The drive for a new urban form

Experts point to the role of smart urban planning in countering climate change. But just what does the design of our cities have to do with reducing GHG emissions?

Consider a few numbers: Canadians emitted 20.6 tonnes of carbon-dioxide equivalent per person in 2014. In the same year, the transportation and buildings sectors were among Canada’s largest sources of GHG emissions; transportation alone accounted for 23 percent of our total emissions. Given that more than 80 percent of Canadians live in cities, where transportation and buildings are heavily concentrated, it seems clear that climate change mitigation would benefit from strategies to reduce demand for transportation in urban areas.
 

Shifting priorities

“Every city in the country should be adopting a transportation planning hierarchy in which the pedestrian is placed on top,” says Alex Boston, Principal with Boston Consulting, a Vancouver-based policy, planning and engagement firm specializing in climate change adaption and mitigation services. Boston is a land-use specialist and a regular advisor to local and senior governments, and the Federation of Canadian Municipalities.

Boston’s pedestrian-first approach is not anti-automobile. “I am not opposed to the car,” he says. “I have a car, use a car. Cars and trucks are going to remain part of our lives for a long time.”

Changing the way we design cities will be good for our health and our pocketbook, and it will enable us to achieve deep emission reductions.

Boston is drawing attention to flawed urban design that has favoured the automobile since the middle of the last century, as if cities are home to cars first and people second. The trend is understandable. Blessed with geography, Canada has used it, and Canadian cities have sprawled rapidly ever since.

“We have one of the least densely populated urban forms in the world,” says Boston. “We keep spending on auto-related infrastructure—roads, bridges, sewers—adding ring after ring of suburb, pushing neighbourhoods incrementally further from services and employment.”
 

The hidden cost of the car

The ring phenomenon is present in virtually every Canadian city. In Montreal, Calgary and Victoria, for example, more than 90 percent of growth is auto-oriented and, according to Boston, unsustainable. Low density, auto-oriented development is up to three times more costly to service, and municipal infrastructure debts and property taxes are rising as a result.

“Each ring of development is really killing us in terms of household tax burdens, transportation spending and, most importantly, our health,” says Boston. “For every additional hour you spend in a car every day, there’s a six percent increase in the likelihood of obesity. For every additional kilometre you walk in a day, there’s a five percent reduction in the likelihood of obesity.”

The vast majority of people in Canada are living in neighbourhoods that are essentially fostering physical inactivity and obesity—two of the most preventable causes of death and disease in Canada after smoking.

“The average 60-year old Swede is fitter than the average 26-year old Canadian not because of the amount of time they spend in the gym,” says Boston. “It’s because more than 40 percent of trips by Swedes are by foot or bicycle, compared to only eight percent by Canadians.”
 

More density, more options

The challenge is that our cities offer little in the way of transportation choice. Many more Canadians would prefer to get around on foot, bicycle or public transit if it were safer and more convenient to do so.

“Changing the way we design cities will be good for our health and our pocketbook, and it will enable us to achieve deep emission reductions,” says Boston. It will also make our cities much more economically vibrant and attractive as places to live and work.

“Uncompetitive cities are a major challenge for Canada in the 21st century,” says Boston. “They’re not competitive for us to move people or freight around. Freight should be a transportation priority. It isn’t given priority because there’s so much competition for road space.”

Reducing that competition means building neighbourhoods where the car is only one of many transportation options. Densification has been the go-to zoning approach to build these neighbourhoods in recent decades, although it can lead to an unappealing proliferation of high-rise condo and apartment towers when practiced to the extreme.
 

The missing middle

Alex Boston understands the aversion to high-density neighbourhoods, but points out that many traditional urban residential areas are actually being hollowed out. “In the 1960s and ‘70s, these neighbourhoods were home to households of four or five people each. Today, roughly 30 percent of these same homes are single-occupant. Another 30 percent are home to just two people. The kids have left home, maybe a spouse has passed away. People may not want to live there anymore, but the alternatives are worse.”

This “hollowing out” is one of the reasons public transit is struggling in some cities. It is difficult to operate a viable transit system through lightly distributed residential neighbourhoods that are home to fewer and fewer people each year.

Suites and stratas offer a solution, enabling homeowners to rent or sell the upper floors of multi-story homes. Laneway housing turns over excess yard space for the construction of compact homes ideal for one or two inhabitants. Mid-rise wood frame apartment buildings of up to six stories offer another solution.
 

 

Mid-rise apartment buildings are part of the missing middle—medium-density options that are the least expensive to build, and the least GHG intensive.

 
 

The sharing economy enables greater transportation choice

The personal vehicle appears set to remain a viable urban option thanks to two key and disruptive transportation developments, both products of the sharing economy: car sharing (or community vehicles) and ride services.

According to Alex Boston, the average personal vehicle has only a 5 percent utilization rate—about 1 hour per day. Each shared car increases this rate, effectively taking 4 to 13 vehicles off the road.

Car sharing has been around since the 1990s. But services such as Communauto, Modo and Zipcar are now proliferating in cities across Canada—including smaller urban centres such as Nanaimo, BC and Kitchener-Waterloo, ON. These membership-based programs provide access to cars parked in designated spots on city streets and in lots.

Ride services such as Uber have become popular among young people. But by making transport by car more affordable and convenient than traditional taxis, these ride services are likely to catch on with a wider audience that includes the elderly—a growing demographic—and people with mobility challenges.
 

 

They are what Alex Boston calls the missing middle—medium-density options that are the least expensive to build, and the least GHG intensive. The effect is to establish a population threshold that will support local commercial nodes or micro-markets—home to small shops, restaurants and grocery stores.

“These are the features that make our neighbourhoods more energetic, vital and enjoyable,” says Boston. “They give people a place to go and congregate, and increase people’s propensity to walk and cycle.”
 

Ideal density thresholds

These progressive neighbourhood structures also provide the critical mass of people and service-intensive business development necessary to support car sharing and cost-effective public transit.

“Think about the mass exodus from a residential area to an employment area in the morning and the reverse at night,” says Boston. “This urban form is not conducive to public transit. When you’re investing millions in a bus or light-rail system, you want to promote job and service-intensive business development at rapid transit hubs to reduce commute times and ensure two-way traffic for a significant portion of the day, rather than peaks at rush hour and empty vehicles otherwise.”
 

A new urban form

According to Boston, making walking, cycling and rapid transit easy, safe and pleasant would encourage more people to consider these modes of transport when and where possible. Instead, we make driving easy, to the extent that in today’s Canadian cities, we devote more space to free parking than we do to housing.

Investments of approximately $30 billion a year by all levels of government in Canada overwhelmingly favour road-based transportation, effectively increasing the carbon metabolism of the Canadian economy and shielding individual Canadians from the true cost of driving.

“If people absorbed the real price of their transportation activity,” says Boston, “they’d be paying a lot more for vehicular use and a lot less for public transit. And if you walked a lot, you’d spend even less.”

He is encouraged by changes that are happening in the vast majority of Canadian cities. “There are great things happening at the micro level—in vibrant town and village centres where people can hang out with neighbours in a cafĂ©. These are the types of neighbourhoods we want, but the dominant urban growth model is not getting us there.”

Perhaps this neighbourhood focus is key to the solution. Perhaps micro-level development could lead to macro-level success, integrating intelligent intensification and fiscally sustainable infrastructure in a new urban form that typifies Canadian cities as healthy, affordable and globally competitive.