Eco-Density is a buzz term being used by developers and City Council in Vancouver. Many areas in Vancouver are recently being spot- rezoned to increase development height. The reasons cited behind increased building height are: reduced housing prices through supplying housing demand, increased population density to an area, and lower environmental impact.
The first point has already been debunked by various sources, with tall Vancouver neighbourhoods like Yaletown and Coal Harbour having higher average rent and selling prices than low-rise neighbourhoods like south false creek and Fairview (10 – please read Relaxing Upzoning Restrictions to Increase (or Decrease?) Livability Costs in our City: Rethinking the Economics relationship of Supply and Demand and Reassessing the Driving Force behind Gentrification on RAMP website). This concentration of wealth into high-rises crosses the “economic/social scale” according to architect Jason McLennan (1). “When the workers whose labor supports a given system can’t afford to purchase the very things they make, it has crossed this line”. A good example of Vancouver crossing new price barriers comes with Opsal (7), at Quebec and 2nd. Still surrounded by industrial land, this luxury high-rise advertises mainly based on views as reflected in its inflated prices. These prices don’t necessarily match the area which contains little community, amenities or accessible transportation for the home buyers, which in turn increases reliance on personal transportation. City planners acknowledge the need to carefully consider where buildings are placed. “You shouldn’t separate building design from location and transportation energy. A very green tower that’s car-oriented isn’t really green” (6).
The second and third points are intimately tied and rest on the assumption that only high-rises provide high density, with high density having both commercial and environmental benefits. However, “we can reach suitable densities well beyond current American norms with average heights closer to six to eight stories” (1) (e.g. Paris, Barcelona, Rome, Kyoto). The “New Urbanist paradigm” used by many architects calls for high density, low impact (low- to mid-rise
buildings) planning. This planning is argued to create environmentally sustainable, commercially vibrant and community-based neighbourhoods, much like parts of downtown Toronto (9). New Urbanists call for an end to the post-WWII separation of densities that became impersonal, downtown high-rises and wasteful, suburb low- rises.
Green-minded McLennan, argues for the mid-rise, 6-8 story “sweet spot” and states that buildings over 14 stories are not green, as they pass the capabilities of the area’s “unique carrying capacities…—its community, its watershed, its ecosystem—” which he believes should define the scale of housing developments (1). Another of McLennan’s points against high-rises being green is the energetically inefficient “mass-people-moving systems” needed to transport the sheer number of people living in each high-rise. He instead argues for cities being pedestrian friendly with ample space for the population to walk and bike around each other; where smaller scale, “renewably-powered public transportation [could] take people further afield when necessary” (2). Despite suggestions like this, high-rises in downtown Vancouver and planned high-rises for Mount Pleasant still provide enough car stalls for every unit (and therefore encourage car use), despite being located in already traffic-stressed but well-serviced transit areas (8 – please see Traffic congestion and Bike Lane Impact on RAMP website).
Though high-rises may impact their surroundings more, many still argue that high-rises use available city block space more efficiently with more people sharing horizontal space and common needs like air and water. This is argued to lower environmental costs, but one must consider the environmental cost of using the considerable amount of vertical building material. Furthermore, it has been found that to heat or cool a space, whether “it’s 900 feet up in the air or ten feet up in the air…doesn’t make a difference [energetically]” (6). Traveling between floors does have an environmental impact through added elevator use. “Taller buildings require faster and bigger elevators, which means higher energy consumption [that] can be up to 10-15% in super tall buildings”. This can be reduced to 5% if builders use newer (and more expensive) elevator technology (6).
Another argument against solely vertical development is “passive survivability: how a building’s inhabitants will fare when its power, heating and water systems fail” (2). This problem will become more frequent as oil reserves deplete and weather patterns become less predictable, leaving room for power disruptions. “The taller the building, the more difficult it is to service its energy and water needs and the greater the reliance on globally-sourced materials to build and maintain them” (2). It will become impossible to “sustain the paradigm in which high-tech materials come from all over the world [to build] and large-scale technological solutions are required to fix creeping large- scale engineering problems [as buildings age]” (1). Further and equally important, “in the event of a catastrophe that cripples a structure’s system, the chance of escape diminishes with every vertical story that occupants must descend” (2). The maximum height where the average person can access the building without elevators is said to be 6 to 8 stories (2).
A further consideration connected to “passive survivability” is an important architectural concept termed “Prospect and Refuge” (2). This concept is “based on the idea that people derive psychological comfort from shelter that affords us a good view of the surroundings – enough to see threats coming, yet never too high to be disconnected from the landscape in order to make our escape” (2). Some have taken the worry of disconnection farther in saying that high-rises affect social connection in a neighbourhood. Glaeser and Sacerdote (Social Consequences of Housing, The National Bureau of Economic Research, 2000) found that residents of large complexes were more likely to be social with their neighbours but less involved in local politics or street-level activities, resulting in loss of street-level community and increase in street crime. This observation is backed by McLennan who argues that “we are increasingly disconnected to the natural world, which makes us increasingly apathetic to its destruction” (1). Jane Jacobs even observed this phenomenon in New York, noting that mid-rise, mixed use blocks containing street- level community had less crime, as “street-level merchants…kept traditional neighborhoods safe both by their watchfulness and the activity they promoted” (3).
Also related to an area’s sense of community is its sense of ‘specialness’ or heritage as well as connection to nature (2). McLennan argues (2) that we should “reserve extreme height for structures with societal importance”, which in Vancouver are usually historical landmarks (eg Main Street’s Lee Building, Cambie Street’s City Hall – please read The History of Mount Pleasant on RAMP website). Furthermore, biologist Edward O. Wilson’s notion of biophelia or “the connections that human beings subconsciously seek with the rest of life” (2) means cities having thriving communities must have a density that is proportionate to nature in the form of green space. Without this we could be facing what writer Richard Louv identifies as “nature deficit disorder” (2). A prime example of this is the extremely heightened price of real estate in Manhattan and specifically in most areas bordering Central Park (e.g. midtown) (4) and (5). McLennan also believes that without Central Park, Manhattan would lose its allure and real estate value (2). The need for parks in Vancouver may only slightly decrease the available land space for building real estate and therefore population density, but the quality of life will more than match this sacrifice of space.
Lastly and related to space, the inhabitants of a community can literally be overshadowed by super tall buildings if they are built too closely. McLennan believes that “access to your own sunlight on your property should be a right” (2). He argues this point not for personal reasons, but for environmental ones. He hopes that cities will become open to each building eventually supplying some of its energy through solar panels or other types of building surface-gained energy. The taller the building, the less surface to build sustainable energy gathering panels, and the less likely the building is to supply an ample amount of energy.
To conclude, high density can benefit the environment, create thriving communities, supply demand for housing, and can be attained through buildings smaller than 14 stories. Benefits of mid-rises vs high-rises become apparent when taking into consideration a community’s walkability, accessibility of street-level amenities, importance of historical landmarks, strength of community ties and crime rate.
Though there are good arguments made for high-rises (6), any development must be multi-dimensional in its considerations, and never go against the wishes of the community. Otherwise, the local environment and its allure to inhabitants may be sacrificed.
Written by Melissa Bandura, B.Sc (Ecology)
for RAMP Vancouver www.rampvancouver.com
- http://www.yesmagazine.org/planet/in-the-built-environment-the- tyranny-of-the-big-and-the-beauty-of-the-small
- https://ilbi.org/resources/competitions/livingcity/articles/ DensityandSustainability_TrimTabSpring2009.pdf