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Public approval of density

My generation, which represents one-quarter of Ontario’s population and 70% of inner Toronto’s population growth since 2006, is finally making headlines. “Echo boomers” (those of us born between 1972 and 1992) are much more likely to live in central, high-density neighbourhoods with access to good-quality transit. This trend is remarkable considering that one of the most persistent problems faced by planners today is the public’s lack of acceptance of planning concepts such as higher densities to support transit provision. In an article for the Globe and Mail, Doug Sanders explored Vancouverism, a Canadian-born model of livable density (“The world wants Vancouverism. Shouldn’t Canada?” February 23, 2013)  While planners from Melbourne to Dubai are adopting the principles Vancouver has espoused for 30 years, Canadian cities still lag behind supporting higher-density living. How can planners influence public perceptions of density?

Perhaps there are lessons to be learned from echo boomers, whose trends and patterns have been ignored for far too long in favour of their richer, suburbanite parents. Access to transit and proximity to work are the main reasons people in our demographic choose to live downtown, which is practical considering we’re much more likely to change careers than the previous generation, requiring more commuting flexibility. A recent report from TD Economics (Toronto: A Return to the Core) showed that key neighbourhoods in inner Toronto, such as Trinity-Spadina, grew by 16% from 2006-2011, supporting key real estate trends like a boom in condo development. Employment growth in Toronto’s inner city outpaced suburban job growth during the same time period.

Planners around the world have also been developing better ways to dialogue with community members about density. One strategy that worked in Perth, Australia, is conducting a comprehensive series of discussions with a range of people. ‘Dialogue with the City‘, an innovative and extensive deliberative forum with citizens, communities, industry and practitioners, was launched in 2003 to discuss and deliberate how to make Perth ‘the world’s most livable city by 2030’. The year of dialogue and discussion, funded in partnership with the Government of Western Australia, Western Australia Planning Commission, and private partners, seems to have contributed to a shift in perception among planners, politicians and the public over time. The Network City strategy is being used to implement the outcomes of Dialogue with the City and 42% of the participants said they changed their views as a result of the dialogue. Vancouver’s Greenest City dialogues have taken a similar approach.

Residents’ perceptions can change during the trajectory of specific projects. Planners at TransLink, Vancouver’s regional transportation authority, found that when they conducted public meetings on the proposed Broadway-UBC LRT line in 2011, local residents were quite upset about the idea of increased density along Broadway during the first round of meetings. It didn’t help that many of the businesses along Cambie Street had experienced financial setbacks during construction of the Canada Line LRT just a couple of years earlier. But by the time the second round of meetings happened, residents had become more supportive of the idea. In Vancouver and other cities with persistent housing affordability problems, another key to acceptance of density has to be the development and use of tools to protect affordability, such as community bargaining agreements and condominium conversion regulations.

Planners can learn from key demographic groups (echo boomers, recent immigrants, students, single-person households and seniors) who tend to choose more centrally-located, transit-accessible neighbourhoods. The old logic that these groups choose transit because “they can’t afford to drive” doesn’t necessarily hold true in the era of urban sustainability and hipster neighbourhoods. And planners can continue to develop processes that engage communities in discussions about what density really means–but this means providing information on building types and density levels that will support public transit, services, and employment, not just collecting opinions. Today’s online tools allow a broader range of community members to participate and have their voices heard than traditional public meetings, and don’t suffer from the same time/place constraints. They have the potential to allow early and ongoing discussion on polarizing topics such as density, long before plans and policies are formulated.


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