How can we build our homes and communities so that they co-exist harmoniously with Nature? What does it mean to create a sustainable house, a sustainable community, a sustainable city? For each additional day that we live, design and build unsustainably, we pull another fibre out of the fabric of Earth’s ecosystems.

Local and Regional Approaches to Growth and Change:
Striving to Make Better Communities to Call Home

Presentation to the
Vancouver Island Municipal Officers Association, Qualicum Beach,
October 2nd/3rd 1997

by Guy Dauncey

Vancouver Island the Beautiful
We live on a very beautiful island, where the herons, the eagles, the mountains, the oceans and the forests are a constant inspiration. Our island will still be here in 200 years - in 2,000 years. But what kind of an island will it be ? That depends on the decisions we make now - and over the next 50 years.

New people are arriving here every year. Will the development that comes with them destroy the island ? Or can we use it to help us preserve the beauty, the clean air and water and to avoid the Lower Mainland's mistakes ?

The growth itself is not the problem
The problems involve our inadequate response to growth - a lack of planning for sustainable communities, a lack of landscape design and building design control, a lack of urban greenspace and greenways allocation, and a lack of focus on neighbourhood development. These lacks are accentuated by a lack of awareness of the alternatives among councillors, developers, the public and city staff.

These are some of the dangers associated with rapid growth on the Island :

  • Traffic volume that is increasing almost twice as fast as the population
  • The spread of highway perimeter sprawl, starting with 'power shopping' centres
  • The disappearance of affordable housing for young people and people on lower incomes
  • Increasing urban traffic congestion, stress and driver frustration - big city blues.
  • Subdivisions that are designed without a commercial or recreational centre, obliging the residents to drive
  • The increasing noise, stress and danger from traffic on residential streets
  • The loss of neighbourhood and community feeling, as more people drive
  • The loss of downtown vitality, as out-of-town discount centres and shopping malls steal people away.
  • The loss of wilderness, peace, beauty
  • The loss of wildlife habitat - where will the herons live ?
  • The loss of small wetlands, lakes & ponds, as they are steadily drained for development or developed with hard edges.
  • Groundwater & ocean pollution from faulty septic fields and polluted run-off

"As communities mature, the cultural character and ecology of place seem to disappear. Instead, regional nuances give way to a cluttered and confusing landscape of homogenized commercial and residential developments and the growing anonymity of the metropolitan environment."

William Morrish, Design Centre for the American Urban Landscape

E & N - 40 Acre lots - the beginning of our troubles
In 1883 the Esquimalt and Nanaimo Rail Grant gave Robert and James Dunsmuir 2 million acres of land (and $750,000). The land was subsequently sold off in 640 acre sections at $1 per acre.

Over the years, the process of subdivision gave us 40 acre lots, 20 acre lots, 10 acre lots, 5 acre lots, 1 acre lots and then 1/2, 1/4 and 1/8 acre lots, scattered across the land. If you wanted to design the worst method of planning for human settlement, this would be it.

Traditional Neighbourhood Development (TND)
TND is a new movement that is bringing back the design features that make some of the older towns in Europe and North America so attractive - narrower streets, smaller setbacks, a grid pattern of street connection, and an encouragement for pedestrians and cyclists.

Community Design Charrettes
"Neighbourhoods, towns, cities and regions should not be planned, or even zoned, according to abstract policies and non-visual formulae drafted by lawyers, lawmakers and bureaucrats who have not enlisted the help of design professionals. Such methods have led to zoning codes as thick as telephone books and as difficult to decipher as tax regulations. Often these land-use and zoning codes prohibit - sometimes on purpose, sometimes inadvertently - making a traditional town or neighbourhood. To build anything resembling a "High street" or "Elm Street" in many North American municipalities is now actually against the law ! (...) Design charrettes can brainstorm a problem in a way that liberates latent possibilities."

