Monday, 13 August 2012

Sustainable Urban Planning

What is Urban Planning?

Urban planning is the branch of architecture dealing with the design and organization of urban space and activities, including the physical arrangement of the cities and the condition they are in. Cities have employed planners to lay out their infrastructures for years and, like many professions, urban planning has developed over time to reflect the changes in our society and our planet.

Historically, urban planning was primarily concerned with the placement of certain things near other things (i.e. a waste treatment plant should be far away from an elementary school, but a park could be nearby). As the awareness of climate change has grown, and a general shift has been made to a more eco-friendly way of life, urban planning can now take sustainability to heart and begin building greenest cities from the ground up.

How can a city "Go Green"?

These days it’s hard to say exactly what makes a city “green”. As creativity and innovation thrive, new and better ways to live environmentally friendly are constantly being revealed. Any step in the right direction is a good one and, lucky for us, there are many ways for our cities to show their green sides.

Clearing the clutter

Urban sprawl is the uncontrolled spread of urban development into neighboring areas; much like organizing your closet or defragmenting your computer, putting stuff where it belongs can greatly increase the available space you have by maximizing the space you use. Urban planning that reduces sprawl is considered green because it increases the density of city infrastructure and fits the same amount of “city” into a smaller area. Cutting back sprawl can positively impact a city’s sustainability in a number of ways:

Wildlife Refuges

When a city is compact, land that would have otherwise been used by sprawl is left in a more natural state. This provides opportunities for wildlife habitat and also acts as a reserve for native plant species. Available wildlife habitat keeps wildlife and humans both safer, and interactions to a minimum. The forests and vegetation that grow on this land will also act as a natural water filtration system and a carbon sink.

The city of Seattle, Washington comprises over 54,000 acres of land; of this, more than 6,000 acres is green space. The city’s Urban Wildlife and Habitat Management Plan lays out guidelines for managing land such that crucial wildlife habitat is left undisturbed. Land that is considered to be of particular importance for wildlife is acquired by the city to prevent its development, and green spaces are linked whenever possible.

Food Security

In addition to threatening natural ecosystems, urban sprawl threatens farmland. As the need for growth in the city centre pushes the city limits outwards, productive farmland is bought up and developed for other uses.  This increases a city’s dependence on food grown out of town or overseas.  When food isn’t grown locally, it requires large input of energy (usually in the form of fossil fuels) to transport it to where it will be consumed. 

To help protect farmland, the Town of Oliver, BC, collaborated with Land and Water BC to create the Wine Village and Kettle Valley Railway Plan. The plan conceptualizes a compact, pedestrian-friendly village with mostly multi-family dwellings. Surrounding the village is fertile wine country, agrotourism to which is marketed by the village in order to give agriculture in the area a boost and ensure continued production.

Fossil Fuel Use

It’s not just food that uses up fossil fuels to get around!  When a city begins to sprawl, opportunities to take alternate forms of transportation begin to diminish. People become reliant on their cars to get around, since walking, cycling, or public transit are often no longer viable options. Air quality suffers, as does the health of the individual who is now hopping in their car instead of hopping on their bike.

BedZED, short for Beddington Zero Energy Development, is a multi-use planned community in London, England.  It includes both residential and commercial spaces, and has been built to be carbon neutral.  Ideally, workers in the office space would live in the residential buildings and be able to walk neatly to work. 


Another unfortunate, and probably less thought-of, effect of urban sprawl is its effect on our pocket book.  Whenever new housing developments or commercial properties are built, the infrastructures to support them need to follow.  Tax payers end up footing the bill for extra roads, sewers, water, and electric that wouldn’t be necessary in a more compact city layout. 

In Vancouver, BC, zoning bylaws were amended in 2009 to allow a secondary dwelling structure on many previously single-family lots. The secondary “laneway” house can be as large as 750 square feet, depending on the size of the lot. Laneway houses can be used as guest houses, as in-law suites, or as rental properties to increase the homeowner’s income. 94% of lots outside of Vancouver’s downtown core were affected by the zoning change. The potential for increasing residential without rebuilding is huge, and all without creating the need for new roads or sewers.

Where to start?

For the city that’s ready to make the first step, there are many resources available to help. British Columbia’s Ministry of Community Development has published an e-book, A Guide to Green Choices, aimed directly at communities looking to improve. The BC Climate Change Council offers Sustainability Facilitators and planners free of charge to local BC community governments.  Outside of BC, consultants such as PlanGreen will help communities establish policies and meet their environmental goals. 

What can I do?

There are lots of things you can do to help your community reach its green goals!

Contribute to infilling

Infilling is the process of increasing the density of a city by replacing or adding to existing developments. Infilling reduces urban sprawl and helps to prevent habitat loss and unnecessary infrastructure. You can help in a couple of ways:
  • Consider a dwelling in a multi-family development, such as a condominium or a town-home.
  • Give tiny houses a chance! In areas where lane-way houses are allowed, consider downsizing your life and living in a tiny house or a small house.  Seven hundred and fifty square feet may seem small, but a tiny house done right can pack a lot of house into a little space. Check out the Tumbleweed Tiny House Company to see floor layouts of dwellings under 900 square feet.

Make yourself more food-secure

Food security is a term that’s used when talking about how stable our food supply is. When food is shipped in from overseas, it is not a secure food system. Something like a fuel shortage or a political disagreement can disrupt shipment and leave us hungry. To help make yourself more food secure, try some of these ideas: 
  • Support local farmers. Farmers markets are a great place to buy produce, and they’re a lot of fun, too. Supporting our local farmers ensures they are there when we need them.
  • Grow your own food if it’s possible. Find a community garden, or dig a plot in your backyard. Even a container on your patio helps a little.  Looking for more space to grow or have space to spare? Maybe a yard-sharing program is for you. Yard sharing programs connect people who need space and people who have unused property. In Metro Vancouver, you can check out Sharing Backyards. 
Plan your commute
  • Live as close to work as you can. If you can walk or cycle to work, you are not using any fossil fuels. You’ll find you also free up all sorts of time if your commute is suddenly cut in half.
  • Use public transit if you can
  • Is there an option for you to telecommute? Take it whenever possible, even if it’s only one day a week, every little bit helps.
  • If you can’t manage without your car, carpool! If it’s an option for you, you could also consider vehicles that use alternate forms of energy, such as natural gas or electricity.     
Be part of the solution

Most importantly, get involved! It’s your community, make it into what you want it to be. Stakeholders of the Resort Municipality of Whistler, BC, together with municipal staff, created a document they called the Whistler Environmental Strategy (WES). While the Municipal Council didn’t endorse the project, the resulting document has still influenced the decision-making process within the municipality. Several areas of environmental concern outlined in the WES have been further investigated and included in budgets and plans. Your voice can only be heard if you say something.