Skip to content


Four-Plex, Portland (Photo credit: “Another Believer” Wikimedia Commons)

Building complete, compact rural and urban communities in B.C. is essential for ensuring a resilient, prosperous and equitable future. Compact development reduces GHG emissions, minimizes infrastructure costs, maximizes co-benefits and provides opportunities for a resilient economic recovery. If we’re going to meet GHG reduction targets, provincial and local governments need to centre land use as a key strategy in climate policy planning.

Renewable Cities recently submitted recommendations for sustainable land use planning to the Union of BC Municipalities. The submission outlines rationale and recommendations to restore B.C.’s local and provincial government commitments on “creating complete, compact, more energy efficient rural and urban communities” (BC Climate Action Charter, 2007).


1. Acknowledging Science

The watershed IPCC 1.5°C report has catalyzed interest in deeper and more meaningful climate action, including a groundswell of local climate action emergencies and renewed local climate action commitments. One of the report’s most germane conclusions for local governments was the central role of sustainable land use planning in reducing GHGs to avert dangerous climate change:

“effective urban planning can reduce GHG emissions from urban transport between 20% and 50%.” IPCC 1.5°C Report, 2018

This is not the first time the IPCC has endeavored to inform local governments of their strategic role. The Fifth Assessment Report concluded:

“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, AR5, Mitigation WG, SPM, 2014

The IPCC underscores the critical role of local land use planning in driving reductions in the largest and most stubborn sector: transportation.

While many factors contribute to the rapid growth in transportation GHGs, key issues are rapid growth in vehicle stock and total driving. Every year, average commute times grow as rings of population and job growth are added around urban regions, making communities more car dependent. B.C.’s passenger vehicle growth rate is twice the rate of population growth.

The IPCC’s transportation focus is partially motivated because it is the largest and fastest growing sector in much of the world. In B.C., road transportation is the largest source of emissions, increasing 11 per cent since 2007, faster than any other sector.

Given the size of the road transportation sector—the largest share of community GHGs by far—it will be impossible to meet any defensible provincial, local or national targets let alone IPCC 1.5°C recommended reductions by 2030 without deep integration of urban land use.

2. Exercising Authority, Accepting Responsibility

While local governments fulfill many important functions, their  paramount authority is land use planning. The cardinal municipal planning agenda is the OCP: a land use plan. If there is any sector where local governments should act it is the sector where they have the most authority and influence, as underscored by the IPCC. Local governments, along with provincial support, must exercise their authority to reverse unsustainable land use trends.

3. Respecting Taxpayers & Reducing Costs

Sustainable land use is one of the most cost-effective local carbon management actions, generally making—versus costing—money, generating transit ridership and revenue and reducing the costs of other climate actions.

Affordable and cost-effective public transit is dependent on compact urban growth. Transit that serves low-density, highly distributed urban areas are expensive and ineffective, requiring subsidies as high as $10 – 30 per passenger. Conversely, routes that run through complete, compact urban nodes and corridors generate revenue.

In some cases, transit infrastructure expansion can facilitate low density, distributed development (i.e. sprawl), increasing congestion and emissions. Despite billion-dollar head starts, transit lines that enable new development to locate further away from job centres will never generate enough revenue to pay for operating costs, putting upwards pressure on fares and downwards pressure on service expansion.

Compact growth is also indispensable in shrinking growing municipal infrastructure deficits. Low density single-family neighbourhoods may have 30 to 50 metres of linear civic infrastructure per household versus medium density neighbourhoods with 10 metres and high-density neighbourhoods with even less.  Most B.C. municipalities are not generating the revenue in taxes, development cost charges and utility fees to operate, maintain and replace low-density infrastructure.

4. Maximizing Co-Benefits & Mapping a Resilient Recovery

Over and above the GHG per tonne cost-effectiveness of sustainable urban land use, it results in the greatest co-benefits of any climate action, including:

  • Increasing walking, cycling and transit use, and reversing rates of obesity correlated to neighbourhood car dependence
  • Reducing civic infrastructure costs
  • Growing transit ridership and revenue
  • Reducing congestion
  • Improving housing and transportation affordability, which account for 30% and 20% of average household income in B.C.
  • Providing housing options for seniors and young people
  • Protecting urban edge forest—a valuable carbon sink—and agricultural land
  • Increasing resilience to climate impacts e.g. reducing flood risk, reducing risk of interfacing forest fires, and improving food security

5. Fulfilling Commitments

Under the Climate Action Charter, local governments committed to “creating complete, compact, more energy efficient rural and urban communities” (BC Climate Action Charter, 2007). The B.C. Government shares this Climate Action Charter commitment and has pledged, under CleanBC, to identify land use initiatives to meet its emissions gap. However, while complete, compact community development is underway in some cities, overall progress is insufficient.

