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is one of the youngest cities in the world, and has grown into a city of over 2 million people in a relatively short time span. Unlike many areas of the world, such as many cities in Europe, the urban structural form of Vancouver was entirely laid out in the 20th or end of the
19th centuries.  Due to the recent establishment of the city and the fact that, like many North American cities, its growth has been largely driven by automobile dependent urban form, Vancouver has developed through a very expansive growth pattern which has led to a city primarily based on low-density single family housing catered around the automobile. Certain developments have somewhat countered this trend, such as the blocking of the inner freeway expansion, the building of the Skytrain and a public transportation system, and the recent redevelopments of large portions of the Downtown peninsula into high-density residential. However, outside the Downtown core, Vancouver still remains a low-density and automobile oriented city and when looking at the Greater Vancouver region, including the inner and outer suburbs, most of the city follows a very low-density pattern. Since the 1950s, Greater Vancouver has grown in land area at a rate much higher than the actual population growth. This has been due to the amount of low-density outward suburban growth, much of which has been on green-field sites and have resulted in encroachment on agricultural lands or wilderness.

Vancouver’s growth

Vancouver has grown very rapidly and steadily since its incorporation in 1886 and the following graph shows the population growth of the Greater Vancouver region, here listed for the Vancouver Census Metropolitan Area (CMA) since 1921 at which time the entire CMA only counted just over 200,000 inhabitants.

The graph also depicts the estimated growth projections for Vancouver. According to Metro Vancouver’s (previously the GVRD) estimates, the greater region will see an increase of about 820,000 people from 2006 to 2031, which would put the population at roughly 3 million.

The second graph below divides the historical and projected growths based on statistics for the City of Vancouver and those for all ‘other municipalities’ in the region, which include inner suburbs, such as Richmond, North Vancouver, Burnaby and New Westminster, as well as, outer suburbs, such as Coquitlam, Delta, Langley, or Surrey. The division clearly shows that in the past couple of decades, the inner and outer suburbs have been growing at a much more rapid rate and this is especially true in outer suburbs such as Port Coquitlam and Surrey which have seen much higher than average growth rates at around 15% annually for the last 5 years[1]. This is a result of the structural form of a lot of the population growth in recent decades, which has been primarily extensive outward development, rather than re-concentration within the existing urban areas.

If the trend continues and nothing is actively done to change these forces, the expected future population growth will likely continue to promote extensive urban sprawl rather than absorption through densification. With minimal changes to the planning structure in place today, the City of Vancouver is expected to grow to around 635,000 people by 2021[2]. At the same time, the overall Greater Vancouver CMA is expected to grow at a higher rate than the central municipality with a 2021 population of about 2.8 million and over 3 million in 2031.[3] The graph clearly demonstrates the past trends and estimated future growth which show a continued strong increase and, if current trends pervade, a growth predominantly in suburban areas rather than in the central core.

The case against sprawl

As was indicated in terms of Vancouver, the city’s recent growth has been primarily absorbed by suburban development and a lot of this growth has been through low-density suburban sprawl, as in most North American cities.  Urban sprawl type development provides a slew of environmental, social, economic and planning concerns that have generally been recognized and accepted within the last couple of decades.

sprawlLow-density urban sprawl is characterized by single-family houses on large lots with services and commercial areas in the form of strip-malls and shopping centres along major roadways. The development form is very dependent on the automobile since services are invariably located far away, and employment centres are only attainable through a long commute by car.

The negative environmental effects that urban sprawl can lead to have been extensively researched and can be generally categorized as direct and indirect effects. Some of the direct environmental effects of sprawl are a consumption of a large land area and therefore often the conversion of agriculture or wilderness areas to urban environment, with many secondary effects such as water run-off pollution or wildlife habitat destruction. Low-density, large houses and associated lifestyles have also been linked to much higher general energy consumption than homes in the urban centres. Indirect outcomes include a variety of environmental effects based on the lifestyle requirements of suburban living which principally involves rising automobile use, directly leading to, of course,  increased greenhouse gas emissions.

