By Alex Boston, ED Renewable Cities & Fellow, SFU Morris J Wosk Centre for Dialogue
A Strong Vision and Status Quo Strategy
Metro Vancouver’s Regional Growth Strategy, Metro 2050, presents a strong vision for a sustainable, low carbon, climate resilient region. However, the plan’s strategies are fundamentally inconsistent with the vision and goals, threatening Metro Vancouver’s ability to achieve its vision and ambitious greenhouse gas reduction targets.
In its current form, Metro 2050 will sustain high transportation GHGs—the region’s largest and fastest growing GHG source—increased congestion, increased unaffordability and growing vulnerability to climate change impacts. While the draft RGS includes some commendable new work to manage civic infrastructure costs, the overarching policies will result in rising civic infrastructure deficits and upwards pressure on transit fares. Metro 2050 inadvertently facilitates a high cost, high carbon, high congestion, high risk region.
The urgent crises of affordability and climate with the calamitous consequences experienced across B.C. to property, infrastructure, human life, economic activity and ecosystems behove the region to steward a coarse correction. Fortunately, this new direction also offers greater prosperity, including lower congestion and higher industrial and employment land outcomes, and the lowest cost solutions to some of our highest priorities.
While the optimal course of action would be updating the RGS to ensure vision-strategy alignment, this is not currently possible for two reasons: a) these fundamental revisions, which include adoption by all municipal councils in the region, are not possible to achieve before to local government elections this fall (2022), and b) there are underlying policy and governance challenges for local governments to undertake these major course corrections.
Renewable Cities supports a resolution for an early climate and sustainability amendment to Metro 2050 upon appointment of the next Board, after fall 2022 elections. This amendment should be supported by robust analysis to strengthen climate policy, integrate with other critical goals like affordability and reduced congestion, and improve alignment of Metro 2050 strategies with vision and goals.
Land Use is Driving the Largest and Fastest Growing Emission Sector: Transportation
Transportation is the Metro Vancouver’s largest and fastest growing GHG source. A major driver is land use. A disproportionately large share of job and residential growth is further and further from major job hubs (the number one determinant of household carbon and congestion). A large share of general urban fabric is losing density. Average commute distances and times are rising. Transit mode share is slipping. Vehicle growth rates are outstripping population growth.
Fundamentally, a Regional Growth Strategy is a land use plan. A Metro Vancouver staff report on Metro 2050 concludes the overarching land use framework is exactly the same as Metro 2040 which is has been steadily growing the region’s carbon, congestion and affordability crises:
The same parcel-based map data from Metro 2040 has been used to create the Metro 2050 maps meaning no changes have been made to the location of any of the land use designations,the Urban Containment Boundary, the Urban Centres and Frequent Transit Development Areas, or the Special Study Areas.(Metro Vancouver, May 25, 2021)
Land use planning is local governments’ wheelhouse. If there is any planning agenda where Metro Vancouver should align its GHG reduction targets it is Metro 2050. The IPPC underscores the imperative for local leadership and focus.
Sustainable urban planning and infrastructure design including green roofs and facades, networks of parks and open spaces, management of urban forests and wetlands, urban agriculture, and water-sensitive design can deliver both mitigation and adaptation benefits in settlements. These options can also reduce flood risks, pressure on urban sewer systems, urban heat island effects, and can deliver health benefits from reduced air pollution. There could also be trade-offs. For example, increasing urban density to reduce travel demand, could imply high vulnerability to heat waves and flooding. (IPCC, Assessment Report Six, Mitigation Working Group, 2022)
Effective urban planning can reduce GHG emissions from urban transport between 20% and 50%. (IPCC, Special Report on Global Warming of 1.5°C, 2018)
Thousands of cities are undertaking climate action plans, but their aggregate impact on urban emissions is uncertain… Current climate action plans focus largely on energy efficiency. Fewer climate action plans consider land use planning… Effective mitigation strategies involve packages of mutually reinforcing policies, including co-locating high residential with high employment densities, achieving high diversity and integration of land uses, increasing accessibility and investing in public transport. (IPCC, Assessment Report 5, Mitigation Working Group, 2014)
Focusing growth and investing in transit can globally reduce infrastructure costs 30 per cent and household transportation costs 50 per cent, dramatically reducing GHGs and freeing up scarce capital to be invested in higher value social and economic priorities, as well as additional climate change mitigation measures.