Doug Kelbaugh, Professor of Architecture and Urban Design,
University of Washington, Seattle

Some design innovations that are helping to build more sustainable communities :
Traffic Calming
Neighbourhood centres
Stream Stewardship
Community Design Charrettes

Standard 20th century urban and suburban design imposes its subdivisions on the landscape, bulldozing everything that gets in the way. Ecological design fits the pattern of the housing to the ecology of the landscape, with its creeks and streams.

Green development standards
Encourage more socially and environmentally responsible development by reviewing building and zoning regulations to make them simpler and more flexible.

The Maryland Office of Planning recommends:

  • Allow narrower residential streets - less paving, less run-off, less tree removal
  • Parking lots - allow them to meet typical flow, instead of peak demand. Smaller lots reduce run-off, soil erosion, non-point source pollution and impact on wildlife habitat
  • Stormwater - allow cheaper natural methods such as grassy swales or gravel packed trenches, instead of high cost curbs & storm sewers
  • Zoning - devise flexible codes & OCPs that encourage clustering and the protection of open space

Rural sprawl - municipalities can now write ecological planning guidelines into the OCPs, to encourage clustering, density transfers and the preservation of green space.

In Portage County, in Ohio farmland, a conventional plan for a 347 acre farm development had 4.2 acres per lot, with 18.8 acres as green space.
Or - Cluster Plan 1 - 1.8 acre lots and 214 acres of green space,
or - Cluster Plan 2 - 1.26 acre lots and 256 acres of green space.

Village Homes, Davis CA (built 1972) has 250 homes at a typical suburban 8 units per acre, but car-access is by back lanes only. The main roads are green lanes, for pedestrians and cycles only. The houses are solar designed, with fruit trees and community barbecue pits. Compared to an identically sized subdivision across the road in an orthodox subdivision layout, the houses in Village Homes sell for a 15% premium, with a waiting list (zero sales delay).

There are undeveloped and semi-developed areas all over Vancouver Island which will be subdivided with a calculator and a ruler on a city desk, unless there is a process for assuring a more creative and sensitive treatment. The design charrette is one of these, enabling a team of interdisciplinary professionals to join with councillors and local community members to consider the future of an area as a whole. The results will invariably exceed the status quo method of development.

Alternative Public Hearings
The existing format for Public Hearings is very poor. By prohibiting dialogue, exchange or consensus-based facilitation, the format encourages dysfunctional relationships and hostility between developers and the community, while excluding many good ideas. By the time a developer gets to Third Reading a lot of money has been invested in a particular design and there is reluctance to change it, and councillors are encouraged to adopt a 'take it or leave it' approach.

Municipalities and regions could proceed with formal Public Consultations before moving into the legal process. The procedure could run as follows :

  • Proponent, council and community reps (stakeholders) meet to agree on a neutral facilitator.
  • Helped by the facilitator, they agree on an issue-based format for the consultation - eg transport-impacts, then density, then affordability, then design issues, and how long should be devoted to each item.
  • At the Consultation, after an initial presentation by the proponent, the Consultation moves to its first issue (eg transport impacts). Members of the public are invited to speak to this issue, and the developer is invited to respond and to dialogue with the public. The intention is to produce light, rather than heat. Councillors are encouraged to take part in the dialogue, holding equal status with members of the public. The tradition that councillors do not speak until they are announcing their vote is set aside.
  • After the agreed time, the facilitator moves the Consultation on to the next issue - and so on until all the issues have been covered.

Official Community Plans
(a) Add ecological goals and objectives to community OCPs, as permitted under the new provincial legislation.
(b) Most existing OCPs are overall visions for the future of an area, without any follow-through that would allow an intention to be fulfilled. In this sense, they are not 'plans'. This is an enormous weakness, and leads to the reality that the future is determined more by zoning bylaws and rezonings, not by the OCP.
Action : Each Goal and Objective in the OCP should be accompanied by a 3rd section called 'Action', with possible steps to be taken, listing the department responsible.

Zoning Changes
Rewrite development application forms to include mandatory attention to social and environmental features.

Change the publicity around rezonings so that they are written in plain English that anyone can understand, leaving out the legal and 'plannerese' language.

