Vancouver: Containing Opportunity, Not Sprawl

Vancouver: Containing Opportunity, Not Sprawl

It is probably too much to expect The Economist to make sense in assessing suburbanization, which it and those inclined toward fashionable urban planning dogma call “urban sprawl.” In an article on page 53 of the 8-14 July issue (“Growing Pains”), the magazine characterizes Vancouver as having had “relative success in containing sprawl.”

Of course, like the urban planning priesthood so quick to damn suburbanization from their academic pulpits, The Economist does not bother to justify its assessment with anything remotely resembling quantitative analysis. Like the proverbial US Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart who could not define obscenity, but knew it when he saw itThe Economist apparently “knows sprawl when it sees it.”

In fact, by various measures, Vancouver has suburbanized as much as many other urban areas. For example, by the ultimate indicator of suburbanization, urban population density, Vancouver trails Los Angeles by 40 percent (1,650 persons per square kilometer, compared to 2,350). True enough, Vancouver is more dense Portland, but then so is Phoenix (1,300 and 1,400 respectively).

The anti-suburban dogma claims that urban areas with less suburbanization have less traffic congestion, which is predictably untrue. In the case of Vancouver, the intensity of road traffic (kilometers driven per square kilometer) is more than Atlanta, which is by many accounts the most suburbanized major urban area in the world (700 per square kilometer).

The Economist bemoans the fact that Vancouver has been slow to build urban railways. Actually, Vancouver is one of the better served urban areas in North America in this regard. The problem is that urban railways feed little beyond downtown. Downtown in Vancouver represents less than 15 percent of employment and most employment growth is in the suburbs.

The anti-suburban movement speaks with platitudes about housing affordability, yet housing affordability tends to be the worst in urban areas that adopt its policies. This is because anti-suburban policies tend to ration land, raise its price and thereby make housing less affordable. Vancouver has been, like Portland, among the world leaders in anti-suburban policy. Like Portland, its housing affordability has paid the price. Vancouver has, by far, the worst housing affordability of any large urban area in Canada and ranked 86th out of 100 international urban areas in housing affordability in the Second Annual Demographia International Housing Affordability Survey.”.

Anti-suburbanites claim that air pollution is less intense in urban areas that adopt their policies. Again, no one ever bothers to consult the data. Yet, an international database indicates that the intensity of air pollution emissions in Vancouver is similar to that of Houston, Phoenix and Atlanta, which are considered to be highly suburbanized (and have lower densities).

None of this is to discount Vancouver’s attractiveness. However, much of what makes Vancouver attractive is not due to urban policy. Its downtown area has been invigorated by unprecedented immigration by highly affluent residents of Hong Kong in recent decades. It has an incomparable physical setting. Yet, its suburbs extend far into the countryside, just like in any American or Western European urban area.

Perhaps it is that The Economist is blinded, like the priesthood, by Vancouver’s “chic” core. Cutesy cores do not negate suburbanization. They occur with and without it. It also helps that Vancouver, unlike Phoenix and other younger urban areas, had a strong pre-automobile core to work with. No one builds them anymore, though they can expand and be converted into residential areas (as is occurring throughout North America, regardless of anti-suburban policy). Nonetheless, most growth continues in suburban areas, whether in Vancouver or Phoenix.

The fact is that, by the criteria that can be deduced from the anti-suburban literature, virtually all urban areas sprawl. Some are more suburban than others. But those that are more compact and less suburban are not necessarily better places to live. Just ask the young people no longer able to afford to live in Vancouver, Portland or Sydney, who are being driven away by housing prices that force them to choose a less favored urban area as the price of achieving and maintaining middle income status.

Thus, The Economist would have been more accurate to have noted Vancouver’s “relative success” in preserving and improving downtown. However, Vancouver’s “relative success” has been in containing opportunity.

Originally posted to On the Heartland 2006.07.10