Cities do it (land use) better

December 12, 2007 at 6:18 pm | In cities, community_associations, land_use, NIMBYism, urbanism, victoria | 7 Comments

Here’s a “must read” piece by Edward Glaeser, just republished in the CEO for Cities blog, The Greenness of Cities, and first published in the New York Sun on January 30/07. It explains why, from an environmentalism perspective, it’s far better to build highrises (and use land efficiently) than to oppose development (and force development into other areas, which typically don’t have the efficiencies in place that cities do).

How I wish that every board member of Victoria’s own Fairfield Community Association and James Bay Neighbourhood Association and Vic West Community Association would read this piece. I’m naming these groups specifically for their extreme NIMBYism, which they wield over the city’s core. Wedded to some obscene notion of a city forever preserved in aspic (which, if it’s kept up, will kill our city), they retard progressive development by defending what they consider Victoria’s “character,” “quaintness,” and “charme” (yes, with an “e” at the end — it’s all so veddy veddy English, don’t you know?). They do not understand what a city is or what it needs at all, and to shore up their inability to understand, they refuse to understand that Victoria is a city. “Their” Victoria is denial made manifest. The real Victoria suffers because of this.

Since they don’t understand the real Victoria at all (having no understanding of cities), they therefore fight development not just in their own neighbourhoods (for which they could be forgiven), but also in the city’s downtown (for which they cannot). The James Bay Neighbourhood Association is a particular thorn in my urbanist side, since this group insists on arrogating to itself areas that any sane person would recognize as belonging to downtown and having nothing to do with James Bay. But, as in all power trips, the more “authority” you can claim, the better your chances of inflating your importance.

They fight tooth and nail against any development that exceeds the city’s insanely arbitrary (and niggardly) height limits or that transgresses density limits established in a bygone age (the fifties?) when land was cheap. And they cling to strange fantasies, for example, that all of Victoria could do well with buildings kept to 6 floors — “like Paris,” they dreamily say, conveniently forgetting that their romantic notion of a low-rise Paris was born at the expense of massive expropriations and the destruction of the medieval city by Baron Haussmann in the 19th century. If anyone proposed anything remotely similar today, they’d be institutionalized. They also forget that those 6-story Parisian behemoths sit on land parcels approximately one square city block in size, hence the possibility of creating nifty enclosed courtyards for the residents. Given our comparatively tiny city lots (ranging from 9,000 to at most 15,000 square feet), it’s impossible to make the numbers come out right unless you go tall.

Oh, and how I wish that our supposedly “Green” city councilor, Sonya Chandler (who hasn’t been seen or heard from since she became a mother some months ago), would read this piece. Sonya — from Vic West, incidentally — who balks when a concrete high-rise proposal comes before council, because (in her mind) anything that isn’t “small” isn’t “green.”

How I wish the luminaries and wanna-be politicos from the various community associations, who think they have what it takes to lead a city and who plan to run for council seats, would read Glaeser’s article. I shudder to think what will happen if some of the Waynes or Dianes or Cornelias or Tims actually were to get elected next year: they, with their punitive attitude toward developers, with their firm belief that development is just another way of being a pervert (especially if the new building isn’t in some Disney-esque faux heritage “style”) and that it must be brought into line, ladies and gentlemen!

And what is this article I want them all to read actually saying?

Here are some key excerpts (pay attention, Sonya!):

If the environmental footprint of the average suburban home is a size 15 hiking boot, the environmental footprint of a New York apartment is a stiletto-heeled Jimmy Choo. Eight million New Yorkers use only 301 square miles, which comes to less than one-fortieth of an acre a person. Even supposedly green Portland, Ore., is using up more than six times as much land a person than New York.

New York’s biggest environmental contribution lies in the fact that less than one-third of New Yorkers drive to work. Nationwide, more than seven out of eight commuters drive. More than one-third of all the public transportation commuters in America live in the five boroughs. The absence of cars leads Matthew Kahn, in his fascinating book, “Green Cities,” to estimate that New York has by a wide margin the least gas usage per capita of all American metropolitan areas. The Department of Energy data confirm that New York State’s energy consumption is next to last in the country because of New York City.


…the ground troops of the environmental movement haven’t yet got themselves around to being pro-development, even in places, like New York, where development makes the most environmental sense. All of those years of opposing new development have made many activists reflexively anti-growth. Almost every act of neighborhood anti-development Nimbyism, or Not In My Back Yard, gets wrapped up in a mantle of environmentalism. The great problem with being reflexively anti-growth is that development in America is close to being a zero-sum game. New homes are going to be built to meet the needs of a growing population. If you stop development in some areas, you are ensuring more development elsewhere. [emph. added]

Some of my friends in the pro-urbanism camp have used this argument when speaking before council, albeit without the nuance it apparently requires to get through to councilors. As a result, when they now speak at public hearings to remind council of the sprawl in our Western Communities and to argue that highrises downtown could allay this, councilors shrug and pretend the argument is invalid. It isn’t. Certainly we’ll still see more single-family-homes (SFHs) going up in the suburbs, but that’s partly because of our overall growth here. We could — and should — still be doing a lot better in building downtown up, higher and denser.

Glaeser adds:

Good environmentalism requires a national perspective, not the narrow outlook of a single neighborhood trying to keep out builders. As a nation, we need to think clearly about where new housing causes the least environmental damage, and we need to make sure that our land-use policies help that happen. A local approach can do more harm than good because dense areas are rich in protesters who push new housing out to where there are fewer people to oppose it.

If one wrote, “[g]ood environmentalism requires a regional perspective, not the narrow outlook of a single neighborhood trying to keep out builders,” we could apply that entire paragraph to the situation in Victoria. For a perspective on the missing regional approach as it relates to municipal infrastructure funding and our overreliance on property taxes, see my recently published piece in Vibrant Victoria, Victoria’s Choice: to be or not to be …is not the question.

The “local approach” referenced by Glaeser is in our case a “neighbourhood approach” that seems to compound a peculiar political dysfunction of the region: the City of Victoria is a small political entity, but it’s the heart of regional entity of 350,000 people. The problem is that the city is but one municipality — out of 13. Within walking and biking distance are the municipalities of Oak Bay, Saanich, Esquimalt, View Royal, and so on, which have their own mayors and councils …and their own this-departments and that-departments. And so, the councilors — the politicians — in the City of Victoria are unhealthily dependent — to the detriment of the region — on the few neighbourhoods (some of whose organizations I listed above) for their voter base. It’s deadlock: the politicians dare not piss off the neighbourhood activists (who are often the only ones who bother to vote), even when this causes harm to the region as a whole — and certainly causes harm to what is the region’s downtown.

Next month (January 2008) I’ll have an article in FOCUS Magazine, which also tackles the stranglehold of the neighbourhoods over the city. I plan to post it and my other pieces from FOCUS (which unfortunately is not available online) to my blog soon.

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