More compact, connected, and coordinated cities are worth up to US$17 trillion in economic savings by 2050. (Global Commission on the Economy & Climate, The New Climate Economy, 2018)
Metro Vancouver Land Use Projections: Policies are Inconsistent with Vision
There is currently 6,500 ha of undeveloped land designated “General Urban” within the Urban Containment Boundary. Metro Vancouver’s basic demographic and planning assumptions include the expectation that these areas will be developed in the next 20 years.
A recent Metro Vancouver analysis on urban tree canopy and impervious surfaces made the following projections regarding land use based on the designations in Metro 2040, which are likewise proposed for Metro 2050:
There are currently about 6,500 hectares of lands with the regional land use designation ‘General Urban’ within the UCB, that are undeveloped or rural and planned for future urban growth… the remaining urban lands within the UCB will be largely developed over the next 15-20 years…. These areas are expected to be developed as mainly low-density housing with some higher density. (Regional Tree Canopy Cover and Impervious Surfaces (Metro Vancouver 2019)
The “undeveloped” 6,500 ha within the UCB, equivalent to 65 km2, is as large as a medium-sized municipality: half the area of the City of Vancouver, one West Van, or four New Westminsters.
Development in these areas—even based on conservative estimates—would result in higher GHG emissions and congestion, loss of tree canopy, reduced climate resilience and higher civic infrastructure deficits.
This table shows the implications of building out these undeveloped lands within the urban containment boundary, based on conservative extrapolations of similar neighbourhood types and Metro Vancouver analysis.
*1 billion km annually =
30% of all driving originating from Surrey
50% of all driving originating from Vancouver
100% of all driving originating from Langley Township, Coquitlam or Burnaby
If this projected growth in General Urban is reallocated to Urban Centres and frequent transit development corridors, vehicle kms travelled and GHG tonnes could be reduced by two-thirds, driving net reductions in GHGs and VKTs and increases in urban tree canopy growth.
Metro Vancouver’s growth projections for undeveloped land in the Urban Containment Boundary have three implications:
Increased Carbon & Congestion: Increased passenger vehicle GHGs from approximately 4.66 per cent by 2030 (from 2010 levels) rather than contributing to Metro Vancouver’s 60 per cent reduction target, and adding an estimated 650 million vehicle km travelled per year versus meeting the BC Government’s 25 per cent reduction target.
Loss of Urban Tree Canopy & Climate Resilience: “Result in a loss of over 3,000 ha of tree canopy,” according to Metro Vancouver, wiping out the prospect of meeting its target to increase urban tree canopy from 32 to 40 per cent by 2050 and releasing 1.5 million tonnes of CO2. Implications of projected tree canopy loss to development include increased stormwater management costs, increased vulnerability to flooding and heat wave events, and a sustained decline in ecosystem health and biodiversity.
Increased Civic Infrastructure Deficits & Intergenerational Inequity: Increased civic infrastructure deficits, as low-density development doesn’t generate enough revenue to operate, maintain and replace its civic infrastructure. This is a significant additional burden on future taxpayers, further exacerbating one of the greatest inequities of our time: intergenerational inequity. Young people today will not only confront greater climate change impacts, under current policy, they also face rising affordability, a growing tax burden and declining public services.
