Painful Truth: Urbanism requires mental shift

Go to a council meeting anywhere in the outer ring of Metro Vancouver these days, and you’ll hear some of the same words over and over again. Density. On-street parking. Multi-family housing. Transit. Bike lanes.

You’re hearing these words spoken in anger and in admiration.

Metro Vancouver is currently undergoing one of the biggest transformations since its post-war suburban sprawl. The suburban is becoming urban.

Dig through your history books and you can find plenty of examples of this happening, from London to Paris to Mumbai to Rio de Janeiro.

The form we’re most familiar with is that of the middle and upper middle class fleeing busy, noisy, crowded cities and getting a bit of green space around them. This shift comes a generation after the one in which peasants rushed into cities, desperate to get away from boring rural poverty, escaping all that green space.

The thing about all those migrations is that they were (for the most part) chosen. People moved en masse to cities between 1800 and the 1940s because that’s where the jobs were. Then they got richer and bought cars and moved out again.

Now we’re getting a new kind of migration. The urban world is migrating to the suburbs.

Not the people – it’s the urban environment itself that’s on the move.

From Richmond to Abbotsford, the Tri-Cities to Vancouver itself, every community is grappling with increasing density. We’re simply running short of land, so everybody’s having to squeeze in a little closer.

It isn’t always going over well.

When people choose urban over suburban or vice versa, they know they’re making trade-offs: long commute versus traffic noise; green space versus night life; sitting next to the smelly guy on the bus versus paying thousands for gas every year.

Increasingly, you don’t get to choose. You want to live in the suburbs? That doesn’t mean a half-acre lot anymore, it means a townhouse or a condo, or a mini-mansion on a lot the size of a postage stamp. You’ll still have congestion on the roads, lots of construction noise, and skyscrapers on the horizon, figuratively if not yet literally.

But do you get the transit, the major league sports franchises on your doorstep, the rich variety of street life?

Nope.

The suburbs are becoming cities. And people aren’t ready for that. They checked one box, and they got, at best, a mixed bag of both lifestyles mushed together.

Just look at Metro Vancouver’s population projections. By 2040, the population of Surrey is expected to be just 3,000 people fewer than that of Vancouver, an increase of 336,000 people. The Langleys will double in population to 249,000, putting them just under the current size of Burnaby and New West – and with those people living in a smaller urban area. Burnaby will have also almost doubled in size, and Coquitlam is in the same boat.

We’re doing this without a plan for transit. At all. We have no funded proposals for more SkyTrain lines or light rail.

The province is still only approving new schools when old ones are bursting at the seams. Our civic politicians are on a learning curve as steep as the Matterhorn.

Most people in the Lower Mainland do not have a clear mental picture of the changes that are going to hit us all like a freight train, and a lot of them don’t like what they see coming.

Many people aren’t going to change their minds about what they like, but our politicians and planners need to reach out more to explain what happens next.

We need honest guidebooks to the future of our cities – and they will be cities. The suburbs are a dying breed.

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