Back to the Future

October 27, 2000

By Michael Jessen

As a movie, it would have been titled "Back to the Neighbourhood" or "Neighbourhood of Dreams." Its slogan would be "Build it and everyone will come to love it."

As a lecture, it was titled "Integrating Green Infrastructure with Compact Urban Growth." Its catchphrase was "Development Tries to Make Peace With the Environment."

Although a lecture can be academic and plain, Patrick Condon speaks with a subdued passion liberally sprinkled with humor. Using about 100 slides, the University of BC professor gave his "movie" version of how to build a sustainable neighbourhood in an October 14th lecture in Nelson that rated two thumbs up.

It kept an audience of approximately 90 people enthralled for two hours in the second of the four-part Nelson and the Kootenays "Designing Community" project. In the end, almost everyone was asking the same question: "It's so simple and sensible, why isn't everyone doing it this way?"

This is how Condon visualizes the neighbourhood of the future:

It has some big suburban-style houses, but many smaller rowhouses or apartments to allow people of different income levels to live side by side. It has lanes and garages at the back of the yard. It has a traditional street system, small square interconnected streets as opposed to the curves and dead-end cul-de-sacs so characteristic of the suburbs. It has places for small shops and restaurants right in the development, meant to house 13,000 people in over 200 hectares, not at a strip mall a few kilometres away.

Less noticeable but just as significant, it has far less pavement than any other suburb in the region. The neighbourhood's narrow streets are shaded by rows of trees to provide a greener, more friendly and safer environment. One of the unique aspects of this development is a natural drainage system that holds water on the surface and slowly allows it to seep into the ground and into narrow ditches along roadsides. (There are no curbs!) That will help preserve the salmon bearing streams inside and outside the development.

The result of all this smart growth: Houses that are 20 to 40% cheaper than typical construction, a neighbourhood that provides one job per dwelling unit, parks that are within a two minute walk, stores within a four minute walk and no busy streets to cross. It's a seven and a half-minute wait for public transit. Residents don't have to get into the car for everything resulting in 40% fewer cars per capita and a 40% reduction in greenhouse gases. It is a neighbourhood that works with its environment rather than eradicating it. The more efficient use of land also results in lower maintenance costs for municipal infrastructure and utilities.

For many older folks, it's remarkably similar to the city neighbourhoods they grew up in. You get the picture; it's back to the future.

Condon has been a member of UBC's Landscape Architecture faculty since 1992 and is currently the James Taylor Chair in Landscape and Liveable Environments. Since 1995, he has organized charrettes -- intense, multi-day workshops where a group of people design their neighbourhood according to emerging local, provincial, and federal policies for sustainable development. "The trouble is when you look around the Lower Mainland you can't find a single place in conformance with these policies," says Condon.

That may all change in 2001 when construction is expected to start on the East Clayton neighbourhood in south Surrey, a suburb of Greater Vancouver. Another is being planned for Burnaby Mountain near Simon Fraser University. Others may spring up in Southeast False Creek, the last big chunk of central land in Vancouver, and in Port Moody's proposed Suter Brook community.

Street width in neighbourhoods has been found to have a major impact on public safety. A study of approximately 20,000 motor vehicle accident reports from the City of Longmont, Colorado indicated the most significant street design relationships to injury accidents were street width and curvature. The analysis illustrates that as street width widens, accidents per mile per year increase exponentially, and that the safest residential street width is 24 feet.

In its recently released third annual report on urban sprawl and its impact on the American landscape, the Sierra Club highlights several developers and communities that are coming up with solid solutions to curb and prevent urban sprawl.

"The interesting thing in the report is that some smart-growth developers, like the ones in Houston, St. Louis and Boca Raton, Florida, are making a profit," said Deron Lovaas, head of the Sierra Club's Challenge to Sprawl campaign. "Smart growth is not just about doing the right thing for the environment. It's also profitable."

But poor urban planning, outdated laws and petty politics conspire to make smart-growth developments an uphill struggle, the report notes. Since 1997, only 22 states have updated their codes and laws to encourage smarter growth.

"Local leaders need to get with the smart-growth program," said Lovaas. "While there are a few leaders pulling away from the pack, smart-growth is still the exception to the rule because this is the way we've been building and developing for decades."

With wide sidewalks, front porches, and a mixed-used design, the 360-acre Vermillion development near downtown Huntersville, North Carolina, is a shining example of a smart-growth movement in the Sierra Club's estimation. The development encourages residents to walk or bike to work and nearby shops and offers a shuttle bus system to commute into the city. The project also makes the most of existing natural resources by integrating into the neighbourhood plan a 1.5-mile greenway along a small, unspoiled creek. The developers also plan to build affordable housing in the neighbourhood.

Inertia is the great stumbling block to a multitude of such practical neighbourhoods, says Condon. Planners and city managers are not rewarded for thinking "outside the box." Many are fired for being creative.

"This is a major, major, major problem across BC," he adds, explaining most buy into the concept that "the way we did it yesterday is better than the way we know is better for tomorrow."

"The only thing that keeps me going is that this time we'll get it right," opines Condon. When the curtain goes up on sustainable neighbourhoods in BC, it will prove movies and lectures can become reality.

ONE SMALL STEP - Don't smoke out the neighbourhood with autumn leaf fires. It's actually better for your plants and lawn to let leaves remain on the ground for the winter. If you must rake and you don't want to compost the leaves, put them in bags, hang a "free" sign on them, and someone in your neighbourhood will take them. You can also use leaves to cover your compost with an insulating blanket that keeps the worms warm.

RESOURCES - Much of Patrick Condon's presentation is available online complete with illustrations at www.sustainable-communities.agsci.ubc.ca. You can download the Alternative Development Standards for Sustainable Communities Design Workbook from the publications section of the web site. Additional information on the various projects is available in the newsroom web pages. The Sierra Club's report "Smart Choices or Sprawling Growth: A 50-State Survey of Development" can be found on the web site www.sierraclub.org/sprawl/50statesurvey/. The Congress for the New Urbanism is a San Francisco-based non-profit organization founded in 1993. It works with architects, developers, planners, and others involved in the creation of cities and towns, teaching them how to implement the principles of the New Urbanism. These principles include coherent regional planning, walkable neighbourhoods, and attractive, accommodating civic spaces. Congress for the New Urbanism has produced a booklet entitled "Smart Solutions to Sprawl" that can be ordered from the organization's web site at www.cnu.org. The group can be contacted by e-mail at cnuinfo@cnu.org, by telephone at (415) 495-2255, and by fax at (415) 495-1731.

Michael Jessen is the owner of toenail environmental services, a consultancy specializing in helping business profit from environmental leadership. He can be reached by e-mail at toenail@netidea.com and his firm's award-winning web site is at www.toenail.org/.


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