I sort of hoped that the term “EcoDensity“—a word coined to describe Vancouver’s plan for new development within city limits—would grow on me.  But it still sounds pretty clunky to my ears.

That said, it’s a pretty apt description.  If the greater Vancouver region is going to add more residents over the next few decades—as seems pretty much inevitable—by far the most environmentally friendly path is to create more housing in places that are already developed.  The alternative is to put more people in places that aren’t developed—“greenfield” development on farmland and open space—which can create all sorts of fiscal problems (see, e.g., this interesting lit review) as well as environmental ones.

Sure, when people see high-rise condos or big apartment buildings, they don’t often think of  “unspoiled nature.”  That’s understandable.  But it’s also an error:  person for person, living in a high rise neighborhood (or a similar compact community) can help dramatically reduce your environmental footprint—particularly for energy, since you’re sharing walls (and heating bills) with neighbors, and often can drive less to get to stores, services, and jobs.

The aim of the EcoDensity plan is to spread new, denser development across the city, not just in the downtown core.  That could bring some of the benefits of density—easier access to stores and services, frequent and cost effective transit service—to even more Vancouver residents.

But, to some people, the big issue in this plan has nothing to do with the environment.  Instead, it’s all about the housing market—and in particular, whether EcoDensity will help make Vancouver’s housing more affordable.

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  • Vancouver housing prices have absolutely skyrocketed in recent years—just take a look at this popular blog, which is devoted virtually entirely to the city’s housing market. (Particularly frightening is this graph, which shows how fast downtown condo housing prices have risen in the last 4 to 5 years.)

    The proponents of EcoDensity claim—I think, with a lot of justification—that boosting new development within Vancouver city limits will help ease housing costs. That makes perfect sense to me: if high housing costs are caused by too much demand and too little supply, then creating more housing should ease the crunch, no?

    Not so fast, say opponents:

    Coun. Heather Deal of Vancouver civic opposition party, Vision Vancouver, said she’s not convinced that taller buildings will reduce the price of a new home.

    “I don’t think that each new tower that goes up downtown is selling for less than the one before it. In fact, quite the opposite.

    There’s part of me that thinks of this as nonsense: higher prices were exactly what you’d expect given enormous demand focused on relatively modest increases in supply.  If new buildings hadn’t opened, wouldn’t all that demand have been focused on an even more constrained supply?

    But there’s another part that understands the point. Vancouver has become incredibly attractive, not just to new residents, but also to investors and real estate speculators, and even to wealthy Americans looking for a pied a terre in a vibrant and urbane city.  Adding to the supply of high-rise housing may actually be exacerbating that trend—fueling the thirst for new housing, rather than slaking it. 

    I don’t really think that’s right, but I don’t actually know for sure.  Regardless, it seems like the opposite of the EcoDensity plan—essentially, making it harder for developers to increase the supply of housing within the city —would do nothing to ease the high cost of new housing in Vancouver.  So count me (provisionally, at least) as someone who believes that EcoDensity will kill two birds with one stone—reducing Vancouver’s per-capita environmental impacts and its housing prices in one stroke.