British Columbia

Density fosters sustainability and efficiency, says Vancouver's former chief planner

Former Vancouver city planner Brent Toderian outlines the challenges and benefits of being Canada's densest region.

City-making columnist Brent Toderian outlines the benefits and challenges of density

Toderian said in many cases, densification is intentional. (Christer Waara/CBC)

According to Statistics Canada's 2016 census data, more than one-third of the Canadian population now resides in the three biggest metropolitan areas in the country — Toronto, Montreal and Vancouver.

The population of the metropolitan area of Vancouver outpaced the national growth rate over the last five years, growing 6.5 per cent since the last census was conducted in 2011.

The municipality of Vancouver now also has the highest population density in Canada — with a density rate of 5,493 people per square kilometre.

Former Vancouver chief planner and On The Coast's city-making columnist Brent Toderian said the findings should reframe assumptions about density in the region.

"We often have conversations about density in Metro Vancouver in particular parts of the city like the West End and the downtown core," he said.

"But even overall, our urban places are denser than other regions, and our suburbs are denser than other region's suburban areas."

Benefits and challenges

Toderian said the statistic may sound alarming to some people — and conjure up images of overflowing sidewalks and bumper-to-bumper traffic.

But he says high population density can motivate cities to take initiatives that maximize efficiency, and in the long term, improve quality of life.

"If you look at it from the perspective of a lot of things, density does really well in terms of sustainability, lowering our carbon footprint, supporting public transit — and those are all good things for a city," he said.

Toderian acknowledged that increasing numbers of people living in a given space does come with challenges.

"For all the things it does for us in terms of public benefits, it often creates challenges and tensions as our city grows and changes," he said.

He said density is tied to Vancouver's unaffordable housing market and low rental vacancy rate — but that the relationship between the two is more complicated than people might expect.

"Even in low density areas, our lot sizes are getting smaller, we're fitting more houses in, we're slipping in secondary suites. For a variety of reasons, including the incredibly high cost of infrastructure, we're using land more efficiently because we have to," he said.

"It's about the price of land, but it's also about everything from sustainability to public health, to whether our cities are going to go bankrupt from the cost of growth."

The population of the metropolitan area of Vancouver outpaced the national growth rate over the last five years, growing 6.5 per cent since the last census was conducted in 2011. (Christer Waara/CBC)

Eyes on the future

Toderian said the numbers shouldn't come as too much of a surprise, because regions have been implementing policies that encourage density.

"From Surrey city centre to other areas that have been building small downtowns or concentrations of strategic density around transit, our municipalities around the region have been doing their own kinds of densification for years."

Toderian said the next big challenges will come in the realm of sustainable transportation.

"What I think is important from our planning perspective is public transit, to move all these people in a way that doesn't involve a car."

More census data is set to be released by Statistics Canada in the coming months. 

With files from CBC Radio One's On The Coast