In terms of economic issues, low-density provides a much costlier form of development, especially on a municipal government level, since basic infrastructures have to be provided which require roughly the same amount of investment (such as water pipes, electricity lines, etc… ), but for a much smaller tax-paying population base. The road system and the cost of providing infrastructures for the automobile alone is extremely costly for public finances and these various factors have often led to the argument that urban sprawl is only financially viable through the tax revenue of those more ‘efficient’ inner urban residents, which has led to the idea that suburban development is, in fact, financially 'subsidized' from inner urban residents who pay the same taxes but for a much more efficient and less costly infrastructure package.

From a social standpoint, urban sprawl type development has been associated with a variety of problems, such as loss of a sense of place or community, isolating lifestyles, the stress of long commutes, reliance on the automobile, and ethnic and economic class segregated neighbourhoods.

Finally, from a planning perspective, sprawl creates numerous issues beyond the environmental and economic crises which also affect planning. Urban sprawl is primarily more difficult to plan for services as it requires them to be devlivered over a larger area but for a smaller population and therefore there often isn’t the critical population to make many of these services viable, such as childcare, community centres, schools, swimming pools, libraries, etc… A major issue is the provision of public transportation since low-densities do not provide the critical population to make frequent and reliable service feasible, which simply propagates the residents’ reliance on the automobile. The suburban development form has also been criticized frequently for simply creating ‘dull’ and repetitive neighbourhood aesthetics, since large land areas are frequently developed by the same developer in identical fashion and this is also associated with the lack of a sense of community belonging and stewardship.

The City of Vancouver has recognized that to counter sprawl and the discussed negative issues it brings, while accepting the assumption that the population will likely continue to grow in Greater Vancouver, the only option is to focus development and growth within the already urbanized areas through increasing density. Increasing density will in turn lead to ecological benefits in reducing our 'footprint' on the land, in terms of land consumption, energy use and through general indirect lifestyle changes, especially less reliance on the automobile.


The idea of densification in the region has been a goal for many years, and was incorporated into the Liveable Region Strategic Plan of 1996, which set out general growth objectives for the GVRD. However, more recently there have been major pushes within the City of Vancouver to develop a strategy for incorporating population growth through densification alongside a campaign to promote its touted benefits. From this directive, the EcoDensity initiative was put forth by the City as of June 2006,[4] which stated that EcoDensity “is an acknowledgment that high quality and strategically located density can make Vancouver more sustainable, livable and affordable.”[5]

EcoDensity is an initiative that is still in the process of consultation and formulation, and is pending final approval by Council. The underlying idea of EcoDensity is a basic densification of the city in order to meet the stated goals of sustainability, livability and affordability while increasing the region's population. The exact form this will take is uncertain, but, if passed, EcoDensity will undoubtedly result in density increases in many areas throughout Vancouver and a rethinking of the city's urban structure.

Opposition to EcoDensity

Since its primary introduction and especially in recent months there has been a growing public interest in EcoDensity as well as a lot of concern with what some of the possible proposals could bring. There has been both general opposition to any changes to current neighbourhood forms as well as specific concerns that, even if density is beneficial, the City’s implementation of EcoDensity might not lead to the touted goals and could, in fact, result in a variety of negative outcomes.

norquayThe Norquay area in East Vancouver, centred on Kingsway and Earles Street, has proven to be a major area of contention in the face of EcoDensity. The City proposed a major rezoning to allow densification in the area in 2006. This proposal was prior and separate to the official initiation of EcoDensity, however, the type of ‘neighbourhood centre’ densification in the Norquay plan was very similar to many of the proposed actions of EcoDensity. The Norquay plan met a lot of opposition in the area among residents who had numerous concersn with the proposal. Some of the concerns were related to property tax increases with the rezoning, the potential large-scale demolishing of the existing single-family neighbourhood to be replaced by row-houses and apartments, loss of affordable housing for the approximate 30% of low-income in the area, lack of amenities being provided for the increased population, and lack of proper transit in the area to support non-auto-dependent development as one  of the goals which had been posited in EcoDensity principles. Alongside these concerns, there was a general lack of clarity on the specific reason why this particular area of Vancouver had been chosen for densification, especially in consideration of the some of the above points; a lack of transit, far from Downtown, and somewhat limited amenities.

A major discussion that came up in the EcoDensity public consultations was the issue of, if the City plans to densify, then where should this happen, based on what criteria, and how do we ensure that not only the neighbourhoods that are perhaps less politically powerful bear the brunt of compromises in the stated goal of lowering the city’s ‘Eco’-logical footprint? The idea of the Westside versus Eastside dichotomy was raised repeatedly in discussions and it was questioned whether the Eastside, which already has more density and often is seen to have less services proportionately, should be more impacted than the Westside or vice-versa.

