Vancouver Sun columnist Barbara Yaffe recently drew a false conclusion from a recent survey by the Real Estate Foundation of B.C., seizing upon a finding that suggested 44% of people in the Province (note: not the “Lower Mainland”) believe “All or most future development should be single, detached homes”.
This is classic cognitive dissonance because we don’t just buy “houses” do we? We buy into neighbourhoods and lifestyles when we decide where to live. For a proper read on this question, I would run a follow up question that pairs a $800,000 to $1,000,000 single detached house with the doubled commute time and quadrupled cost; transit stretched thin and inefficient; the health effects from literally years of driving to and from everywhere – a prison sentence served in small increments; heaving infrastructure and property tax implications; fatal air pollution, debilitating asthma for kids and the elderly; sprawling big box landscapes and loss of green space …. if somewhere near half the new households in the Lower Mainland lived that suburban dream in the future.
Then run the survey of higher density options again with half the commute, a fraction of the mobility cost, preserved green space, better air quality, walking and cycling fitness, more diverse local shops and services, lower property taxes and 30% lower housing prices. Choices need to be paired with consequences.
Language, Choices and Consequences Matter
The 2015 BC Real Estate Foundation survey “Public Views on Sustainability and the Built Environment” quite clearly concludes that MOST people in BC are in favour of intensifying land use to create compact communities with more amenity, choice and propinquity.
As planners and developers and advocates of smart growth and sustainable compact communities, the pieces of this survey to take away and read closely are the conclusions on language and clarity; the need to better communicate the benefits of compact cities; and the need to involve people in planning.
The authors note:
“It’s clear that we need to have a better conversation about density that includes infill, mid- and low-rise options. Most British Columbians indicate that they value the benefits of density over urban sprawl; for example: shorter commute times, better access to shopping and retail amenities and lower costs to municipal tax base. Moreover, they express support for low-rise commercial residential developments, as well as low and mixed income rental housing.”
What is particularly interesting is the difference in people’s responses when presented with questions on the same issue in a slightly different way, for example: Are you concerned about “Affordable Housing” vs the “Cost of Housing”? Some of the shifts in reported public opinion are quite remarkable. Bottom line: we need to communicate more clearly and directly about the costs and benefits of different development options.
A Bias Against Higher Intensity Development?
The REFBC’s Province-wide lens for the survey captured the views of people not living in particularly urban environments so an unsurprising conclusion was that “the majority [of respondents] appear extremely ambivalent to any mention of compact communities or density in planning conversations and many are opposed to highrise high density development.” [my emphasis]
REFBC might begin with a review of their own language. For example, the double barrelled “high-rise high density” label for anything over 4 storeys might alone skew people’s responses. In fact, when we discuss higher intensity forms of development, we should also be communicating higher levels of amenity and connection as commensurate benefits. How would the responses have been different if the question cited “high-intensity high-amenity” development? The Real Estate Foundation might also want to review the oxymoron “Urban Sprawl”. It’s a pet peeve of mine because what we really should be describing is “Low Density Suburban Sprawl” as the true culprit.
Overall, the conclusions of the BC Real Estate Foundation’s study should be encouraging for people involved in city building in BC’s urban regions. We need to communicate better with neighbours and citizens in order to better involve them in the decisions and choices we collectively face on the future of our cities.