Regional Planning
Regional planning was abolished by the Socred government in 1983, when a cabinet minister was upset that a friend had a golf course application overturned on a 33/32 vote. The NDP brought back growth management - regional planning by mutual consent - in 1995.

Regional planning has many creative tools which can help protect green space while encouraging attractive urban development.

Portland's Transferable Development Credits, a system designed to create compact growth patterns in existing urban areas in exchange for open land preservation. To develop beyond the base zoning restrictions in a "receiver area", a developer must buy credits from a sender landowner, compensating the sender for giving up development opportunities. A perpetual conservation easement is then placed over the sender's land prohibiting future subdivision or changes to the site.

Green Belts - Urban Containment Boundaries - Portland - San Jose - Seattle - and Saanich.
"Studies show that extending urban services - roads, sewers, water, schools - to new suburbs costs cities more than revenue gains from expansion."

Christian Science Monitor, April 17th 1996

Maryland's 'Smart Growth' plan :
(1) Shift development back to existing communities by directing state spending for roads, schools and sewers to cities, towns and more densely developed suburbs
(2) Preserve the state's rural legacy by spending $163 million over next 5 years to buy up 90,000 acres of farmland and environmentally sensitive areas
(3) Encourage recycling of abandoned and underused brown field industrial areas by streamlining pollution clean-up requirements

Prohibit new out-of-town shopping malls. Britain has tightened restrictions. Italy is discussing a 3-year moratorium. Germany limits new malls to the former east. France subjects all new food stores over 3,000 sq ft to government approval. Vermont has kept Walmart out by its zoning restrictions on the permitted size of out-of-town stores.

Island Trails The Trans-Canada Trail is a coast-to-coast-to-coast off-road trail which the organizers hope to launch in the year 2000. In Britain, 'Sustrans' has been awarded $120 million of lottery money to create an entire network of off-road pedestrian/cycling/riding trails throughout Britain. Here on the Island, we could picture a similar network.

Regional District Boundaries
Thinking more broadly, if we are ever to have proper watershed-based management of forests, fishing, rivers and agricultural land on the island, we need to adjust the boundaries of the existing regional districts to reflect natural watersheds. For instance :

CRD : Cut short just south of Port Renfrew, and create a new watershed-based region covering the area from Port Renfrew to just south of Bamfield, taking in the whole of the San Juan and Nitinat watersheds, with HQ at Port Renfrew.
Cowichan Valley RD: Remove the west coast section, from the west end of Cowichan Lake.
Nanaimo Regional District : Reduce the northern boundary just north of Lanzville
(New) Beaufort Range Regional District : Runs up the eastern coast from Nanoose Bay to north of Black Creek, bounded to the west by the Beaufort Range.
Redistribute Comox-Strathcona Regional District into
(a) Courtenay/Cumberland - part of the new Beaufort Range Regional District
(b) Gold River - Tahsis - Brooks Peninsula becomes new Nootka/Kyuquot Regional District
(c) Campbell River & Sayward become part of new Salmon Regional District.
(New) Salmon Regional District : Covers Strathcona, Campbell River, Salmon River.
(New) Nimpkish-Quatsino Regional District. (The old Mount Waddington Region, less the mainland area (added to the Central Coast Regional District along with Bute Inlet from the old Comox-Strathcona Region)
(New) Nootka-Kyuquot Regional District : from the hesquiat Peninsula to the Brooks Peninsula.
Alberni-Clayoquot Regional District : move the southern boundary up to Bamfield.
(New) San Juan-Nitinat Regional District

'The Nature House', Sweden
Except for electric light, runs entirely on natural systems. The timber frame, built within a glass outer shell, is light, bright and spacious. The perimeter spaces are filled with green conservatories of exotic plants and sunspaces, while fruit, flowers and vegetables flourish in the glass roof garden. The sun's rays trapped by the glass shell give immediate warmth; a thick layer of pebbles under the house stores the heat, which is circulated by a fan. A wood-burning stove supplies back-up heating, if required. A water-less composting toilet deals with all human and other organic wastes, and a large tank set into the indoor terrace stores rainwater. Fresh air, drawn in through the rooftop garden fills the house with the sweet scent of flowers and plants.
(The Natural House Book', by David Pearson)

Affordable housing
The need is urgent - most young people have given up all hope of ever owning a home. There are many methods - small homes (300 - 800 sq ft), cluster homes, self-build, growhomes, but builders and developers don't like building them because the earnings are less.

