The Capital Region’s population is expected to grow to 442,000 in the next 20 years. Where are we going to put everyone?
ON NOVEMBER 23, 2016 a majority of the Capital Regional District directors agreed that it was time to accept the long-time-coming new Regional Growth Strategy. The Province requires regional districts to have one of these planning guides, but it also insists that it be unanimously endorsed by each of the affected municipalities and electoral districts involved.
So it’s not done yet, and in fact indications are that some municipalities—likely the Highlands and Victoria, and perhaps others—will reject it by the end-of-January deadline. If that happens, the legislation allows the Province to step in and order binding arbitration.
From the start, the task has been both incredibly important to get right, and incredibly difficult—some would say impossible given our region’s history, present shape, and contrasting visions for the future among its “fiefdoms.” Over the years, it has morphed from a Regional Sustainability Strategy back to a Regional Growth Strategy.
Compromise may be central to governance in a region such as ours, but some lines in the sand seem to have been drawn and were in evidence at the November 23 meeting, when a key clause about water services was being finalized.
Delivery of water services—in the form of piped water—is viewed in urban planning circles as a crucial tool for shaping growth patterns. Where infrastructure allows water to flow, development follows. And that of course engenders more traffic and increased demand for other expensive services, whose cost is born by taxpayers throughout the region and Province. Here’s what UVic’s Environmental Law Centre wrote in a submission on the Regional Growth Strategy: “The primary way to maintain effective growth management is to limit both sewer and water servicing. It is well proven that once servicing is extended into rural areas zoning follows and densification occurs on a case-by-case basis.
There is no justification for extending servicing within the context of a regional sustainability strategy that is focusing on decreasing GHGs, creating compact complete communities, and connecting the green infrastructure of the region, when plentiful opportunities exist to accommodate development in serviced areas.”
Mike Hicks, director for the vast Juan De Fuca Electoral District, doesn’t share that perspective. At the November meeting, he was focused on the rights of his Port Renfrew-area residents to water—and to development. The Port Renfrew area sits on rock, he said, so well water is unreliable. “Without water...there’s no development.”
Several members of Port Renfrew’s development and business community made presentations at the meeting citing their problems with water and how that made their investments risky and endangered jobs and growth of the community.
Victoria councillor and CRD Director Ben Isitt, a long-time opponent of urban sprawl, in explaining why he couldn’t vote for the clause extending water services, noted that “entire hillsides have been blasted away [in the Port Renfrew area]...it’s been anything but a light touch that’s appropriate in rural areas…The [development] model being pursued there needs to be reigned in.” Isitt noted “the Province, through the legislation, has recognized that there’s a regional interest in land use patterns, in protection for biological diversity and ecological systems, and that decisions around how infrastructure expands, how development occurs, should be made at the regional level.”
Hicks, obviously emotional about it, replied: “Director Isitt brings it on home for me. [His objections have] got nothing to do with water; it’s got to do with land use, and Regional Growth Strategies, and having a big whip from Victoria down to Port Renfrew. We’ve got a little town that’s trying to make it. People say it’ll be the next Tofino, and they struggle with these meetings and this water and big developers…I don’t know how we can embrace David Suzuki and talk about water for everyone and turn around and say we won’t give it to the people of Port Renfrew.”
He asked CRD directors to “Please recognize the right of Port Renfrew residents to control their destiny.” In the past Hicks has threatened to challenge the RGS in court if it refuses to allow for piped water to these communities.
Perhaps such threats influenced the framers of the new Regional Growth Strategy (RGS). While CRD staff gave a report in which they stated, “Ultimately, [extending water services] is a political decision,” they still made a recommendation allowing for significantly more access to water than the previous RGS, despite, they noted, the opposition made clear at a public hearing in October.
Saanich Councillor and CRD Director Vic Derman, another opponent of sprawl, described himself as “flummoxed by the staff recommendation,” when other compromises existed. He said it almost guarantees the RGS will have to go to arbitration.
Alice Finall, mayor of North Saanich, noted that some are already calling the RGS the “Rapid Growth Strategy.”
