Sunday, August 16, 2009

Is Smart Growth Smart?

Most anyone reading this blog will be aware of "smart growth", intensification, infill, the Portland nirvana example, the glorious Vancouver leadership, and other urban design trends.

A number of posts back, I questioned whether the assumptions of high density redevelopment in the existing inner city areas made sense. Do people moving from suburbs to infills exhibit the behaviour of the inner city population or do they bring with them their suburban lifestyle and consumption patterns? It strikes me that there is an element of geographic determinism going on here: if the inner city population exhibits certain characteristics now, moving people who have very different socio-economic characteristics into the same area will cause those people to behave the same way as the existing urban population. I would like proof of that. And it would not be difficult to determine if its true.

Now, in the blog, in an article headed "ducks", I see quoted Sir Peter Hall, who before he was a Sir, wrote some of the geography textbooks we used at Carleton back in the 1970's:

The compact city cut carbon emissions by just 1 percent; but there were higher economic costs in outer areas where people still want to live, and where demand was greatest. Also, any social aspects of the compact city were to some extent undermined by crowding, exposure to noise and the crush on facilities.

American style sprawl by contrast raised energy use and CO2 emissions by almost 2 percent, but engendered lower house prices, less crowding and less road congestion. (Hall, Sir Peter ‘Planners may be wasting their time’, Regeneration and Renewal, 6 July, 2009)

(The article in the blog talks about how the leading political classes have larger duck houses - paid for by taxpayers - than citizens have regular houses. Typically, the proponents of more dense cities and smaller housing want it for others, but not themselves. )

I strongly feel inquiring minds must always challenge received wisdom and put it to the test.


  1. Eric,
    15 minutes of research on infill. I took three census tracts in (Greater) Vancouver:

    0063.00 - one of the West End (long established dense area and very dense - 19,605 ppl/sq. km - compare at Manhattan at 27K/sq. km)
    0059.05 - Yaletown (New dense area - tripled in population in the last 10 years)
    0504.05 - Walnut Grove (Suburb)

    On transportation:

    63 - 34% drove to work (670/1990) as either driver or passenger (625 drver, 45 passenger)
    59 - 42% drove to work (2535/6090) as either driver or passenger (2330 driver, 205 passenger)
    04 - 92% drove to work (2850/3110) as either driver or passenger (2700 driver, 150 passenger)

    Biking or walking goes, respectively, 41%, 37%, 3%
    Public Transit is: 23%, 20%, 4%

    So, in terms of going to work, clearly the infill has resulted in a difference. I am not sure about shopping patterns, but I do know from my experience as being a PART of the infill in Vancouver, it is far more convenient to walk to do almost every errand imaginable.

    So there is my 2 cents worth! At least a tiny little bit of research. And I have trouble believing that this would only result in a 1% decline in personal emissions of greenhouse gasses.


  2. Vancouver is a great case example of a particular type of urban planning that appeals to me visually, but like most Canadians I simply cannot afford to live in Vancouver.

    Vancouver is also rather unique, in that the penninsula is an interesting geographic place that is more a hybrid of city-resort than typical city.

    People are paying a huge premium to move into these neighborhoods because they offer easy walking and cycling, so I hope their walking and cycling will increase. I do notice that the new infill areas have less walking, more driving than the older city areas. Will this change in time?

    Of course I do expect people living in the city to drive less than suburbanites. This is my key question: can we import affluent people used to car driving into the inner city and change their behaviour? Will moving suburbanites into a downtown high rise condo in a auto-orinted city like Ottawa change their behaviour? Or do they maintain their suburban friendships, jobs, and networks, and drive out of the inner city.

  3. Of note is that Vancouver recently changed their parking rules for new condos. Before it was min 1.2 spaces and max 1.8 (per unit). Now it is min 0.6 and max 1.2. And the early word is that the developers are jumping over the 0.6 (because heated garages are, of course, expensive to build and maintain)