Purpose of Project

In light of these issues, this project intends to neither propose specific densification measures nor oppose them. The goal of the project will be
, firstly, an investigation through mapping tools of the current density and dwelling infrastructure in Vancouver. Secondly, the project will attempt to spatially investigate some of the key criteria outlined in the EcoDensity proposal and in the principles of Smart Growth. The criteria selected would be considered as important components for an area to absorb density and develop a compact urban form. For example, this criteria would include some of the city amenities that would be considered beneficial, commercial ‘local neighbourhood centres’ and transit infrastructure. Finally, a Multi-Criteria Evaluation will be conducted to create maps that depict scores for the entire city to display the best ‘potential’ densification areas and the worst, in a hypothetically a-political context. High scores will thus represent the areas with the lowest current density in relation to their provision of the positive criteria of amenities, ‘local centres’ and transit access.

The goal of this project’s examination is, as mentioned, to provide visual tools that investigate at the basic layout of the city in terms of current density distribution and density ‘amenities’ without the very influential component of local neighbourhood will and political power, which can often play an important influencing role, such as in areas such as Shaughnessy which might heavily oppose neighbourhood changes for political and ideological reasons. A quantitative, non-political examination of beneficial criteria to densification should not perhaps override important subjective qualities to be examined but will on a basic level be an important insight in clearly showing the overall pressure and potential for different areas to densify, as a primary step in  deciding on a city densification proposal.


The project will look at various factors in Vancouver that are determined to be important components in making an area more potentially ‘densifiable’. These criteria are based on the goals outlined in the City’s proposed EcoDensity Charter as well as the basic tenets of Smart Growth, an urban theory at the basis of promoting density over extensive sprawl. These criteria will then be mapped accoring to the available data and the produced maps will, on one hand, create a useful visual tool in assessing spatial distribution of certain factors, as well as, being the basis of the later Multi-Criteria Evaluation of best potential densifiable areas
(see Methodology).

Since the early 1970’s there began to be a strong contingent in the planning community supporting the idea of compact city development and a shift away from classic automobile-dependent communities. Smart Growth is a general term that began to appear in planning literature of the 1990’s refering to the idea of guiding growth into a higher densification of existing development areas and preserving surrounding and internal green spaces. Although there are some variations and many different actors involved, Smart Growth is a developed theory that is based on various fundamental goals[6]:

  • Preserving green areas (parks, farmland, natural areas) within and surrounding communities
  • Concentrating development within built-up areas and existing centres and nodes
  • Creating ‘walkable’ communities
  • Providing a variety of transportation choices (public transit, biking, etc.)
  • Discouraging automobile use and auto-dependent development forms
  • Promoting unique neighbourhoods with a strong sense of place and community
  • Creating a range of housing choices, including affordable housing
  • Encouraging community involvement in planning decisions


The City of Vancouver’s EcoDensity initiative sets forth similar goals in their Draft Charter which outlines the three fundamental goals of ‘Sustainability, Livability and Affordability’[7]. Some important proposals of EcoDensity to be achieved through densification involve concentrating growth into central areas and neighbourhood ‘nodes’ as well as creating new development based on more public transportation and less auto-dependency. EcoDensity also stresses the importance of “providing the amenities, services, and infrastructure needed to support new and existing density levels”[8]. Based on these principles  of Smart Growth and the proposed EcoDensity initiative, criteria were selected to be important in determining potential densifiable areas.


The criteria that was determined to be important for examination was on the one hand a detailed and accurate look at the current density distribution and on the other hand the distribution of various ‘amenities’ which are important in supporting a proper densification plan and swould help meet the aforementioned broad goals of Smart Growth and EcoDensity.


