Pushing Urban Density: The Answer to Global Warming?

Vancouver, Canada’s largest west coast city, is rethinking the way it handles urban density.

For years, the metropolitan area benefited from its sprawling geography of valleys, coastal watersheds and lush deltas. As the city grew in size, smaller urban neighborhoods became suburbs: pockets of housing developments and culs-de-sac that would eventually soak up more population than the city that gives the Vancouver Metropolitan Region its name.

The problem, urban planners point out, is that this type of development hasn’t necessarily taken community needs into account. Sure, there are stores, malls, restaurants and medical facilities, but what about jobs?

According to recent studies, 43 percent of residents in Vancouver’s neighboring Fraser Valley Regional District commute outside of their cities for work, often drawn by jobs 15 to 25 miles away from their homes. Regional infrastructure like the Lower Mainland’s intricate web of bridges and highways aren’t considered sufficient for another decade of urban sprawl.

The answer, some urban planners insist, isn’t building out but building up: Building mini-urban centers that not only provide more affordable housing, but can also lure the industries that would make working and playing closer to home possible.

And urban populations aren’t the only ones who will benefit from innovative plans that increase density in Vancouver’s backyard, environmentalists point out. Mother Nature will, too.

Bringing jobs closer to home means fewer greenhouse gas emissions on the highway, less commuting across British Columbia’s valuable agricultural bread basket, and less demand for carbon-based fuels.

But a new report suggests another surprising benefits to increasing density in urban centers: Thoughtful urban planning that reduces land expenditure for residential planning not only means more area for agricultural use, but also a reduction in GHG emissions.

The report published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences examined what emission levels would look like in different living environments. Their data showed a potential for lower greenhouse emissions in denser population areas where residential amenities were paired with improved access to jobs. People not only traveled less, but they also used less space and less amenities.

While there is no perfect urban model for every city, the study noted: “[In] developing regions, urban density tends to be the more critical factor in building energy use. Large-scale retrofitting of building stock later rather than sooner results in more energy savings by the middle of the century.”

The authors point out that simply building higher and more compact cities isn’t the answer. Redesigning the world’s cities needs to be accompanied by energy-efficient technology that “can contribute to both local and global sustainability.”

And there’s the real challenge. Vancouver discovered some 20 years ago that simply shrinking the size of newly built apartments to 600 or 700 square feet and building denser neighborhoods near public transportation didn’t create sustainable neighborhoods.

Among other things, it encouraged migration to outlying, growing cities where land prices were lower and houses could be more expansive. In other words: It encouraged the production of GHG emissions by incentivizing more commuting from neighborhoods that had the amenities but not the jobs.

Vancouver and its neighbors are now trying to change that by finding ways to make local neighborhoods more integral and sustainable. As the authors of the PNAS report noted, it isn’t easy. Urban density has been declining for the last three decades. The Vancouver Lower Mainland’s growth mirrors a global trend that has impacted energy usage and GHG emission levels in growing urban centers. According to the authors, the answer isn’t smaller cities — it’s more compact cities.

Whether this research will sit well with tomorrow’s young families, as many cities with sprawling suburbia at their doors have discovered, will depend on how those cities are planned. For Vancouver’s part, that includes not only creating more jobs near residential neighborhoods, but also incentivizing developers and other urban investors to contribute back into the communities they build.

The money or in-kind contributions from developers can help ensure adequate green spaces and more innovative design. And, coupled with a robust focus on green standards, they could lay the groundwork for cities that residents and businesses really want to call home.

Image credit: Flickr/David J Laporte

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Jan Lee

Jan Lee is a former news editor and award-winning editorial writer whose non-fiction and fiction have been published in the U.S., Canada, Mexico, the U.K. and Australia. Her articles and posts can be found on TriplePundit, JustMeans, and her blog, The Multicultural Jew, as well as other publications. She currently splits her residence between the city of Vancouver, British Columbia and the rural farmlands of Idaho.

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