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Musings about the environment and all it touches, from education to city planning

Archive for August 2013

The trouble with Marpole

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Marpole is the news these days (see here and here), joining Cedar Cottage and Grandview as neighbourhoods that claim that consultation has been poor and that the proposed rezoning sucks.

I have a certain sympathy for Grandview and Cedar Cottage.  These are neighbourhoods that have an established character, neighbourhoods that “work”, to use the expression of one of the participant at a community meeting.  But even then, these groups do not oppose densification as such.

But Marpole?  I briefly lived there when I first moved to Vancouver.  It struck me as a blend of non-descript low-rise appartment blocks in the South, and 60’s style soulless bungalows otherwise.

Apparently the bungalow owners are resisting change.  They live in sprawling ranchers on 50 foot wide lot, in a neighbourhood that reminds me of “back-to-the-future” Americana.  I find it hard to develop much sympathy.  It’s, at best, a fear of the new and, at worse, an example of selfish NIMBYism by folks who are doing just fine, thank you.

And the rezoning proposal is intended to spur the construction of townhouses and rowhouses, not towers in the middle of nowhere.  That is precisely what is needed to increase the housing stock while preserving a liveable character.

Some fancy rowhouses along the bike path.Not bad, if it's the future Marpole.

Some fancy rowhouses along the bike path.Not bad, if it’s the future of Marpole.

I’ll grant a point to resident Mike Burdick: “Do the transit routes first, then take a breath and see if we need to do more.”  Sure enough, there is a crying need to upgrade transit, in Marpole as well as everywhere in the Lower Mainland.  But this is a nice cop-out: if transit is beefed up before densification, it will be too costly; so waiting for transit to magically materialize first before densifying is the same as opposing development, period.

The other thing that strikes me in all these protests is the fear that if rezoning takes place, density will double overnight.  Take a deep breath, people.  It happens progressively, so much so that changes may not even be noticeable, as in the case of laneway houses.  Tall towers happen quickly, once a project is approved; but townhouses and rowhouses rely on slow house sales in order to proceed in single family houses neighbourhood.

I went for a ride along the Heather street bike path.  I saw many of the same old ranchers that I’d remembered, but also some new houses.  I almost fell off my bike laughing when I saw what I’ll call the Monster of Marpole: an astounding fantasy of brassy showiness and bad taste.  And that’s the Marpole that these folks ask me to support?   Uh, I’ll pass.

The Monster of Marpole

The Monster of Marpole

Written by enviropaul

August 23, 2013 at 3:08 pm

Three morning papers, three worlds

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I picked up the newspapers on my porch this morning: the Vancouver Sun, the Globe & Mail, and the Vancouver Courier.

Wow.  You’d think these folks cover the news in alternate universes.

In the Sun: aside from a second  op-ed piece by Elizabeth Nickson poo-pooing the carbon tax (and as riddled with errors as her first one), and a expose by Barbara Yaffe on how oh-my-god it’s gonna be soooo hard to meet carbon targets in the transportation sector (no mention of transit), the business pages were lauding the praises of the projected development of northern BC, with breathless descriptions of how new gold and metal mines, hydro projects, pipelines, dams, and what-have-you will make BC so rich eventually.

Then I pick up the Globe and learn, from the business pages, that the outlook for gold is down, and mining in general is suffering, and natural resources sector brokers are being laid-off on Bay street.  Huh?

(In fairness to the Sun, at least the on-line edition carried the report by the Norway-based International Gas Union that Canadian LNG projects are likely to be so expensive as to never make any money.)

And the Vancouver Courier had a nice story on how a homeowner has renovated a Vancouver Special into a model of energy efficiency (there’s a tour September 21); and a very nice profile of Kevin Washbrook, the Vancouver-based activist who is organizing against the proposal of coal exports through Vancouver Port and Texada Island (the Courier’s profile can’t be read on-line, but it’s accessible here).

There you have it: in one universe, natural resources will makeus rich, because that’s how it’s always been.  In the other, we learn that the world doesn’t want natural resources anymore, because there are better and more efficient ways to run an economy, and this is where the rest of the world is going.

Wake up, BC!  BC?  BC?!?

Written by enviropaul

August 23, 2013 at 2:15 pm

The farm to cafeteria connection

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One of my fantasy projects for my employer (Kwantlen Polytechnic University, if you must know) is to somehow create programs that would close the ecological circle.  We already have great horticulture and agriculture programs, and in my own program (Environmental Protection) we study compost and waste management, among other things.  Wouldn’t it be great to also have a food preparation program, and a holistic nutrition program to go along with our nursing and health science programs?

Just imagine: our students grow the food; other students prepare it and serve it in our cafeterias; finally, our envi students compost the leftovers and make fertilizer – for our food growing program.  And wouldn’t we all eat well, with a food prep program, using our own tasty healthy local food?

It may be a fantasy but I was thrilled to discover the existence of the Farm to Cafeteria Canada group.  They publish a newsletter, and their facebook page is a mine of information.  For instance, I learned that Toronto’s Ryerson University signed a new contract with Chartwell’s, which includes a requirement for 25% of the food originating from local, sustainable sources; and according to a comment on a post, they snagged chef Maharaj, famous for her work in Toronto transforming hospital food into something actually tasty and wholesome.

I also found out about the existence of the Kootenay farm school, where beginning lessons in sustainable agriculture can be taken (similar in intent to our own Richmond Farm School, it seems), attend worshops in permaculture, or participate in a webinar with Joel Salutin.

