Vision and NPA more of the same

photo of Elizabeth Murphy• Politics in the City of Vancouver is branded as a battle between Vision Vancouver on the “left” and the Non-Partisan Association (NPA) on the “right.” However, their policies have turned out to be virtually the same regarding development when each had the majority on council over the last three terms.

In 2007, then NPA Mayor Sam Sullivan created EcoDensity, which promoted increased density as the answer to the challenge of climate change. It effectively took the position that density is good and more is better.

The facts do not support this. Towers are the least energy efficient form of development because of their glass-wall, concrete construction and elevators. High density development inflates land values; this in turn increases redevelopment pressure on the more affordable older building stock. Only about 10% of the city’s cost of infrastructure and services for each tower is covered by development fees; the balance is subsidized by everyone’s property taxes. Increases in property taxes make home ownership more expensive.

As it became obvious that the supported community plans were under threat by EcoDensity, 23 neighbourhood associations from across the city banded together under an umbrella group called Neighbourhoods for a Sustainable Vancouver (NSV). This led to a city-wide movement against the ill-conceived policy.

EcoDensity was first to be implemented by the city in the rezoning of an invented neighbourhood called Norquay that covered a vast part of Kensington-Cedar Cottage centred along a strip of Kingsway. Norquay happened to be where a number of large tower developments were being considered even though they were inconsistent with CityPlan. So EcoDensity was a new, city-wide policy layer that conveniently endorsed these towers and the additional zoning the city was promoting for the area.

It was no accident that Norquay was the first neighbourhood targeted for EcoDensity. A large percentage of the community have English as a second language and are low income. They were an easy target.

However, the city did not count on the pushback they received. It became a long drawn-out battle that helped to galvanize the city-wide movement and contributed to the almost entire wipe-out of the NPA in the November 2008 civic election when Vision Vancouver swept into power. The NSV movement supported Vision based on their declarations of how they were going to do things differently at City Hall. They promised to involve the community in neighbourhood-based decision making and to reconsider EcoDensity.

Once Vision Vancouver and Mayor Gregor Robertson were the majority on council, rather than reconsider EcoDensity as they said they would, they rebranded EcoDensity under the Greenest City initiative to implement EcoDensity policy, which has proven to be just as problematic under Vision as it was with the NPA.

Vision pushed through approval of the rezoning of Norquay over the strong opposition of the community. They have also continued to “spot rezone” numerous lots to be grossly out-of-scale towers that are vastly larger than the surrounding area in many neighbourhoods, such as the Rize in Mount Pleasant at Broadway and Main and the Comox Street tower in the West End, among many others.

Vision has also re-planned whole neighbourhoods without community support in West End, Marpole, the Downtown Eastside, Strathcona, Chinatown and Gastown. The Grandview community formed a huge backlash when the city last year came to them with a plan that included a large number of towers up to 35 storeys and various other up-zoning around the area to which the community had no input.

Grandview is now being subjected to a new community top-down planning process called a Citizens’ Assembly. This is where the community residents have to apply to the city to be on the committee. Based on their personal data, they are allegedly categorized by a computer that randomly picks them through a lottery process, selecting 48 people to represent their community. If they win the lottery, they then have to go to “planning school” for nine sessions over eight months to learn the city’s spin. This marginalizes grassroots involvement.

Vision also implemented EcoDensity actions in 2009 that rezoned all the RS single family zones across the city, affecting about 70,000 properties, to allow larger and higher monster houses. NSV warned at the time that this would lead to increases in demolition of the older, more affordable housing stock. Demolitions have since escalated to over 1,000 demolitions last year at about 100 tons of waste in the landfill per each 2,200 square foot building. Not very green at all.

So both Vision Vancouver and the NPA are the two developers’ parties supporting EcoDensity while they marginalize communities. Keep that in mind as the election machines ramp up and the two parties try to differentiate themselves.

Elizabeth Murphy is a private sector project manager and formerly a Property Development Officer for the City of Vancouver’s Housing & Properties Department and for BC Housing.

