Our tiny region: Is geography a factor in Vancouver's affordability crisis?

Jun 30 2016, 5:17 pm

Nearly 2.5 million people living in the Lower Mainland are wedged between an area framed by mountains to the north and east, the sea to the west, and the US-Canada border to the south. It’s no secret that the Metro Vancouver region is landlocked, effectively limiting the region’s ability to expand outwards with the same type of sprawl seen in other regions like Toronto and Calgary.

Metro Vancouver is currently facing an affordability crisis, it’s an issue facing the entire region. But while much of the debate has centred on foreign investment, maybe it’s time we addressed the elephant in the room and started to look at our city’s geography as a factor in the increasingly unattainable housing market.

Taking out the measuring tape

Metro Vancouver region has a land base of 2,870 square kilometres, but less than one-third of this area is primed for any type of urban development, due to both natural and artificial policy-based barriers that restrain the region’s developable area.

According to the Metro Vancouver Regional District, the region’s current land is as follows:

  • 554 km2 is protected for the Agricultural Land Reserve (ALR), a provincial policy that protects fertile soils for agricultural uses
  • 1,347 kmis safeguarded for conservation and recreation uses, such as the reservoir watersheds in the North Shore mountains, regional parks, floodplains, marshlands, and other ecologically sensitive areas
  • 136 km2 for industrial and mixed-employment uses; 114 km2 as rural areas
  • 701 kmas urban areas

Map of regional land use designations (click to englarge).

Image: Metro Vancouver Regional District

Image: Metro Vancouver Regional District

Just 840 kmis either developed or available for urban development, which includes residential, industrial, commercial, and industrial uses. All of this occurs inside the region’s urban containment boundary, a policy designed by the Regional District and 21 local municipal governments to restrain cities from growing outwards and prevent the spread of urban sprawl.

However, approximately 20 kmof the region’s urbanized area sits outside of the urban containment boundary. Much of this is due to municipalities fine tuning their land use designations ahead of their Metro 2040 regional context statements.

But there have also been some losses to development, namely the 2007 federal and provincial treaty with the Tsawwassen First Nation that took away 535 acres (2.2 km2) of land from the Agricultural Land Reserve (ALR). The land provided to the First Nation from the treaty will be developed into industrial, residential, and commercial and retail uses – namely, the site of the Tsawwassen Mills shopping centre opening this fall.

In 2013, another 536 acres (2.2 km2) was removed when Delta City Council and the Regional District’s Board of Directors voted to allow the site of the former Spetifore Farm, a site better known as the Southlands, located outside of the urban containment boundary, to be developed into a low-density residential community with about 1,000 single-family and townhouse homes.

But this is not the type of development that the region’s urban planners are striving for: It goes against the Regional Growth Strategy, a guide for growth and development established by the Regional District.

The strategy aims to have 98% of Metro Vancouver’s future growth from now until 2040 within the urban containment boundary, with 80% through infill, intensification, and redevelopment of existing developed areas and 20% through the creation of new urban neighbourhoods on the outer edges within the urban containment boundary.

The Regional District estimates that 78.5 km2 of land within the designated urban areas of the region, where land can be developed, remains largely undeveloped. The remaining areas, as of 2011, are Langley Township (20.8 km2), Surrey (20.5 km2), Coquitlam (8.25 km2), Maple Ridge (14.15 km2), Tsawwassen First Nation (1.8 km2), and West Vancouver (13 km2).

Map showing the region’s urban lands, highlighting lands that are largely undeveloped.

Image: Metro Vancouver Regional District

Image: Metro Vancouver Regional District

Additionally, the Regional District’s 2040 strategy outlines plans to have approximately 66% of all urban growth within 26 urban centres, such as the main Metropolitan Core – defined as downtown Vancouver and Central Broadway – and Surrey City Centre, and along Frequent Transit Development Areas. These major transit corridors are defined as all-day bus or train service running at least every 15 minutes.

The plan aims to have 40% of new residential dwelling growth and 50% of employment growth within the urban centres.

Over the next 30 years, within its limited land base, Metro Vancouver’s population will grow by one million and its workforce will increase by 500,000.

Map of urban centres and frequent transit development areas (click to enlarge).

Image: Metro Vancouver Regional District

Image: Metro Vancouver Regional District

Our tiny region: Comparing Toronto

Metro Vancouver is tiny. Very tiny.

Take Toronto as a comparison. The City of Toronto covers an area of approximately 630 km2. To put that into perspective you could fit Vancouver, Burnaby, New Westminster, Richmond, Port Moody, much of the northeast sector’s Tri-Cities, and even most of Burrard Inlet into that space.

So a single city with a population of 2.62 million people is equivalent to 75% of Metro Vancouver’s developable urban land base. By contrast, the City of Vancouver is 115 km2, including nearly 13 km2 of parks and green spaces.

Map of the City of Toronto vs. the Metro Vancouver region.