After some discussion, a slim majority of the CRD board voted to accept the RGS with the new provision for water services in the Juan de Fuca lands. As mentioned, the refusal of any one council in the region to endorse it could send it to arbitration.
AT THE NOVEMBER MEETING, Vic Derman condemned the RGS on climate change grounds: “This document and the supporting document of the proposed climate change plan for the region are very tepid and very mild…We have mortgaged future generations—we are making it impossible for them to meet their needs. We are putting them into a hideous situation. This document doesn’t recognize that. It doesn’t take us far enough fast enough. It doesn’t canvas the tough questions. This document doesn’t meet our needs...not even close.”
Derman, who recently authored a report on climate change for the CRD environment committee (which he chairs), met me for tea at a White Spot within walking distance of his Saanich home.
He feels there has been a lack of leadership in terms of letting the public know clearly the consequences of failing to act boldly enough on the region’s growth, especially in relation to climate change. The original RGS, adopted in 2004 after years of deliberation, set the course, he feels. It did attempt to limit growth to eight major centres—only one of which was in the West Shore. But in order to get it passed, compromises were made. The obvious example of such a compromise was agreeing to Langford’s demand to make its municipal boundaries its “urban containment boundary”—meaning all of its 42-square-kilometres of land was able to be developed and serviced. Recall that in 2002 Langford’s council was pursuing rezoning for Bear Mountain, allowing for up to 1500 housing units and necessitating a new connector from the Trans-Canada Highway up Skirt Mountain. It hasn’t ended there.
Mayor Stew Young, exercising power continuously since 1993, and his pro-development council have approved big box stores that draw traffic from all corners of the region. They’ve offered fee reductions and tax holidays for developers. The result? Langford’s previously forested and agricultural lands, along with the many ecosystem services they provided, have been extensively blasted apart and paved over.
Most recently Young announced a 10-year tax holiday for any provincial office or tech company that opens in Langford. “I’m going to push this so hard. We need to put businesses where the people are,” Young told the Times Colonist.
Allowing Langford its rampant growth strategy in 2004, “was the price to getting an agreement,” reflects Derman.
Perhaps in light of what happened in Langford, this time there seems less willingness to compromise.
The new document (already about six years in the making) doesn’t fully recognize the urgency of climate change, says Derman. “Pretty much all the scientists agree we have already put enough carbon in the atmosphere to cause a 1.6 degree increase”—meaning we need to suck carbon out of the atmosphere in order to meet the Paris Agreement target. Moreover, notes Derman, at one degree of warming, you start to get feedback loops, like the melting of the permafrost which jacks up the temperature more. He tells me of a new study in Nature showing how soil will release more stored carbon as global temperature increases—another feedback loop. New data on the West Antarctica ice shelves, reviewed by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration in the US, indicate that sea level could rise by three metres by 2050—spelling catastrophe for many cities around the world, not to mention inland cities as they try to cope with an influx of sea-rise refugees.
Over tea, Derman reiterates what he told fellow CRD directors at the November meeting: “The only thing that could possibly be more urgent to act on would be if a large asteroid was hurtling toward us.”
While cities don’t have as much authority as upper levels of government, they can set policies that will reduce automobile traffic, which in the CRD’s case is the source of 55 percent (and growing) of its greenhouse gas emissions. Under the business-as-usual scenario, the CRD’s Regional Transportation Plan (2014), a companion to its RGS, projects 100,000 new auto trips in peak periods. “[C]urrent travel patterns are not sustainable and current trends are not encouraging,” it states. Automobile use was found to be increasing, particularly between the West Shore and Core. In the West Shore, “87 percent of peak-hour trips are currently made by car.”
Yet such auto-dependent patterns seem assured by the RGS’s own population projections. It forecasts that the West Shore’s share of regional population will grow from 20 percent in 2011 to 26.7 percent by 2038, while the Core communities shrink from 69 percent to 62.6 percent. (The Saanich Peninsula holds steady at 11 percent.)
