October 25, 2017 5:16 pm Published by

It’s no surprise that industry experts, developers, and politicians believe that increasing housing supply, or densifying neighborhoods, is at least one of the answers to Vancouver’s rising housing costs.

The irony of this is that while politicians and city planners are touting densification as the answer to unaffordability, local residents and neighborhoods across Vancouver have vehemently opposed it. At public hearings, angry residents repeatedly argue against high rises and large developments in their neighborhoods. This is true in the West End, Point Grey, Shaughnessy, Kerrisdale, Oakridge, and Marpole, as well as in East Vancouver neighborhoods. The “not in my back yard” attitude continues to resonate among local residents.

Politicians and the media assert that the public wants more affordable housing so their children can live and work in the city. In that case, why aren’t residents actually supporting density? Instead, residents believe that there’s nothing in it for them.

Where does the reluctance to accept and embrace densification stem from?

Is it because residents believe that developers and city planners turn a blind eye to the related issues that directly affect them, such as traffic congestion, loss of community, loss of culture, lack of infrastructure development, and transit issues? Residents view densification as benefiting the pockets of developers and city coffers, but see no real benefit to their neighborhoods or themselves. My online research indicates that this is a common sentiment among residents in many North American cities.

Unquestionably, these issues are difficult and complex. But until the powers that be address them, I doubt they’ll get the support of residents. If cities want residents to “buy in” (no pun intended) to higher density, they have to broaden the discussion, address the common issues concerning neighborhoods, and convey some benefits directly to the residents and community.

Barbara Faga, Ph.D. a successful urban designer and executive vice president of EDAW, an international environmental practice, reports on the importance of consensus and the public process when building and designing communities. She writes that “Density is a relative term that describes quantity, not quality. It is design that will make or break a project.” She also states that in her experience it isn’t density that’s the issue for residents, it’s good or bad design. The conversation needs to change.

Is this true in the Vancouver area? Would local residents and communities agree that poor design rather than density is at the heart of the issue? If the conversation between city planners and residents focused on consensus and design, would higher density projects be more successful? I am curious to hear your thoughts on this issue.

Barbara Faga, Ph.D., Bloustein School of Planning and Public Policy, has a 30-year career as an author, professor and professional urban planner, having worked with communities to enhance the public’s perception of landscape architecture and urban design.

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