Reconciling Surrey and Metro Vancouver Differences: Aligning Shared Visions with Shared Strategies
The City of Surrey has indicated it will not accept the new Regional Growth Strategy. This is a peculiar twist in Metro 2050’s journey, as it was designed to meet the minimum ambitions across member municipalities. Within Metro Vancouver, Surrey has, in fact, articulated amongst the most ambitious commitments.
Surrey’s Official Community Plan embodies the goal of its Sustainability Charter: “Meeting the needs of the present generation in terms of socio-cultural systems, the economy and the environment, while promoting a high quality of life but without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.”
Surrey has nine Building Blocks in its Vision “that inform the policies within its OCP and serve as the guide by which the effectiveness of the OCP will be measured and monitored,” specifically: “The City of Surrey will continually become a greener, more complete, more compact and connected community that is resilient, safer, inclusive, healthier and more beautiful.” From urban tree canopy to efficient transportation and land use, to climate impact preparedness and fiscal responsibility, Surrey’s goals are at least as ambitious as Metro 2050.
Surrey’s inconsistency is not with Metro 2050. The City of Surrey and Metro Vancouver share meritorious goals. The biggest inconsistency is consistency! The policies and plans of both Metro Vancouver and the City of Surrey cannot deliver on the shared vision and goals that are in the best interest of current and future citizens, taxpayers and businesses.
An overwhelming majority of the Metro Vancouver Board has indicated an intention to reconcile its vision with its strategy early in the next term. We hope that the City of Surrey will join other municipalities in this exercise.
Ultimately, a new regional growth strategy requires unanimity to enter into force. Ideally, the regional growth strategy is accepted by resolution by each affected municipality. There are mechanisms under the Local Government Act for settling differences that may exist.
Six Big Moves for Sustainable Land Use
Metro Vancouver can lead a course correction on sustainable land use in the region, providing leadership on strategies that reduce congestion and carbon emissions. Here are six big moves on Sustainable Land Use:
Transit Hub Housing & Commercial: Stack housing, commercial and institutional space atop rapid transit stations, bus exchanges and bus depots creates attractive, dynamic neighbourhood hubs. This is “free” underutilized land. This strategy is consistent with the RGS and aligns with OCPs. Adding housing on and around transit land can reduce transportation GHGs, and generate ridership, farebox revenue and rental revenue for TransLink. While affordable rental and social housing should be a primary objective, this should not preclude market housing to meet revenue priorities and accommodate the socio-economic diversity of a municipality. This strategy can improve taxpayer return for the hundreds of millions invested in these assets. In addition, a profitable public procurement program that integrates net zero, sustainable construction can catalyze a prefabricated, mass timber industry in B.C. to meet domestic and international markets, an immense growth industry.
SkyTrain Connected Freight Consolidation Centres & Zero Emission Courier Vehicles: Urban freight is the region and continent’s fastest growing source of carbon emissions. Leading urban regions are reversing this trend, establishing a hierarchical network of centres that consolidate courier freight for pick up and drop off by electric vans and cargo bikes. In Metro Vancouver it may be possible to capitalize on our rapid transit network, using the SkyTrain network to move goods across much of the region efficiently. The RGS could prioritize the acquisition of land for these consolidation centres. This strategy could dramatically curb growing congestion and eliminate the fastest growing source of regional GHGs by 2030.
Industrial Land Protection & Intensification: Adopt recommendations to protect and intensify industrial and employment land. Firm policies should be established to ensure zero loss of industrial and employment, or agricultural, ecologically significant land. Strengthen the integration of industrial and employment into mixed use. Remove barriers and provide incentives to build multistorey industrial and warehouse buildings close to transportation assets for employee and goods movement, returning to the form of a century ago, catching up to other leading jurisdictions.