Derman feels the Regional Growth Strategy “fails to ask important questions—and probably the biggest one is where should we put people in the future? I don’t think the answer is in the Western Communities.”
I ask Derman about Mayor Young’s determination to bring jobs to Langford. “That just won’t work…The worst growth pattern is obviously sprawl,” he says, “but the second worst is nodes of density that are dispersed, because everybody doesn’t live where they work…as soon as you have dispersed nodes that are quite far apart, all you do is have a lot more travel between them. So it becomes much more expensive, it becomes more energy intensive, it’s bad for climate change, and it’s also bad for the second real big problem, congestion.” Derman says the congestion problem is a direct result of the land use pattern we chose. “Doubling down on it—by allowing more growth in more dispersed areas—is not a particularly good idea.”
Indeed, given that the CRD’s core communities—Oak Bay, Victoria, Saanich, Esquimalt and View Royal—have a population of 240,600, odds are very good that any ministry or larger business has far more employees among them than in Langford (population 35,000) or even Langford/Colwood (population 54,000 total).
The risk of “solving” the congestion to the West Shore, says Derman, is that it may encourage more people to drive. “The highway was supposed to last 30 years,” recalls Derman, “but it filled up in 11.” And it, along with the infrastructure services for residences, are all subsidized by all the Province’s taxpayers.”
If you really want to address both climate change and local quality of life, including congestion, he argues, the aim has to be a truly regional compact form of community.
He knows it works—on a number of levels—and can be done. He spent part of September in Amsterdam, a city of close to a million. “It’s three or four times the population size of our region. I was staying on the Western edge of the more developed area, and for me it was 8 minutes of rather easy cycling to the centre of town…They have a much, much more compact form.” He never saw a traffic jam either.
In his report to the CRD’s environment committee, Derman got specific about where development should be directed: “In our region, the Shelbourne Valley, the Douglas Corridor, the Fort Street Corridor and corridors between the City of Victoria and Esquimalt offer excellent opportunities to develop expanded complete communities in close proximity to the Downtown core.” Derman wishes the $85-million devoted to the Mackenzie interchange had been been used instead to help finance some sort of LRT or modern streetcar on the Douglas Corridor. Over our tea, we discuss a bigger public transit idea, a circular core route that hits UVic, Downtown and Uptown. This is where the vast majority of people in the CRD already are. Helping them manage comfortably and affordably without a vehicle seems more logical than an LRT to Langford.
Derman says he might support an LRT to Langford, but only in return for guarantees of serious restrictions on development. “If we spent the better part of a billion on LRT and it caused a huge new expansion of roads, and only lasted 10 years, what a disastrous waste,” he says.
WHILE THE REDUCTION OF GREENHOUSE GAS EMISSIONS is a huge benefit of compact, complete communities, it certainly is not the only one. To more fully grasp some of the others, I met with Todd Litman. Fittingly, I can walk to his home office. We both live in the central core—he in Fernwood and I in Rockland. It’s a pleasant 15-minute walk on a sunny, crisp day.
Though he lives in Victoria, Litman works all over the world as a transportation and smart growth consultant. The author of numerous research papers, he has focused on analyzing the many socio-economic benefits of compact communities. His latest report, “Selling Smart Growth,” lists improvements to fitness and health, personal finances, real estate industry profits, local economic development and property tax revenues among them.
As we sip jasmine tea, he tells me, “People who live in compact neighbourhoods, besides spending a whole lot less on transportation, have much lower traffic fatality rates. Since traffic fatalities are the main cause of death of people in the prime of life—that is between 5 and 50 years of age—there really is a huge public health and safety benefit if people are able to live in a more compact, walkable community.”
Unfortunately, our policies contradict our aims to be more sustainable and liveable.
In particular, governments at all levels tend to do a poor job of charging people the full costs of living in rural areas, says Litman. “It costs far more to get services to rural areas. And people who move out there…complain they are not getting their fair share when in fact they are getting more than their fair share.”