Current Density

In terms of current density it was determined that to provide an accurate view of density beyond what was available presently, it was needed to adjust for certain important factors.
The smallest scale of current density data available is by the Census Dissemination Areas (DAs) in Vancouver. This does show densification but it obscures important underlying information. Different DAs represent very specific underlying land-uses in the city and therefore two DAs showing low densities might be the result of very different factors. One low density DA might, for example, represent a still underdeveloped residential neighbourhood whereas another might be a commercial or industrial area that isn’t intended for habitation at all. What was needed was therefore to look at density based on the area of actual available residential or potentially ‘residential’ land. Firstly, parklands were clearly determined as being important assets to preserve and not include in any potential densification area, which clearly fits with the goal of Smart Growth and EcoDensity in preserving green spaces. Industrial and commercial lands were also determined to be important assets that should not be lost to residential as these are important factors in maintaining mixed communities and the available jobs and services in close proximity to living areas, thus encouraging live-work and walk-able neighbourhoods. These land classes, road areas and all other land-uses were therefore removed as described in the Methodology section. Having excluded the above land-uses, all residential zones and the few undeveloped lands were made into what was termed the Residential Land Area. From this residential land base, density calculations can be calculated per DA, therefore, showing more accurately the actual population compared to the land area that is potentially convertible to housing.


Other than basic population density by Residential Land Area, dwelling numbers from the census data were also examined. Dwellings provided a structural density map of how many dwellings exisited per Residential Land Hectare (RHA). The dwelling densities thus shows the current number of inidividual dwelling units that exist and therefore could help in determining where more separate units could be added to incorporate increasing dwellings per land area rather than simply population increases.  Finally, using available data on average bedrooms per dwellings and dwelling numbers per DAs, the number of bedrooms per capita per DA was looked at. This was intended in determining where existing structures were underused and therefore would have potential to increase density within them. 'Unused' or surplus bedrooms are potentially convertible to internal suites within houses which is one of the proposals of EcoDensity and would help meet the goals of more affordable and likely increases rental housing outlined in both the initiative and Smart Growth principles.




The amenities that were determined to be important were the following:


  • Transit Accessibility to Downtown CBD
  • Proximity to Parks
  • Proximity to ‘Commercial Node’
  • Proximity to Community Centre
  • Proximity to Secondary School
  • Proximity to Elementary School


Transit accessibility was based on the relative time to Downtown through means of walking and using transit. This was determined to be important in focusing density that is close or accessible by transit to the CBD, thus encourageing growth around non-automobile dependent development forms and creating opportunities for more people to take transit to work and to the central core. Similarly, it was decided that commercial nodes outside the CBD should be identified, and that density should be prioritized around these existing commercial nodes as they provide the opportunity for the mixed communities and live-work-shop neighbourhoods discussed in Smart Growth and EcoDensity. Here the proximity is based on simply walking to the commercial node and not using transit, since these are smaller neighbourhood centres where density is to be concentrated in close proximity not a 'transit-ride' away. Parks and green space are an important tenet of Smart Growth theory, which promotes preserving green areas but also concentrating density near these green amenities to provide public green space in a dense areas where many people are not able to have a private backyard. Parks are obviously difficult to increase within an already built-out city and therefore existing park locations are important to consider in future growth concentration. Finally, community centres, secondary schools and elementary schools were determined to be important amenities as well, since they would help provide services to the new population and it was assumed that in meeting increased demand with higher populations, it would be easier to expand the centres currently existing rather than building new community centres or schools. In other words, although there would likely be a role for new locations and current schools might not meet potential capacity needed, it would be much easier to build an extra floor or extension on a school rather than finding the increasingly scarce land to build a completely new facility.



[1] GVRD. Metro Vancouver Key Facts 1996 - 2007. Retrieved March 2008 from []

[2]  BC STATS, Service BC, BC Ministry of Labour and Citizens' Services. GVRD Population Projections by Local Health Areas. Retrieved March 2008 from []

[3]  Ibid.

[4] City of Vancouver. EcoDensity Draft Charter, 2008. Retrieved March 10, 2008, from [] p.2

[5] City of Vancouver. EcoDensity Primer Booklet: Overview of the EcoDensity initiative and themes, 2007. Retrieved March 20, 2008, from

[6]Geller, Allyson L., American Journal for Public Health. “Smart Growth: a prescription for livable cities”. September 2003, Vol. 93, No. 9.
AND Smart Growth Online. Principles of Smart Growth, Retrieved MArch 2008 from [].

[7] City of Vancouver. EcoDensity Draft Charter, 2008. Retrieved March 10, 2008, from []

[8] Ibid. p.2