Tuesday, October 29, 2013

The Future of Metro Vancouver as a Livable Region

The idea of creating a livable region was first put down on paper in the mid-1970s. Since that time, more policies have been progressively put in place that have set Metro Vancouver on the path to being a world leader in livability. We have been successful in preserving farmland, green space, and providing a transportation network that gives people choices with a world-class transit system, an increasingly connected cycling network, and walkable town centres. These walkable town centres also provide a variety of housing options and opportunities for business. All in all, we have been moving towards a region that will not only serve the needs of the current generation, but future generations to come. While things have generally been moving on a positive path towards sustainability, we are actually at a crossroads that could either further move us in the direction of livability, or potentially unravel the more than 35 years of progressive policy.

Yesterday, I was having lunch with a friend and we started talking about how there has never been so many threats to the livability of the region as there is today. In the next few years, we will know the future path of Metro Vancouver.

The first threat to the livability of Metro Vancouver is the conflict between the province and the region over the future of transportation. While the region and local governments are recognizing that future transportation improvements need to focus on walking, cycling, and transit, the province is on a massive freeway building spree. The challenge is that this freeway building program will not help the majority of people in the region get from their homes to work, school, and other activities. Without walking, cycling, and transit options, our local road network will become increasingly congested as there simply is no room for more roads. A further threat lies in the fact that the province is set on holding a referendum on funding for transit. What happens if people vote no? What is plan B? Without transit, the ability of our region to build livable, interconnected town centres will be compromised. We will be locked into a future of highway tolls, auto-oriented sprawl, increasing congestion, and rising transportation costs. But this is not the only threat.

Right now Metro Vancouver and the Township of Langley are heading to court over the Trinity Western University district. This is the first time that the power of a regional district to regulate land-use has been tested in court. Depending on the outcome, the ability of regions throughout BC to regulate land-use will either be confirmed or denied. If denied, municipal governments will be tempted (and likely will) to sprawl into rural areas and develop housing on industrial land. But there is one more threat to the livability of our region.

The Agricultural Land Reserve (ALR) has protected the best farmland in the province which happens to be in Metro Vancouver and the Fraser Valley. This protection has ensured the success of a vibrant agricultural sector in the region. It has also acted as a de facto urban growth boundary. The provincial government suggested this summer that they want to examine the role of the Agricultural Land Commission who regulates the ALR. If the power to protect the ALR is weakened or removed, the viability of farming in Metro Vancouver will be threatened as farmland gets converted into auto-oriented sprawl.

In the next few years, we will know the future of Metro Vancouver. We will either stay the course as a livable region that other parts of the world look to as a model, or our policies that protect our region will be unravelled which will result in more congestion and sprawl, while the things that make our region special get paved over.

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