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Transformed by urban sprawl, Vancouver says its plan is working


Wednesday, September 27, 2000

PORT COQUITLAM, B.C. -- In the middle of a quiet afternoon, it takes about 45 minutes to drive from the slums of Vancouver, past strip malls and shopping centres, to the city of Port Coquitlam. In rush hour, the commute can take twice as long.

That's the price of admission that thousands of people pay every day to live in the closest thing possible to the neighbourhood they grew up in, or wish they grew up in.

Urban sprawl since the early 1960s has radically reshaped Vancouver. Planners and academics have widely condemned the chaotic growth, arguing that the leapfrog style of development is costly, an inefficient use of scarce land and a visual blight.

But to those who live the life at the edges of the growing metropolis, urban sprawl has been an unusual gift.

"I love it here," said Scott Young, a father of two youngsters, who lives in Port Coquitlam but works on the edge of downtown. Except for work, the family spends all its time in the suburbs "and we're quite content here," he said.

"People go to great lengths to enjoy what we grew up with," he added. "Big back yards, with a swing set; that's what we're looking for."

Mr. Young, 39, grew up in Burnaby, a bedroom community next door to Vancouver. As an adult, he moved farther out for more affordable housing. His three-bedroom split-level home, on 50-foot lot, steps away from a huge forested park, is worth about $230,000. A similar house in Vancouver would be almost twice the price.

Port Coquitlam, better known as Poco, is one of the fastest-growing municipalities in Canada. In 1961, 8,111 people lived there. By 1991, there were more than 36,773. The figure is now about 51,000, and planners expect almost 80,000 by 2021.

Almost everyone lives in single-family homes, townhouses or row-housing units. High-rises would be a more efficient use of land, but only 10 apartment buildings in Port Coquitlam are more than five storeys high.

Jobs have not come out to the suburbs as quickly as housing. More than 80 per cent of the work force commutes to another municipality.

It's the same story all around Vancouver. In neighbouring Port Moody, the population is expected to jump to 37,000 in the next 20 years from 22,000 now. Mayor Joe Trasolini estimates that 90 per cent of those who work commute.

Overall, about two million people live in the region, twice as many as 1961. The expansion was accommodated by converting forests, flood plains and farms into low density subdivisions.

But that's not the end of the story. Another million are expected by 2021. If nothing had been done, about half of them would have settled outside the built-up areas.

But once the trends were obvious, the region reacted quickly. The Greater Vancouver Regional Board in 1995 adopted a strategy to direct growth, expand public transit and protect green zones. Far-flung suburbs were to be turned into pockets of high density development where people live, work and play without commuting.

So far, the plan seems to be working. The most hopeful sign is in downtown Vancouver, which has more than doubled in population in the past decade. About 40 per cent of downtown residents walk to work.

Twenty years from now, planners anticipate several suburban hubs will have similar neighbourhoods, created out of urban sprawl.

Monday: Paradise or parking lot?
Tuesday: York's green strategy.
Today: Durham -- small town, big plans.
Thursday: Parallel universe in Peel.
Friday: Halton's development showdown.
Saturday: Toronto opens for growth.

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