A group of politicians from Melbourne, Australia was visiting Metro Vancouver the other day to learn about how we tackle our urban challenges, and I had a chance to connect with them and share some ideas.
The members on the State of Victoria Parliamentary Committee on Outer Suburban/Interface Services and Development - a complex name for a committee - are charged with advising their parliament on matters relating to the development or expansion of new urban regions and the pro-vision of services to those new urban areas.
The Melbourne region is their primary concern. The region, at the centre of which is Australia's second largest city, is about double the size of Vancouver, with approximately 4.2 million people. Like Vancouver, the region comprises a number of local governments - 26 municipalities, in fact. Metropolitan Melbourne is growing quickly, like Vancouver. It has experienced recent waves of Asian immigration, similar to Vancouver.
I've read a fair bit about Melbourne's urbanism and have had an opportunity to hear their city planner speak in Vancouver in the past. My impression was that Melbourne has done a lot of things right when it comes to urbanism.
When I was invited to this week's meeting, I was asked to think about sharing with the Australian politicians some ideas about how we've tackled our urban challenges in Metro Vancouver. That was an intimidating challenge. What do you tell people from a city that rightly earned top spot last year when it vaulted Vancouver to become the best city in the world in which to live, according to the latest Economist Intelligence Unit's Global Liveability Survey?
I decided that I would focus on a couple of key thoughts. Both ideas wouldn't necessarily allow me to hold up local success stories as examples of what we achieved in making our urban region more livable.
In fact, I was going to focus on the things that we still need to achieve in our region. In my mind, both hold the promise of moving from theory to practice when it comes to improving urbanism, making our cities and their suburbs more livable and tack-ling challenges like housing afford-ability and local food security, and mitigating the impacts of growth on our ecosystems.
The first idea I advanced was the concept of planning for agricultural urbanism at the suburban-rural edge as a way to re-engineer our suburbs so that agriculture and local food production become a part of the community fabric at the metropolitan edge. This will allow growth to be contained "organically' rather than through some arbitrary rule written on paper and vulnerable to political whim.
The Australian politicians were very intrigued with this idea. In fact, they "got it," much quicker than many in Metro Vancouver, where the idea was essentially born and has been debated at some levels over the past few years. Often, the mere mention of the concept is met with close-minded rhetorical retorts by farmland preservationists who can't get beyond the political dogma that was once the strength of the Agricultural Land Reserve.
The visitors from Australia saw the promise in blurring the suburban-rural edge so that agriculture and urbanism could become more integrated. They understood that when people living next to farmland see the benefits of agriculture every day in their local communities - not just in terms of the food that it produces, but in every aspect of their lives from education to recreation - then those people value the land on which those agricultural activities are taking place. Regions no longer need lines drawn on paper to protect farmland at their edge because that farmland will become as valuable to the communities at the edge as just about anything else. This is when growth containment boundaries become "organic."
Perhaps it was easier for the Melbourne politicians to grasp the value of this concept because they don't have an agricultural land reserve, but they experience many of the same pressures to convert agricultural land to sprawling greenfield development as we do.
Agricultural urbanism is a planning idea that is still evolving. There are a few people in this region who conceived the idea and have put much thought into it. Perhaps it will take people in other areas of the world to take it to the next level and try implementing it.
The other idea I shared with the Australian delegation was met with a slightly different reaction.
I pointed to what I consider the most important challenge we face in Vancouver. Despite the credit we are often given for our very livable downtown, where residential density has reshaped a once-almost single-use district, Vancouver hasn't done much to reshape the suburban neighbourhoods closest to the downtown. Re-engineering the first ring suburbs is a key to containing urban sprawl and creating livable communities.
I shared with the delegation some of the very initial steps Vancouver has taken to introduce "gentle density," as former Vancouver planning director Brent Toderian coined it, to these first ring suburban neighbourhoods by allowing secondary suites in all single family residences in Vancouver and also by recently allowing laneway housing to be built on many single-family residential lots.
I stressed that these were very small initial steps and much more needs to be done to densify single-family neighbourhoods in a sensitive way.
The world's most livable city - Melbourne - has yet to embrace this idea. Both laneway housing and secondary suites, the minimum first steps, are totally foreign to them.
In fact, the Aussie politicians remarked about the cultural shift that would need to take place before people in Melbourne could begin to accept either secondary suites in single-family homes or laneway housing on single-family lots.
So much for the urban planning and design achievements of the world's most livable city.
Maybe it is better to be exactly where we are: striving to regain top spot.
These international exchanges are always interesting and often valuable, if only because they help one put into proper perspective local progress or lack of progress.
Bob Ransford is a public affairs consultant with COUNTERPOINT Communications Inc. He is a former real estate developer who specializes in urban land use issues.
Email: ransford@ counterpoint.ca or Twitter @BobRansford
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