Urban Planning and Livability

Vancouver is proud of its efforts to balance growth, demands on services, and ecological awareness. It is not perfect, but the region has garnered kudos for its overall livability. So I was more than a bit horrified this morning to wake up to hear these livability efforts under attack during CBC Radio's South of the Fraser debate featuring Randal O'Toole, a Senior Fellow at the Cato Institute, and Todd Litman of the Victoria Transport Policy Institute.* Debate itself is healthy. But bringing in a member from an American conservative thinktank is a wholly inappropriate way to address the growing pains of communities like Langley south of the Fraser River.

Life in Ecotopia demands Big Picture thinking. And this type of thinking was in short supply during CBC Radio's presentation of the South of the Fraser debate. Vancouver's dubious distinction of being named Most Expensive City in the Western Hemisphere means few people can afford to live in the city itself. It's little wonder the region south of the Fraser is experiencing unprecedented growth, which invariably results in transportation and quality of life headaches. However, the Cato Institute representative only brought economic arguments to the debate. Of course economic concerns are the "push factor" shifting people into the suburbs. But O'Toole entirely misses the point about what constitutes livability. According to O'Toole's statements this morning, livability south of the Fraser means having the right to a large carbon footprint, e.g., no densification (an intriguing concept, but a word I hate--it's just wrong to turn an adjective into a noun), and the right to commute in a single occupant vehicle due to little or no transit infrastructure or alternatives. Pretty much the status quo beyond the city limits, and still won't be alleviated as we approach the final phases of the Gateway project (but don't get me started on that tendentious issue).

Livability means a balance between the amenities of the city and our environment for the greatest number of people, a goal urban planners in the area have tried to reach no matter how imperfectly. The Smart-Growth approach as advocated by Todd Litman in this debate is far more appropriate for life in Ecotopia. The economic free-for-all planning method advocated by O'Toole has not been used in Portland, Oregon, home to the Cato Institute. In fact, Portland has itself earned the Most Livable City designation. I find it interesting that O'Toole decries Portland's transit and planning choices, yet is remarkably silent on the topic of how to deal with America's dying cities once fueled by growth and promise (see: Detroit, Flint, and Grand Rapids, Michigan; Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania; Cleveland, Ohio).

The Cato Institute's profile of O'Toole says: "O'Toole calls for repealing federal, state, and local planning laws and proposes reforms that can help solve social and environmental problems without heavy-handed government regulation." This attitude is contrary to how the Metro Vancouver area has successfully approached its own planning challenges. This is a glaring example of an American versus Canadian attitude difference that I'm always harping on in this blog. Cities grow, but considering the potential impact of hard economic times on a region is part of intelligent urban planning. As part of the Metro Vancouver region, cities south of the Fraser have a real opportunity to balance work, family, quality of life, and the environment positively. O'Toole's illogical planning approach is counter to everything the Greater Vancouver area is or plans to be.


Randal O'Toole's Cato Institute profile: http://www.cato.org/people/randal-otoole