In urban regions, big and small, growth patterns can be summed up with three trends:

  1. High density nodal intensification in many communities
  2. Plummeting populations in existing single-family neighbourhoods due to demographic change in every community
  3. A disproportionate share of medium to low density greenfield growth, expanding the urban footprint in virtually every urban region (including communities with shrinking populations)

Local government alone are not responsible for these trends. Provincial and federal government infrastructure programs, for example, inadvertently subsidize greenfield growth through transportation projects that facilitate growth into forest and farmland. Local and provincial governments need to work collaboratively to fulfill land use commitments.


1. Buildings

Land use planning should address the fundamental discrepancy between the province’s housing stock and demography. Occupancy in single family homes is plummeting, and a disproportionate share of occupants are seniors who face barriers such as social isolation, lack of capital for retrofits, and inadequate support for aging in place.

Secondary suites, laneway homes, additions, and home sharing are cost-effective solutions for reducing greenhouse gas emissions, creating jobs, increasing affordability and reducing social isolation. Because most housing GHGs are driven by space heating, doubling occupancy can ostensibly cut per capita GHGs in half. These approaches also increase utilization rates of existing housing, meet the need for new affordable rental housing and situate new units proximate to jobs, services and transit.

Provincial government actions:

  • Diversify residential energy climate action conservation spending to upgrades that increase household occupancy.
  • Build non-profit housing capacity to support home sharing and secondary suite management.
  • Incentivize attractive, affordable, net-zero, pre-fab wood laneway homes.
  • Enable local governments to require new single and semi-detached homes to be secondary-suite ready

Local government actions:

  • Add provisions to increase livability and accessibility of secondary suites through additional height allowances and at-grade placement, increasing natural light and improving access for seniors and residents with mobility issues.
  • Maximize secondary suite and laneway housing options, building on the leadership of many local governments across B.C.

2. Transportation

Highway expansion, unsustainable land use and transit extended into suburban and rural areas continues to facilitate a high-cost, high-carbon transportation dynamic. Given the size of the road transportation sector—the largest share of community GHGs by far—it will be impossible to meet defensible emission reduction targets without deep integration of urban land use. Fundamental solutions involve intensifying housing close to jobs, services and transit in walkable neighbourhoods.

Provincial and local government action:

  • Work with transit authorities to develop a framework for integrated transportation and land use plans that meets shared goals to manage congestion, safety, carbon and personal and public transportation spending.

3. Resilience

No local or provincial strategy to strengthen community resilience to climate change is adequate without the central consideration of how land use planning can strengthen adaptive capacity and reduce vulnerability. How we manage urban land use can dramatically increase or reduce our greatest risks, including: forest fire, coastal, fluvial (riverine) and pluvial (surface) flooding, food security, urban heat island, fresh water accessibility, biodiversity and social cohesion.

Provincial and local government actions:

  • Build on the climate action leadership and innovation that has been driven by GHG Targets, Policies and Actions in OCPs and RGSs, requiring similar climate vulnerability assessments and adaptation plans to manage these vulnerabilities.
  • Collaborate on the development of a toolkit that outlines how land use policies and plans can be used to mitigate climate change risks.

4. Governance

Governments should focus on fulfilling historic commitments to strengthen land use policy and governance, genuinely renewing a cornerstone commitment in the Climate Action Charter to create “complete, compact energy efficient rural and urban communities.”

Provincial actions:

  • Fulfill the CleanBC commitment to identity land use initiatives that meet the emission reduction gap in the province’s updated climate action plan.

Provincial and local government actions:

  • Fulfill shared commitments under the Climate Action Charter of “creating complete, compact energy efficient rural and urban communities,” including:
    • A robust review of the local and provincial policy and planning context that has inadvertently created barriers to complete, compact community development.
    • Ensuring provincial transportation infrastructure policies meet shared goals for managing carbon, congestion, and cost of civic infrastructure and personal and public transportation.


Download full submission: SFU RC UBCM Climate Recommendations_Aug 2020