beach, BC, and Noosa in Queensland, Australia, have all set limits to their population levels. Just as an elevator has a carrying capacity then so does a city. (And a nation too). One day Vancouver City council will have to do what is now unthinkable. It will have to hang out a “No Vacancy” sign. The sooner the better. Before everyone is living like canned sardines.

“Eco-Density”. That’s rich. How “dense” do they think rate-payers are?

Tim Murray

July 26/07

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