I also found a petition to save Salt Spring Island abattoir, discovered an inspiring blog about high school students growing their own food in Toronto, and learned about the existence of a student food summit this coming August.  All great stuff!  If the intersection of food and education interests you, check them out.

Written by enviropaul

August 5, 2013 at 6:44 pm

Vancouverism and the neighbourhoods

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Vancouverism behind some Vancouver Specials, Kingsway at Nanaimo

Vancouverism behind some Vancouver Specials, Kingsway at Nanaimo

In the Vancouver Sun this Saturday is an article from Michael Kluckner explaining how old urban development was really the equivalent of “green-city design”, with walkable neighbourhoods linked by train or streetcars.  Says Kluckner:

As Metro Vancouver struggles with affordability and environmental issues, are there lessons from the past that might help it adapt to the 21st century

There’s no magic to creating new versions of the Commercial Drives and Main Streets that are so popular today. The city was laid out with transit lines running north-south about eight blocks apart and businesses established themselves near the stops. Few people were farther than a halfdozen blocks from a set of shops, important in a society where few could afford a car. What looks green today was simply reality then, not only in Vancouver with its streetcars, but in “country” towns like Ladner, Langley and Abbotsford.

The narrow, 33-foot lots of Vancouver’s old neighbourhoods – Grandview, Mount Pleasant and Kitsilano – have adapted well to the kind of green city envisioned for the 21st century. Tall houses, some with suites, provide a range of housing options for tenants and owners. People can garden, walk to shops and restaurants and cycle if they wish. Population density is high enough to support frequent transit.

But Kluckner is also critical of Vancouverism:

 Looking at the big picture, Vancouver and its neighbours need more villages like Kerrisdale to absorb new people and make the lower-density suburban areas more walkable with more housing options. Not Metrotowns or Surrey Centres, but something a bit leafy with a wider range of options, mixing fee-simple ownership with strata. As for the old villages like The Drive and Kitsilano, they’re working just fine and don’t need to be “fixed up” with more density.

Hmm.  There’s a problem here.  Grandview and Kits, sure, are just fine, but the same could be said for Main Street, Fraser, Renfrew, Dunbar, and countless other Vancouver neighbourhoods, which makes one wonder: where, then, can densification proceed?  Pete McMartin had a pretty snappy critique of this NIMBYism, and Stephen Quinn penned a nice satyrical piece

Just look at Oakridge. It’s a perfectly good shopping centre. You know, a good food court with the noodles and such, though I don’t care much for those. But some people do and that’s just fine. There’s lots of free parking. It’s even got a carpeted area – you know, a kind of pit for the young ones to play in. But now the Zellers is gone, and they want to build a bunch of high-rise towers in the parking lot. And why? Because it’s near a transit line? Why can’t Oakridge just stay the same?

Same goes for the East End. You know, around Commercial Drive. Perfectly good neighbourhood right now. Still a few Italians left. There’s a Safeway right there with parking spaces big enough to fit a sedan. So what are they doing? They’re talking about some kind of “pedestrian plaza” and some more great big apartment buildings. Why? Because there are a couple of rapid transit lines there? Because it’s some kind of “transit hub” they say. I don’t get it. Why can’t they just leave it alone? It’s perfectly good the way it is.

Quinn nails the issue; as Kluckner states, the neighbourhoods are just fine as they are, why should they change?  But of course, the neighbourhoods are just part of a greater whole, the city – and the burbs around.  And, of course, most people with a job in the city would prefer to live in the city; no one likes a long commute.

Vancouver’s response has been a piecemeal increase of housing stock with towers dispersed through neighbourhoods, as well as building up the downtown, west end and  yaletown core.  This has been dubbed “vancouverism” and is now famous, a concept praised in, among others, the Guardian, and followed from Melbourne to Toronto.  In essence, it is defined as

 a mixed-use commercial development of medium height located at the base of a high-rise residential tower, which is recessed from the lower levels and from the streets below.

That’s all fine and good for the downtown peninsula; but in the inner belt, this usually results in an isolated tower or two surrounded by low – as opposed to medium – density, and the contrast is painful.  But this is also why Vancouver has so little city feel; there is nothing that corresponds to, say, Montreal’s Plateau or Hochelaga districts, with blocks after blocks of three-story row houses.  Those Montreal neighbourhoods have roughly three times the density of our inner belt neighbourhoods, such as Little Mountain or Grandview (click here for a detailed map of neighbourhood densities).

Plateau Mont-Royal, Montreal

Plateau Mont-Royal, Montreal

And much as laneway houses are a good way to increase density in heritage neighbourhoods, that’s not enough to accommodate the demand.  If affordable housing is to be created, density must increase; and doing so would also reduce our per capita environmental footprint.

But if vancouverism, aka isolated towers among houses, is not the answer for the inner belt, then what is?

As a former Montrealer, I’m biaised.  But I like three-story walk-ups.  There are a number of examples on the east side, pictured below.  They’re nothing like Montreal’s – but they perform the same function, have roughly the same footprint, and a number are quite gorgeous, in a uniquely Vancouver style.  If that’s vancouverism 2.0, I could live with that.

a cute set of rowhouses, north Grandview area

A cute set of rowhouses, north Grandview area

A small rowhouse complex in Strathcona...lookit, it has solar power!

A small rowhouse complex in Strathcona…lookit, it has solar power!

Grandview area...cute, no?

Grandview area…cute, no?

in North Grandview

in North Grandview

Written by enviropaul

August 5, 2013 at 8:34 am