Image: TransLink

Image: TransLink

It should be noted that we’re only talking about the City of Toronto here, not the 25 adjacent regional suburban cities such as Mississauga, Brampton, Markham, Vaughan, and Pickering. Altogether, the Greater Toronto Area (GTA) has an area of 7,124 km2 – two and a half times larger than Metro Vancouver – holding nearly 6.1 million residents.

And that does not even include the other municipalities within the more broader region known as the Greater Golden Horseshoe (GGH), encompassing major suburban centres including Hamilton, Niagara, Brantford, Waterloo, Guelph, Barrie, and Peterborough. With 8.8 million residents and 4.5 million jobs, this is the most heavily populated and industrialized area in Canada, and it is considered as a single economic region due to intercity commute patterns and economic activity.

By 2041, the GGH’s population is expected to climb to 13.5 million residents and 6.3 million jobs, but Ontario’s provincial government aims to shape this growth by reducing urban sprawl and encouraging intensification within existing developed areas.

Similar to Metro Vancouver’s policies, the 2005 Greenbelt Plan identified lands – mainly agricultural lands and ecologically sensitive areas – where urbanization is not permitted. This Greenbelt frames the outer edges of the inner region, particularly the low-density suburbs.

The following year, the Growth Plan for the GGH was developed to supplement the framework provided by the Greenbelt. It aims to focus development within the designated 25 urban centres, in the process revitalizing these downtown areas, and provide housing options for people of any age.

Currently, approximately 3,298 km2 of the GGH is urbanized, and this will grow to 4,369 km2 by 2031. A significant amount of developable land outside of the Greenbelt has not been developed.

Map of the Greater Golden Horseshoe Growth Plan, with the protected green belt highlighted.

Image: Government of Ontario

Image: Government of Ontario

Our tiny region: Comparing Montreal

Comparatively, Montreal, Canada’s second largest city, has nearly 1.7 million people living on an island with an area of 432 km2 – approximately four times larger than the area of the City of Vancouver and roughly half the size of the city of Toronto. The metropolitan area of Montreal is 4,258 km2 and holds 4.1 million people, which is slightly less than half of Metro Vancouver’s population.

A recently established growth plan, dubbed the “Montreal urban agglomeration land use and development plan,” aims to foster density near the downtown core and major public transit routes and construct more family-friendly, multi-bedroom housing.

An agricultural protection act that covers Montreal’s surrounding areas and much of the St. Lawrence River’s lowlands restricts urban development from expanding into the protected green zones.

Map of the City of Montreal vs. the Metro Vancouver region.

Image: TransLink

Image: TransLink

Map of Quebec’s protected Agricultural Zone (highlighted in grey) surrounding Montreal and the St. Lawrence River.

Image: Government of Quebec

Image: Government of Quebec

Our tiny region: Comparing Seattle

Closer to BC, the Seattle Metro Region’s area encompasses 16,231 km2, consisting of King, Kitsap, Pierce, and Snohomish counties. Only about 2,598 km2 of this land is within the designated urban growth area, which is home to approximately 3.8 million people. Over the past year, there have been discussions by Seattle’s regional leaders to open more of the protected lands for urban development, but critics of the idea say future growth can be accommodated by changing the zoning on existing lands and encouraging density.

Map of King County’s urban growth boundaries (click to enlarge).

Image: King County

Image: King County

Our tiny region: Comparing other urban regions

Urban regions like Calgary and Edmonton, prairie cities that have plenty of space, do not have any geographic or policy-based urban growth boundaries and are among Canada’s largest sprawled municipalities. Calgary’s metro area is more than 5,100 km2 in size and holds over 1.2 million people while Edmonton’s metro area is even larger at 9,426 km2 and holds 1.16 million people.

Vancouver could perhaps be best compared with San Francisco as both cities are built on peninsulas, have major parks (Vancouver’s Stanley Park and San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park are both roughly 1,000 acres), and are among the densest cities in their respective countries. The City of San Francisco has a nearly identical land mass of 121 km2, but its population is 28% larger than Vancouver’s. A little over 600,000 people live in Vancouver and roughly 840,000 people live in San Francisco.

But San Francisco’s metro region is more than three times the area of Metro Vancouver, and its population stands at 4.7 million – three and a half times larger than the Vancouver region. If the entire Bay Area is accounted for, stretching from the wine country to Silicon Valley, the number of residents living in the region grows to over seven million.

Lack of space and housing affordability

So what impact does a lack of land supply have on Metro Vancouver’s growing housing affordability crisis?

Jon Stovell, the President and CEO of Reliance Properties and the Chair of the Urban Development Institute, told Daily Hive the region’s geographical issues can be overcome through policy changes that allow density.

“The region is kind of hemmed in by physical geography and land use decisions for farmland,” said Stovell. “That is why I think Vancouver has become more vertical and why Vancouver has been a more resilient market. It’s so difficult to build and difficult to overbuild.”