13 thoughts on “Vision and NPA more of the same”

  1. A tree next to a mid rise bldg is natures’ form of air conditioning.
    Beauty in sight, comfort in feeling in all seasons.
    Living in a vertical hirise glass greenhouse requiring heat & water pumps to be operating 24 hrs a day literally translate into the CO2 greenhouse effect that we are trying to avoid on a global scale.
    Did people not see victims of the world trade centre towers jump from 50+ storeys up when they were trapped by fire???
    Bring ur parachute if u live above the 9th flr,
    Van Fire Department only have ONE ladder that can reach the 9th flr. !

  2. I received the following question from Rudy:

    Can you give me a little detail or a reference document regarding the 2009 Zoning changes Council made in RS-1 to permit the higher and larger houses which you refer to in a recent article by you in Common Ground?

    The changes made to the single family zones in 2009 were to allow more height and FSR in new construction to supposedly accommodate basements. However, with the accumulated impacts of allowing laneway houses as well, it became a further incentive for demolition.

    Please see below:

    Neighbourhoods for a Sustainable Vancouver (NSV) letter to Council:

    Council Meeting – May 5, 2009:


    Part 1 – Video Clip of this Item Part 2 – Video Clip of this Item


    Public Hearing June 16, 2009


  3. I think an honest conversation about density/anti highrises would have opponents of density come up with some examples of other urban forms which would handle our housing needs. I wonder how wonderful our city would be if we built single family sprawl, maybe knock down Stanley Park, Endowment lands and probably every other park in the city for the required space. I also highly doubt that a 2 bedroom condo is less energy efficient than a single family house. Also, I never recal objections from Vision to EcoDensity.

    • Towers versus “single family sprawl”

      No one is so blind as to believe that these are the only two forms of development possible, albeit they seem in many respects to be so in the Lower Mainland.

      The development patterns of the world before cars and elevators universally (all cultures and all incomes) support rowhouse and low- to mid-rise (<75', 23m) developments. These forms of housing are universally accepted as the most ecological, affordable, and socially-supportive. That said, the greenest house is also always that which has already been built, and there are many LCA studies that prove this statement.

      And yes, in terms of full lifecycle assessment, a two-bedroom condo can very easily use more energy in construction and use than a single family home, IF it is situated in a glass and concrete high-rise building. In a low- or mid-rise, such a condo could be the most efficient form of living on earth.

      Finally, here is Mayor Gregor Robertson (at 0:30) declaring in 2008 that it was the concerted, citywide, "pushback against ecodensity" that brought him into office: .

      • So they r going to spend our tax dollars on indoctrinating 48 citizens into their “tunnel vision” program?
        Whats the staff at the planning department for then??

  4. Thanks for your very accurate description of the City’s Citizens’ Assembly. Application packages were mailed out last week; not everyone has received one (yet?). The frequest reference to “experts” and “consultants” is a clear indication that this process will be skilfully orchestraed and guided to produce the results that the planners want. Victoria resident and SFU graduate Rachel Magnussen has been appointed (already) as chair of the assembly. Need I say more?

    • Tom, if you look closely at the invitations to join the citizen’s assembly, you will see they are not mailed from the city of Vancouver at all, but a company (which is being paid $150,000, or more than half of the allotted $275,000 plan extension budget- and no one can find out what things they removed from the original budget to pay this company) called Mass LBP. This company also mailed out the invitations as addressed admail. Canada Post clearly states addressed admail is for promotional material only. A government canvassing citizens to offer legitimate input in a process that affects them can hardly be seen as promotional,and shouldn’t be contracted out to a private company, though i think we will continue to see more of this..

  5. Two minutes on Google will yield any number of studies showing the poor energy performance of air conditioned glass curtain high rises. In the summer the unshaded greenhouse heat gain means that most have air conditioning, even in Vancouver’s mild climate. In winter glass has the poorest thermal insulation (that’s why your window feels so cold) which results in a high heating load. To make matters worse, heating is provided by electric baseboard heaters, an unforgivable waste of electricity. The energy to pump water up forty stories for your morning shower also wastes a shocking amount of energy. That Vision Vancouver accepts, approves and promotes these building types demonstrates zero commitment to a sustainable future. These buildings are designed for developer profit, nothing more.