Changing expectations have a lot to do with it. In the past, Litman points out, “people knew that if they moved out to the countryside, they wouldn’t have quick emergency response times, and they’d have to drive their kids to school, and the local school wasn’t going to have as many services. And a lot of the roads would be gravel roads—and you’d accept that.” People now tend to expect urban-type services throughout the region—and complain about it when that doesn’t happen.
He gives the example of someone commuting from Sooke to a job in the core and expecting the government to spend millions to add capacity so he or she can avoid the Colwood Crawl. “They complain because the roads are congested and the funny thing is they don’t recognize that they are the cause of that congestion.”
Creating and maintaining more distant roads, sewers, water, community centres, and libraries, providing fire protection, policing, and public transit costs all taxpayers significantly more per rural household than delivering them to core residents. “In practice,” says Litman, “we usually split the difference—providing somewhat inferior services but spending more on them.” In a recent study, Litman enumerated the costs: “sprawl increases annualized infrastructure costs from $502 per capita in the smartest growth quintile cities up to $750 in the most sprawled quintile cities. This analysis indicates that sprawl’s incremental costs average approximately $4556 annually per capita, of which $2568 is internal (borne directly by sprawl location residents) and $1988 is external (borne by other people).”
Another set of policies that “contradict” the aims of growing in a smart way, and which Litman has done a lot of research around, is parking regulations. While we have no laws requiring a home for every person, we do have laws requiring one for every vehicle—in fact, between two and six spaces per vehicle when you factor in what businesses are forced to provide.
Typically, parking accounts for about 10 percent of the cost of a house, says Litman, while each parking space in the community costs $500-$1500 per year for surface parking, and twice that in underground or structured lots. “Many cars are worth less that the space they are provided,” he says.
And it’s worse out in the suburbs. In one of his reports, Litman writes: “In high density urban areas each automobile requires about 80 square metres of land for roads and off-street parking facilities. In lower-density, sprawled areas each automobile requires about 240 square meters of land for roads and parking, which significantly exceeds the amount of land devoted to most urban houses.”
“Zoning codes, in effect, assume we’re all drivers and this creates a self-fulfilling prophecy,” he tells me. The highest amount of parking per square metre is generally demanded of restaurants and bars. “On the one hand,” says Litman, “we have all these programs to discourage drunk driving…On the other hand, virtually all municipal governments assume that most people who are going to a bar will drive there.” The parking requirements force pub developers to move further out to the fringe where land is less costly—thereby further encouraging car travel.
“The very thing we want,” Litman laments—“that is, more compact, infill development—becomes economically infeasible due to the parking requirements.”
Downtown Victoria is the exception. Its commercial buildings aren’t required to provide parking. And this very lack, claims Litman, helps make the Downtown “the most valuable, attractive, walkable...vibrant” area of the region. When I mention the grumbles about parking Downtown, he insists, “People can find parking—they just can’t find free parking.”
He’s also encouraged that Downtown’s residential developments are averaging only .4 parking spaces per unit (very low by North American standards). By contrast, in suburban areas, he notes, each single-family dwelling is averaging 2 or 3 parking spaces (even multi-family apartments and condos in these areas average 1.5 per unit).
We need a mind-shift, he says, that it’s not OK to subsidize parking. “If we were rational, we would manage parking space more efficiently, and free it up for affordable housing.”
Litman feels that another mental shift we need to make is to recognize that the ideal family home is not necessarily a single family house. Families can live well in apartments. It’s only in the past 50 years or so that compact housing types became stigmatized.
This rings true for me. As a teenager in 1970s Winnipeg, I had friends who lived with their families in big, old, inner-city apartments. I thought it was cool.
Our new RGS includes “improving housing affordability” as a goal. But municipal development policies tend to deny families affordable housing in urban environments—we force them to “drive until they qualify” and then spend hours and dollars commuting on roads we all have to subsidize, says Litman. The majority of the land available for development is zoned only for single-family housing, he says, adding, “Neighbourhood associations work very hard to exclude compact, affordable housing types, including townhouses and especially apartments.”
