Doug McCallum and his Safe Surrey Coalition campaigned on something called “smart development” leading up to the 2018 civic election. It was an important pillar of the SSC platform.
But what exactly is it?
This question was tackled by a panel of experts last Wednesday at an Urban Development Institute luncheon at the Civic Hotel in Whalley, which was attended by 160 movers and shakers, with Mayor McCallum among them.
Safe Surrey Coalition’s campaign literature promised that, if elected, the slate would “break away” from what it characterized as “the scattered approach to residential and commercial development” which had “been the norm in Surrey for the last 10 years. Development under the previous council has clearly been too fast.” The SSC charged that in “far too many cases new developments aren’t effectively connecting their new residents to schools and transit.”
McCallum’s team vowed to “pause development and introduce smart development guidelines” that would create “connected communities: connected to schools, transit, healthcare, community supports, arts & culture, sports facilities, nature, shopping, and a sufficient road network.”
So that’s the politics. Back to the luncheon sponsored by UDI, a not-for-profit organization representing a litany of property managers, lawyers, engineers, planners, architects, appraisers, real estate professionals, local governments, land developers and financial lenders in B.C. since 1972.
Moderator Gordon Price – who served six terms as a Vancouver city councillor, served on the board of Metro Vancouver, on the first board of TransLink in 1989, and is a fellow of SFU centre for dialogue – begged the question on smart development.
“Anybody here confident they can define it?” he asked.
Century Group’s Bob Ransford, an urban designer of 31 years, waxed philosophical. He called as his premier witness Vitruvius, an ancient Roman civil engineer and architect.
“He described the essence of architecture as having three combined purposes: structure, function and aesthetics,” Ransford noted.
That is, Firmitas (be structurally sound), Utilitas (be practical) and Venustas (be beautiful).
“Or as I like to look at it, strong, not useless, and pretty,” he explained.
Ransford maintains urban planners, land developers and politicians should be thinking about places and buildings that “have permanence and durability, about places and buildings that are welcoming, inclusive and delightful. We should be designing and constructing places and buildings that make everyday life easier for people. Of course that’s why humans came together in settlements in the very first place – to make life easier.”
“Smart development doesn’t look like places that put automobiles first,” he said.
Nor does smart development waste land with low-density sprawl, he argued.
Ransford says smart growth – another way of saying smart development – is about “compact places where people can walk easily to where they need to go.
Public transit plays an important role in smart development, he maintains.
“What’s important to understand is that there is no one way of creating smart development but there is one principle of dealing with the challenge that’s there today, and that’s reducing the automobile’s dominance in our lives,” he said.
The question that always arises, Ransford said, is how can you have more development in an area without good transit service?
“The response is, how can you have good transit service without people that are going to make a decision to switch from their cars and ride buses, or eventually ride SkyTrain?”
Ransford noted that for the first time in human history more people are living in urban settlements than rural areas (55 per cent, forecast to rise to 68 per cent 30 years from now).
“Scientific evidence has allowed us to conclude that it’s extremely likely that human influence is the dominant cause of global warming and the recent climate changes that we’ve witnessed, and to that point that they are posing a clear and soon to be present threat to the very survival of our human species,” Ransford said.
“Facing these realities and the forces that are there, it is making us re-evaluate the way that we built our human settlements and consider how we can better plan, design and rebuild them.”
There is no one way of creating smart development, Ransford says, but there is one principle: “Dealing with the challenge if what’s there today, and that’s reducing the automobile’s dominance in our lives.”
We can only do that, he said, by providing reliable, convenient, alternative transportation options that are “flexible” and can adapt when growth patterns change.
Cameron McNeill, executive director, partner at MLA (McNeill Lalonde and Associates) real estate business, said a “healthy community needs all aspects of real estate as well – commercial, retail, eco-industrial, institutional, of course, in order to provide services to people living in the area.”
“We are seeing the winds of change happen,” he told the audience.
McNeill projected on a big screen an aerial image from Nevada, “or something like that,” of a residential development that looks almost paisley in design.
“Is this smart growth?” he asks rhetorically. “We’re all chuckling here, certainly not.”
But in some parts of Metro Vancouver, he notes, “There are elements of this.”
Don Luymes, who was the City of Surrey’s director of strategic initiatives and manager of community planning before becoming the City of Coquitlam’s general manager of civic lands and facilities, says the tenets of smart growth are “pretty well established” and “they lie at the intersection, I think of free ideas and free realms.”
The tenets include a modest environmental footprint, fiscal efficiency, and healthy living – featuring things like “walkability” social spaces and green spaces. Smart development features a “dense cluster of daily destinations,” with mixed housing types, sufficient density to support local commerce and transit, “especially frequent transit” that makes using cars optional.
That, he said, “is the straw that stirs the drink of smart growth.”
Luymes worked for nine years with Surrey and during that time was responsible for special projects and the Official Community Plan as well as growth management, city-wide and neighbourhood plans, and policy development in housing, social planning, environment, heritage, agriculture and urban design.
“Having been working in the City of Surrey when neighbourhoods of Clayton were planned, these neighbourhoods were planned around the expectation of transit, transit service that lagged and caused a dissonance. Although there’s a lot of smart growth features in a place like Clayton, I think it’s fair to say that there have been some bumps along the road and some inconsistency,” he said.
“Cities have to be ready, and where cities aren’t ready developers may have to contribute, and step forward on significant early investment in the public realm. These places have to be great places to live, the parks the streets the public amenities have to be there early rather than late.”
Meantime, Price questioned to what extent society’s love affair with the single-family residence continues to prevail.
“Affluent people who live in single-family houses which go to ‘recreate’ in high-density, so we’re trying to give them versions of that,” he said. “But isn’t that kind of like the elites – us – trying to impose a vision that we believe for all these reasons is a good thing aren’t people aspiring to have a single-family house, even if they have to disguise it? Doesn’t every culture have as an icon the single family house – little house on the prairie. Are we ever really going to get away from that?”
This generated some debate. Ransford said people’s experiences are on line today and they are not necessarily holding parties in their homes, “and things like that. They’re actually meeting in public places. That’s just the reality of how culture has changed.”
Luymes countered that a lot of people still want a backyard.
“There’s still a place for that,” he said. “I don’t buy that Millennials are saying this is the only way to live, high density all the time, on transit.”
“I wouldn’t say it’s one or the other. We’ve got a multitude of different pathways that many different people of different persuasions say this is a good life.”