One solution might be affordability credits, similar to Portland's transferable development credits. For every 4th built unit selling for over $150,000 (eg), a builder must buy an affordability credit from someone who has built a unit selling for under $150,000. The credits will find their own market value ($5,000 ?), and provide a built-in market incentive to encourage affordable housing, and stimulating the market for low-cost units.

Age of the Universe : 15 billion years
Age of the Earth : 4.5 billion years
Age of earliest organisms : 2 billion years
Age of oldest mammals : 60 million years

Homo Sapiens
Hunter-Gatherer Age : 3,000,000 years
Agricultural Age : 11,000 years
Industrial Age : 200 years
Post-Industrial Age : 15 years

The period 1990 - 2040 is critical for making the turnaround from a society based on oil, the extraction of natural resources and living off Earth's capital. Many past civilizations have blown it - North Africa used to be the granary of Europe; now it's mostly a desert. Ditto for Sumeria and the Garden of Babylon, which is now the Iran/Iraq desert.

We have some larger problems :
* Climate change - predictions for the Island include more extreme events (snowstorms, downpours, droughts), forest fires, insect and fungus invasions, warming rivers,
* Global fisheries crisis, affecting the salmon
* Health crisis from accumulation of toxic chemicals - cancers, chemical stress syndrome, potential collapse of antibiotics through overuse and abuse
* Fall down in forest production due to overcutting
* Coming world food crisis

Put together, we face a larger crisis of growth and direction.
Which way are we headed as we enter the 21st century ? Do we want to ride the familiar waves of the 20th century - or do we need to change direction, and chart a new path towards ecological sustainability and community stability ? If we change direction, what will it mean ?

Traditional opportunities will continue to develop (Chemainus Theatre, Ladysmith Waterfront, new Victoria Arena). The wave of change is the overall vision : innovative opportunities are the molecules that make up the wave.

Transportation revolution
Island railway
Solar cars
Car Share co-ops
True-cost pricing for cars and parking
Island Authority, able to raise $$$ eg for $1 billion railway system
New roads -
Cowichan Lake to Port Renfrew
Cowichan Lake to Port Alberni and Bamfield
Port Alberni to Lake Comox and Courtenay
Gold River to Tahsis
Gold River to Woss
Tahsis to Zeballos
Zeballos to Nimpkish
Tahsis to Woss

Organic farming revolution
Hobby farms sit empty, while farmers complain they can't afford to farm. Meanwhile, there's a shortage of locally grown organic food, and the brown box programs in Victoria are all oversubscribed with huge waiting lists. The brown box program can revive the small organic family farm, and bring new vitality to the countryside.

Energy innovations
The solar revolution is just around the corner. Solar shingles attached directly to roofs, with flywheel storage. Windmills, ground-source heat, solar roads.

New approaches to sewage - wetlands, backyard wetlands, solar aquatics, hydroxyl

Community forests control
Community Forestry Act, written by Cheri Burda and Michael M'Gonigle, would give local communities the ability to control their own local forest licenses using ecological forestry principles, according to their own long-term needs.

Ecologically sustainable economic development
Eco-industrial parks, practising zero-emissions industrial ecology
Residential-industrial parks (Courtenay), where residents can live about their workshops.

New towns
New self-contained towns of 10,000 people, planned on ecological and compact traditional neighbourhood development lines, with relatively high density (20 units/acre), fibre optics and their own local economies - may be preferable to the sprawl of subdivisions around existing communities.

In Chinese, the word for 'crisis' is 'wei-chi', where 'wei' means 'danger' and 'chi' means 'opportunity'. They cannot say the word 'crisis' without understanding 'danger-opportunity' in their minds. That is our reality today.

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