“These geographical constraints are not really a true barrier, they are only a barrier in light of our unwillingness to densify the land that we already have. Unlike Calgary or other prairie cities, we cannot spread out.”

He says density does not necessarily mean tall towers, and that there is much that can be done within the existing boundaries given that single-family housing occupies 70% of the region’s developable urban land base but only houses 30% of the population.

“I think there is very strong political support for the agricultural reserve lands and the move towards sustainability, people want to keep the idea of living close to food consumption,” he said. “I just don’t think that’s going to happen anytime soon. I think there is a lot of things that will come down before we touch agricultural land.”

Gordon Price, a former Vancouver City Councillor and the Director of Simon Fraser University’s City Program, also believes the epitomization of the single-family residence needs to end given how much space it occupies.

“In theory, once we’ve adjusted to the idea that the era of the single-family home is over, once that is over, the market will make another adjustment and that becomes more of the short-term factor that would play out in the kind of market that we see,” said Price.

While the City of Vancouver has reached absolute scarcity, the surrounding region hasn’t as there are still developable areas in Langley, Surrey, and the Tri Cities. Furthermore, Price says land scarcity issues are second to interest rates, sources of capital, ease of credit, and technological, which are all short-term factors currently playing out in the market. Land scarcity issues at this time are more of a long-term factor.

“There is still land available and a fair amount of it to the point that it would be difficult for the market to justify the price increases we’ve seen in Vancouver based upon the idea that, well, you know we’ve reached scarcity and there is no end to the upward pressure on land. However, someday we will see absolute scarcity and at that point I think the question is will we break through those boundaries that are basically political ones or even technological ones.”

He pointed the example of how the North Shore’s development up the mountain slopes is restrained by technological limitations on how high water can be pumped. As a result, the 1,200 foot level (366 metres) has been used as the growth boundary in the North Shore, but this barrier can be overcome with technological advances.

“I think absolute scarcity is a factor in the long-term but it would be the same as saying Manhattan and San Francisco Bay is built out,” he continued. “These happen to be very expensive cities, but it’s not just because of land. But no question, absolute scarcity would definitely have a factor in people’s assessment of what they value the land is, it’s the cost of doing the development. We haven’t reached that point.”

The transportation factor

One other long-term factor that is increasingly coming into play is transportation. More than $3 billion has been put into Metro Vancouver’s Gateway Project for expanding highways, including the widening of Highway 1, a new 10-lane Port Mann Bridge, and the South Fraser Perimeter Road that connects Deltaport with Highway 1.

Another major round in regional road investments seems to be imminent, with the provincial government spearheading and funding a $3.5 billion plan to replace the George Massey Tunnel with a $3.5-billion, 10-lane bridge over the Fraser River. It includes a project to improve 25 kilometres of Highway 99, including a widened highway, three new interchanges, and improved on- and off-ramps. Construction is scheduled to begin in 2017 for a completion by 2022.

The project has faced strong criticism given the potential bottlenecks it could create in Richmond and on routes into Vancouver. More importantly, there is the potential impact on the ALR across Delta and South Surrey to consider given that improved accessibility from the new bridge will almost certainly increase the pressure to develop more of the protected farmlands south of the Fraser.

“You’re building infrastructure that is going to have a huge impact on the ALR,” said Price. “You don’t build a 10-lane bridge that drops down on agricultural land without having a big impact on the value of land. That’s how transportation infrastructure works, that’s what it’s for. And my concern is that a regional vision based on the Regional Growth Plan is being lost. There has to be a discussion that’s not occurring.”

For instance, the new bridge is expected to greatly boost accessibility and desirability of commercial and residential developments on the lands of the Tsawwassen First Nation. Tsawwassen Mills, a 1.2-million-square foot indoor shopping mall enclosed by many acres of asphalt parking spaces, is nearing completion at its site next to BC Ferries’ Tsawwassen Terminal and is slated to open in October. Adjacent to the shopping mall is the 550,000-square-foot Tsawwassen Commons strip mall and the 270-acre Tsawwassen Shores residential development for over 4,000 residents.

“We need to ask the question: What kind of city do you want? In the meantime, we’re talking about the equivalent amount of money or more towards transportation infrastructure that will shape this region in a way that goes against the regional plan has stood for for the last 50 years. Car dominance, sprawl, forget the climate change issues… it’s incredibly discouraging that there isn’t a debate about it.”

Vancouver Affordability Series

Part 1: How Vancouver got so expensive and what you can do about it
Part 2: Why are wages so low in Vancouver compared to other cities?
Part 3: Is Vancouver in the midst of a real estate bubble? Will it burst?
Part 4: Opinion: Why I chose to move to Vancouver
Part 5: Land-locked region: Is geography a factor in Vancouver’s affordability crisis?

Kenneth ChanKenneth Chan

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