The most cost-effective housing (taking into account land, construction and operating costs), says Litman, tends to be wood-frame, mid-rise multi-family buildings, without elevators. “If we wanted affordable housing for families, we would make it really easy for developers to build these. Instead, zoning codes make it virtually impossible in most neighbourhoods.” We sometimes allow high-rises, which certainly add density but these are more costly per square foot due to concrete use and elevators, so generally cannot provide the larger, affordable suites needed for families. Townhouses, low and mid-rises (up to 6 stories) and garden suites are the best bets in his view. He’s in favour of secondary suites as well, though given the amount of housing needed, they are not going to make a big dent. “We’re talking about a shortage of tens of thousands of housing units. If you already own a home, you are OK. It’s the young people who are just trying to get started—especially families with children that we do a terrible job of welcoming,” says Litman, adding that it’s also difficult for university students, artists, seniors living on a pension, or anyone without a lot of money. “Unfortunately we’re just not adding to the stock.” He says the type of infill development needed has become almost impossible due to the success of the neighbourhood associations that oppose that kind of development.
He believes the majority of new housing should be in the core, and that all housing should be developed in accordance with smart growth principles—“which means that the vast majority of houses are within walking distance of services and schools and parks and there’s good sidewalks…and good transit services.”
Like Derman, Litman likes the idea of a more efficient core transit system, whether LRT or more bus lanes. “The big benefit of buses [or LRT] is they can save families from owning a second car,” he says, which not only saves them a lot of money, but saves all those car-related expenses that taxpayers absorb. “Anything we can do to create a community where the typical household doesn’t need two cars…makes it better for everyone in the whole region,” he stresses.
IN SOME WAYS THE NEW REGIONAL GROWTH STRATEGY appears to acknowledge both Derman’s and Litman’s concerns. After noting projected growth of the CRD by 94,900 people to 441,800 in 2038, it states: “It continues to be clear, however, that even modest population growth would undermine the regional vision if it were accommodated as it has been since the 1950s, through further urban expansion into farms, forests and countryside. Further, an expanded regional footprint would significantly contribute to increased greenhouse gas emissions.”
It’s in the lack of details and specific implementation measures that it fails. At the October public hearing, Vicky Husband, a long-time resident of the Highlands who accepts the limitations of living in a rural setting, characterized the RGS as “weak and unenforceable.” She said, “It must include clearer targets and criteria for CRD board and municipal decisions to realize the vision it describes.”
Vic Derman agrees, saying it reminds him of New Year’s Resolutions: “I should lose weight; pass the chocolate pie. There’s all these motherhood statements.”
To transform away from a car-centric region, certainly what’s needed are bold new measures, rather than motherhood statements.
Yet even the RGS’s population growth projections express a willingness to let growth blossom in the West Shore. Combined with the provision of piped water to the Juan de Fuca district, critics like Husband say the RGS is boldly heading in the wrong direction. As mentioned at the outset, one of the main tools available to control growth is limiting water (and other services) to outlying areas. Appeals to fairness and “water as a human right,” however, have led to “more permissive” water servicing allowances.
I asked Todd Litman about this “human right” rationale. He said, “That’s actually an insult to anyone who deals with true human rights…what we’re talking about is the difference between having a pipe of water coming into their house or a truck. It’s not like they’re going to be dying of dehydration. They are relying on wells; they moved out there and knew that at some times of the year, their well is insufficient and so they need to get a truck to come in...There are people in the world who really have a shortage of water and for people of Juan de Fuca to claim that that’s a violation of their human rights is really kind of silly.”
After the 2004 RGS, it was Langford that, by getting its way, ended up taking the region for a rapid and dispersed growth ride. Derman told me some have suggested that because of that “the horse is already out of the barn.” So why not let Juan de Fuca have it’s piped water? Derman put it this way: “So you had 25 horses in the barn. You left the door open and 10 escaped. Does that mean we should let the other 15 escape as well?”
Leslie Campbell can’t help noticing all the possible sites for infill development in her long walks around Victoria. She welcomes your comments and input on this story and the issues it raises.