General Urban Resiliency & Gentle Intensification: Metro 2050’s policy for General Urban leaves too much flexibility and doesn’t provide enough support for gentle intensification. Tremendous changes are taking place in single family neighbourhoods. Demographic changes are leading to loss of population density: most households in single family neighoubourhoods are occupied by only one or two people. Empty nesters are a primary demographic, dependent on driving and living in homes they’ve outgrown. While some are happy and have good incomes, many are socially isolated, challenged to take care of their homes, and have few options to move to smaller, more accessible homes in their neighbourhood. By 2040, 50 per cent of all homes will be occupied by a solo resident. To address these trends, Metro 2050 should strongly support gentle intensification in the general urban fabric, allowing for missing middle housing, strip mall redevelopment and accessory dwelling innovations, such as senior-student homesharing, laneway homes, and secondary suite management for seniors. These solutions can and should be right-sized by neighbourhood and municipality.
Connecting Big Urban Centres – Frequent Transit Corridor Focused Growth: There is immense untapped potential for focusing growth along many major transit corridors that connect key urban centres. Currently, the smallest and slowest growing geography of all land use designations is Frequent Transit Development Areas (FTDAs). If greenfield development pressure is to be reduced, considerable work is needed to promote the designation and development of FTDAs, identifying and overcoming key barriers. TransLink’s Transit Service Guidelines provide a solid basis to guide density targets but are only specified for bus routes. They should be expanded to rapid bus and SkyTrain.
Greenspace Protection: Phasing out development on farm, forest and ecologically significant land is vital for municipal fiscal sustainability, community prosperity and resilience to climate impacts. This may be the single most important big move! Lighty-populated, peripheral development does not cover the costs to operate, maintain and replace its road, water, stormwater and sewage infrastructure, let alone pay its share of other municipal services. Furthermore, green areas within the Urban Containment Boundary are located on the urban edge, far from existing transit, services and employment lands. This form of growth is the region’s single largest driver of passenger vehicle congestion and GHG growth.
Land Use: Lowest Cost, Highest Benefit Strategy Wedge
Sustainable land use is the lowest cost climate action strategy. As the OECD and the Global Commission on Climate and Economy have underscored, sustainable land use is a negative cost—a money maker!
Sustainable land use offers some of the least expensive, affordable housing solutions, protecting the pocketbooks and prospects of people in this region. Focusing growth along transit corridors and around rapid transit stations cuts congestion and puts riders and revenue into TransLink coffers. Supportive land use can extend improved traffic flow on billion-dollar bridge and highway expansions for decades, delaying (sometimes permanently) further costly expansion. Smart land use can cut transportation spending—the largest household expenditure after housing. It can dramatically reduce the magnitude of losses to property, infrastructure, ecosystem services and human life from climate impacts. Sustainable land use offers some of the least expensive, affordable housing solutions. To protect the pocket books and prospects of people in this region, a course correction is needed.
Five Principles to Guide Next Steps
For the Regional Planning Committee’s recommendation to have the best chance of success, the following five principles should guide improvements to Metro 2050.
Integrated: Sustainable land use solutions must drive GHG reductions, but they should also integrate with other urgent and resonant priorities for the region: affordability, congestion management, economic development, social equity, resilience to climate change impacts, fiscal responsibility and revenue potential for high quality public transit. The role of land use in carbon management must be understood not only for its contribution to transportation, but also to buildings, natural systems, embodied carbon in buildings and infrastructure. The most successful GHG plans were not solely characterized by climate action. Deep GHG reductions are a co-benefit of meeting other priorities: economic, social, environmental.
Timely: Draft work plans and initial analysis must be undertaken in advance of the new MVRD Board being appointed in 2023 and early in first term to offer the best chance of success.
Defensible: Develop approaches that enable the strategies and actions to be reconciled with the vision and goals, and identify gaps where continuous improvement efforts are needed.
High Benefit, Low Cost: Efforts should focus on developing strategies and actions that maximize diverse benefits and minimize costs for all municipalities. This is fundamentally linked to an integrated approach to analysis and policy development.
Creative & Collaborative: Design dialogue processes to build shared understanding and consensus, supported by engagement that incorporates rich analysis and diverse perspectives.
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