Thursday, November 27, 2008

“The Opportunities for Urban Density”

This morning was the Metro Vancouver Sustainability Community Breakfast with discussions around "The Opportunities for Urban Density".

The first speaker was Ronda Howard, Assistant Director of Planning at the City of Vancouver. Her talk focused on solutions for low density areas outside of downtown Vancouver by speaking on three types of densities - 1.)Gentle 2.)Hidden and 3.) Invisible. She stressed that it was important to focus on these areas as land area that Vancouver can spread into is becoming less available and it is important to meet the new housing needs that will arise (i.e. an aging population with home care, new families, etc.)

For the first type of density, gently density, she gave the example of neighborhood centres. Currently in Vancouver these are primarily in the conceptual stage; however, the Kingsway and Knight Neighbourhood Centre Program is one example where the city is working to create a denser and more functional neighborhood centre.

The second type of density, hidden density, referred to the laneway housing that is being developed in Vancouver. The idea behind this housing is to expand on the areas currently put aside for garages and parking and turning them into single family or rental units. Some of the ideas behind this are that caregivers could live behind houses or adult children would have places to stay in the city. This type of 'ecodensity' housing would keep neighborhoods diverse and functional. While I believe that space needs to be utilized as much as possible, I think the laneway housing project is difficult to grasp as very small, shack like houses would be dwarfed by their larger neighbors and could be abused by people using them only as an extension of their large homes, by perhaps using them as guest houses or studios. However, Ronda did stress that many concerns and aspects of this type of housing were still to be discussed and defined.

The final type of density, invisible density, dealt primarily with secondary suites. For example, renting out basement suites. This is already done widely in Vancouver, but can be expanded. Ronda finished her talk by discussing the importance of public involvement in all the planning processes.

The second speaker was Norm Shearing, Vice-President of ParkLane Homes speaking from a developer's perspective. He spoke on locating areas to be developed for urban density, determining the feasibility and appropriateness of the development. He spoke of three projects that his company had been involved with: East Fraserlands, Bedford Landing and Sapperton. All of these projects were done on previous industrial areas. He spoke on finding non-industrial opportunities for these sites and the importance of community involvement in the planning and building process. This involves finding the appropriate densities and uses for the land, providing mixed use, mixed housing and increasing density that would have been marginally developed otherwise. He cited that all his examples were pedestrian friendly and displayed smart growth opportunities.

The final speaker, Jean Lamontagne, General Manager of Planning and Development at the City of Surrey spoke of the opportunities for urban density in the City of Surrey. Surrey has seen large amounts of new growth due to trends in affordability of the area, this growth has been mostly in the form of multi-family buildings and apartments. 41% of the residents work in Surrey; however, public transportation within the city is poor and needs to be developed. The City of Surrey is currently trying to steer away from single family housing to more pedestrian oriented development in high density neighborhoods while supporting LEED certified building and community involvement.

Overall I found the talks to be interesting. Vancouver is currently the highest density residential area in North America followed New York and the planning and organization behind that development is interesting. It was interesting to hear how the city is currently increasing urban density in neighborhoods that are not as dense as the downtown area.

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