  6. Thank you for the question Michael.

    The City of Vancouver commissioned a number of studies of the energy efficiency and ecological footprint of buildings. Some of the results were disclosed in 2007, however, most of the results have not been fully released because they did not have the city’s desired results.

    During the initial presentations on EcoDensity in 2007, the city sited a report they commissioned from the Sheltair Group that compared the ecological footprint of various building types. Towers were the least energy efficient form of development because …”the large amount of glass in conventional towers means they lose more heat in winter and require more cooling in summer..” and concrete and steel studs reduce the thermal insulation further than wood frame construction. The need for elevators is also an additional energy draw that is not required in ground oriented development.

    One envelope consultant I talked to said that glass-walls have an energy efficiency rating of R2-R3. Even the most basic insulation ratings of 2×4 wood frame construction is R15 with ceilings of R40. Steel studs reduces this by half compared to wood frame.

    The consultant compared the energy rating of tower glass-wall envelopes to “castles in the middle ages”.

  7. We should have listened when the Neighbourhoods group warned us years ago. I just didn’t believe that Vision would be acting as they did. They say they’re green, but developing hi rises, and demolishing Vancouver heritage instead of restoring it, is more “grey”. So what’s the alternative? Can the real “Green Party” stand a chance of winning in the next election?

    There are too many small political organizations in the running. If they truly want change – get together!

  8. The author declares ‘Towers are the least energy efficient form of development because of their glass-wall, concrete construction and elevators.’ How does she prove this? I would like to see this cited.

      • No credible authority would ever do research on the sustainability of glass and concrete towers because the idea is so patently ludicrous. Certainly engineers and architects the world over are trying to build “green towers,” with double walls, SIP panels, PV surfaces, and the like. A decade ago an Austrian power company attempted to build a Passivehaus-certified 11-storey tower, but failed despite an enormous budget and a decent geothermally-suitable site. There are tens of thousands of low- and mid-rise Passive Houses in the world today.

        The fact is that concrete as a building material has the highest embodied carbon of all building materials and the second highest thermal transmissivity, after glass. The building envelope of the newest towers with triple-pane, argon-filled, low-e windows–there are none in Vancouver–cannot claim an R-value over 3, as compared with a poorly-built R2000 home that in practice easily meets an average insulation value of R15. Many towers test out at far less than 2 because protruding balconies act as heat fins. Add also the differential thermal gain of the different building aspects, and you have a nightmarish HVAC problem year around, and one that can only be cured with huge energy inputs to move the heat and cold around and outside the building. Consider the fact that elevators require accelerating a 5 tonne weight (cab and counterweight) hundreds or thousands of times a day to 3-10 m/s. Finally, glass wall construction is rated to last 20-30 years before a full building envelopment replacement will be required.

        Both the built cost and operating costs in terms of carbon and price per usable square metre are so far beyond almost any other housing style that no one would or could ever claim towers could ever be sustainable as a housing form. OK, one Vancouver mayor tried, and he lasted one term. His claim was so thoroughly debunked and the idea of ‘ecodensity’ through point towers so thoroughly discredited that the only engineering company that defended it was soon out of business.

        The only shred of truth in the debate on density is that higher urban densities do tend to encourage lifestyles OUTSIDE the home that are less carbon intensive than some suburban densities. However, there are far too many confounding factors at play, including land use patterns (proximity to work/stores/school, etc), relative wealth, and culture, to be definitive about every neighbourhood everywhere.

        Simply look to areas on earth where energy costs are high relative to the standard of living, and you will see no residential towers. That should be proof enough. Consider also that mid-rise developments can meet or exceed tower densities due to setback and separation standards, so even the very tenuous lifestyle factors cannot be used to defend towers over more sustainable low- and mid-rise structures.

        The facts could not be more clear. Living in a glass tower is a luxury conceit every bit as ecologically devastating as a McMansion. Both these forms of development are climate crimes.


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