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Who is the Smart Growth Leader?

Hint: it’s not Portland

December 3, 2002 |
Great Lakes Bulletin News Service

Gordon Price/NW Environment Watch
  Vancouver has achieved remarkable success in directing growth to people-friendly, land-saving neighborhoods. Excellent planning helped. So did the resolve to put far-sighted Smart Growth principles into effect.

Portland, Oregon is a success story among mid-sized American cities.  Its downtown grew more vibrant over the last two decades, attracting new residents and businesses at a time when many other cities were drying up. At the same time, its pioneering growth boundary — in place since the mid-1970s — limited sprawl while protecting farmland and open space.

So it’s no surprise that planners flock to Portland for good ideas about how Smart Growth policies help a city. 

But what about Portland’s own planners? Where do they look for new ideas?

The answer: Vancouver, British Columbia, the Pacific Northwest’s uncontested leader in Smart Growth. Vancouver’s metropolitan area consumes less land per person. Its transit system is more widely used. And its downtown renaissance is more profound than any other city in the region. 

Thousands of new residents have flocked to pedestrian-friendly neighborhoods, such as the fashionable high-rise districts in Vancouver’s West End and Yaletown neighborhoods.  And many of greater Vancouver’s transportation policies focus on improving transit, and creating new bike and walking paths rather than widening roads and bridges for cars.

Vancouver’s success is not just anecdotal; it’s confirmed by the numbers.  International research suggests that public transit flourishes when metropolitan density exceeds roughly twelve people per acre.  In greater Vancouver, 62 percent of residents live in areas with such “transit-friendly” densities, up from 51 percent a decade ago. In greater Portland the figure is just 24 percent, up from 19 percent in 1990 – a sizable gain but still nowhere near Vancouver’s accomplishment.  And because more than one in ten greater Vancouver residents live in neighborhoods with more than 40 people per acre, pedestrians, bikers, and public transit dominate the streets. Automobiles are the alternative form of transportation.

How did Vancouver achieve such remarkable success in directing growth to people-friendly, land-saving neighborhoods?  Many factors are responsible, some of which have more to do with geography than good planning. The city is hemmed in by water to the west and mountains to the north. Vancouver’s growth can only radiate east and south, limiting the amount of land available for sprawl.

Far-seeing public policies played a role as well. Although greater Vancouver doesn’t have an urban growth boundary like Portland’s, it has something  even stronger. In the 1970’s British Columbia created an Agricultural Land Reserve that put farmland around the metropolitan area off limits to residential development. Unlike Portland’s growth boundary, which is periodically adjusted, the land reserve limits were considered more or less absolute.

At the time, the reserve was viewed principally as an agricultural safeguard that protected fertile farmland in a mountainous province with little arable land to spare. But over time, the biggest benefits are felt in urban planning because developers had to learn to do more with less land.

Greater Vancouver’s other saving grace is that unlike most American cities it never built an extensive system of freeways.  The city considered them – after all, urban highways were all the rage in America — but ultimately rejected the idea. It’s a good thing, too. Three hours to the south, Seattle’s interstates have sapped vitality from center city, spread new residents across former farmland and open space, and left motorists stranded in some of the worst gridlock in North America.

That’s not to say that Vancouver has no congestion. The city, though, has managed to work with traffic congestion rather than against it by offering alternatives to the automobile, including buses and light rail, as well as a growing network of bike trails. The city’s thriving neighborhoods have not only helped transit flourish but have had a surprising effect on traffic: On Vancouver’s downtown peninsula, where densities are highest, car movements declined by 12 percent between 1994 and 1999 while walking increased by more than 50 percent. 

Having earned accolades as one of the world’s most livable cities — helped by its temperate climate and stunning setting —Vancouver risks becoming a victim of its own success. Over the past 15 years greater Vancouver added nearly five new residents an hour as its population swelled from 1.4 million to just over 2 million. That’s an average annual growth rate of 2.6 percent, faster than many mega-cities in the developing world, including Cairo and Rio de Janeiro.

Vancouver, nevertheless, accommodated the growth, avoided massive spending on new roads and bridges, and did not sprawl out the way most U.S. cities did. Since 1986 the number of people living in compact neighborhoods grew by over 618,000, accounting for 98 percent of total population growth. Over the same time the number of residents living in neighborhoods with fewer than 12 people per acre grew by less than 16,000.

Still, the city faces new challenges in holding the line on sprawl. Vancouver’s recent bid for the 2010 winter Olympics is prompting calls for new highways to accommodate tens of thousands of athletes and tourists. A recent change in agricultural policy may make it easier for local governments to open farmland to development.

Vancouver’s economic and cultural success, though, has created a new political landscape:  The tens of thousands of residents of new transit- and pedestrian-friendly neighborhoods have the potential to become a powerful voting bloc.  They've already voted with their feet by moving to places where they don’t need a car for every trip.  It’s not too much of a stretch to think they’ll continue to vote at the ballot box to protect the terrific neighborhoods they now call home.

Clark Williams-Derry, who writes about land use policy and environmental trends, is the research director of Northwest Environment Watch, a public policy think tank and advocacy organization in Seattle. Reach him at clark@northwestwatch.org. For more commentary on sprawl and Smart Growth see the Elm Street Writers Group.

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