Vancouver's model for the 21st century

August 12, 1996|By Neal R. Peirce

VANCOUVER, British Columbia -- It's tough to imagine a U.S. metropolis with the courage or political will to promise -- with clear figures -- how it will be more livable 25 years down the road.

Would a Baltimore or New Orleans region ever get up the nerve, for example, to guarantee a 20 percent reduction in its prospective highway traffic loads in 2021?

Could a Tampa Bay region promise to cut back vehicle pollution 37 percent? Or Cleveland pledge to reduce capital outlays for roads and transportation by 30 percent?

Promises to keep

Such promises, with programs to back them up, could protect neighborhoods, assure clean air and save open spaces. And tough as they seem politically, they can be made.

Indeed, the goals cited are precisely those just pledged by the 20 local governments of Greater Vancouver, Canada's window on the Pacific Ocean.

The Vancouverites even say they'll reduce conversion of rural land to development by 33 percent-- land equal to their entire center city today.

Against the trendlines of rising automobile dependence and rapid exurban settlement, such pledges are remarkable.

And all the more so in a rapid-growth region like Vancouver, which may see its current 1.8 million population reach 3 million in the next 10 to 15 years.

Vancouver's reach for a superior future began with intensive fact-finding by the Greater Vancouver Regional District (GVRD). Population, traffic, air quality, sewer, land use, road and transit trends were all analyzed.

The consequences of business-as-usual drift were "not a pretty sight," says Port Moody Mayor John Northey, head of the GVRD's strategic planning committee.

More and more people would live farther and farther from Vancouver proper in auto-dependent communities spread up the Fraser River Valley. Air and noise pollution would get worse, traffic would intrude into local neighborhoods, open space would disappear.

The 47 traffic lanes crossing major bridges today would have to soar to 85 to accommodate the projected 2021 traffic.

Any region that fails to control sprawl and excessive auto use, Mr. Northey argues, will be less efficient and therefore penalized in today's competitive global economy.

Community is undermined and transit choice denied to the 30 percent of the population either too old or young to drive.

The Vancouverites spent four years identifying and debating distinct growth management scenarios for their mountainous and seabound region -- debating every issue from rapid transit to telecommuting to traffic disincentives. Thousands of citizens were engaged in meetings and discussions.

At first, says GVRD chair Gregory Halsey-Brandt, mayor of suburban Richmond, lots of people refused to face the tough trade-offs for a society that loves its cars but also its forests, mountain views, friendly neighborhoods and still vibrant inner city.

But as people reviewed the horrors of unbridled sprawl, a dramatically different "concentrated growth option" won public support and eventually unanimous

approval of the 20 GVRD communities.

A "Livable Region Strategic Plan," a detailed new transportation blueprint and British Columbia's 1995 passage of a Growth Strategies Act all dovetail to set the new direction.

So what must happen?

First, municipalities will nominate land to add to the "green zone" of parks, watershed, ecosystems and farmland around Vancouver, creating a long-term boundary for urban growth.

Second, the region pledges to build and perfect "complete communities" -- transit-connected town centers and surrounding residences to replace sprawling, unfocused subdivisions, bringing jobs and housing closer together.

Third, there must be "a transit-oriented and automobile-restrained" regional transportation system.

How? Through more light rail and bus connections, giving high-occupancy vehicles and goods transport priority on highways, letting sheer congestion discourage some auto use, and retrofitting local streets to favor transit, bicycle and pedestrian uses. British Columbia's provincial government has pledged $1 billion for light rail.

The net result Vancouver envisions: a more compact and efficient metropolitan region, development focused on close-in areas and discouraged in the far-out suburbs.

Does the average citizen recognize what a tough set of choices has been made -- especially active discouragement of more autos and big suburban lots? Maybe and maybe not.

Detailed contracts

Municipalities will soon have to write contracts detailing how their land use and housing will support the new regional plan.

That will include how much additional dense housing (town houses and apartments) each is willing to accept, an especially tough issue for Vancouver's neighborhoods and close-in communities.

Conversely, some of the farther-out suburbs may chafe under requirements that they slow and control their growth.

Still, Vancouver is taking a giant step toward the kind of futuristic planning all citi-state regions must make -- unless they want to face a 21st century of dire traffic congestion, foul air, shattered community and declining economic prospects.

Neal R. Peirce writes a syndicated column about cities in change.

Pub Date: 8/12/96

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