Land Use Planning and Population Growth

In my attempt to get our son interested in geography and the world around him, we started watching Andrew Marr's BBC-produced series, "Britain from Above." While my son found the program "cool" (his exact word) due to the use of helicopter, satellite, and parachuting shots, I found it to be fascinating from a socio-political standpoint. Cities as old as London have built on layer after historical layer. As pointed out in the first episode, many of London's narrow, rabbit warren-esque lanes and alleys are hold overs from Celtic and Roman occupation. These same lanes now serve as quirky watering-holes for the chatty workers of the high-rises that have built-up around them. Gossip, as pointed out by Marr, has powered cities since civilization began. Gossip and politics still fuel life in the twenty-first century.

Anyway, my point (and yes, I have one) is this: City planning, traffic and transit design, and engineering are dictated by politics. But the services and systems that we rely on and take for granted are bound by a number of other factors as well. Topography and geology limits where we build and live (anyone experienced an earthquake on reclaimed landfill?). The history of a region comes into play as well. Who were the aboriginal/original inhabitants? Clues to the societies that once lived in the past can often be seen in the present. And what are the consequences of an ever increasing population on a region not able to support it? Applying the observations from Britain from Above to life in the Greater Vancouver Metro area raises some interesting local questions.

As Vancouverites, we ceaselessly complain about the transit system (that is when we aren't complaining about the weather) and then rail against paying for improvements to an aging infrastructure or adding lines to the suburbs. Traffic is always an issue despite the creation of new bridges and alternate transit options such as bike lanes. We assume that the waste we flush away will be treated and returned to our oceans and rivers in cleaner-than-before condition. We take pride in the beautiful landscape we call home. But we forget the geological violence just simmering below the surface, and engineers have a lot to contend with just to make this topography work. To quote a former professor of mine: Remember, most of this planet is too hot, too cold, too dry, too wet, or simply too mountainous to sustain life. Hmmmm...any one of those categories can be applied to some part of British Columbia. It's mind boggling to think we have a city here at all.

Perhaps that is the point of Britain from Above. It presents the staggering, no, overwhelming facts and figures of what defines modern life at this point of human history: the trillions of gallons of water needed per day in a modern mega-city, the mega-watt rate of electricity consumption per hour, the millions of kilometers of power and phone lines to make the Information Age work. With all of the benefits of a modern, functional Western society, a similar program with a more local overview would be helpful--something to demystify planning and living in our large and ever-expanding city. How do we best accommodate all? Is it even possible to avoid leaving those that cannot or will not adapt behind? Is sustainability even possible? Only time and a concerted attempt to view the big picture will tell.