New Coal Mine vs. High Buildings

I bumped into a friend and colleague this week and we had quite a conversation.  It started out about the likelihood of a new coal mine being approved in our regional district.  My friend is responsible for the preservation of our remaining environmentally sensitive lands and he was in quite a predicament trying to reconcile his thoughts on the coal.  “In our towns we know that we need to densify, and we need to start building up.  We can’t go higher than 4 storeys in wood construction.  We are going to need concrete and steel so we are going to need this coal.  How can I oppose this resource extraction?”  I went on to explain that 4-6 storeys could provide all the density that most sustainable cities will ever need and that we can keep building using wood, supporting our renewable lumber industry. It was his quandary that inspired this post, attempting to explain my reasoning!

I once heard a SmartgrowthBC spokesperson state that 13 residential units per gross acre of land area in a town is the minimum necessary to begin to support the infrastructure that we desire such as sewer, water and transit.  Increasing this density makes this easier and more services and amenities possible.  I have kept this in my mind ever since.  If you only build on 50% of your town’s land, allowing for parks, recreation and farmland, then you will need 25 upa over the developed area.  If half of the developed land is covered by schools, industrial parks, commercial development and roads, you are going to need to increase development to 50 upa in the areas where residential is provided.  According to CMHC documents, 50 upa can be achieved with medium density 4-6 storey construction, which can still built from wood according to our building codes.

According to SmartgrowthBC, more density is even better and can provide for more services.  Downtown Vancouver, the 4th highest density in North America, should be a fantastic place, with a great deal of amenity for its residents.  And on many counts it is.  Vancouver is home to an amazing variety of things that only very high density can provide including conference centres, world class sporting venues, unlimited dining and shopping, transit by sea, by rail and by wheels, recreation and entertainment 24 hours a day – fantastic alright!  This density is achieved by building up.  According to Wikipedia, Vancouver has of 634 high-rise buildings over 115 feet in height, the tallest currently at  659 feet in height. These are expensive and complex buildings from a construction point as they must stand up to some challenging conditions from the regular winds, and the infrequent but inevitable large magnitude earthquakes.  To make them stand up and be safe to live in, engineers are required to design them using huge amounts of concrete and steel – two of earths non-renewable resources that consume large amounts of embodied energy to produce.

I lived for a few years on the eleventh floor of of a downtown Vancouver apartment building.  Those were good years and I remember them fondly.  They were also the years before family.  It was OK to ride in elevators daily and to be closer to the apartment unit directly across the street than it was to the ground below.  My own passion for high rises has wained somewhat since my early architecture days.  My first day on the new job after first arriving in Vancouver was helping set up a photo shoot in the 3 storey penthouse apartment on the twenty somethingth floors of a luxury building before a hollywood movie star moved in.  My next job was designing the 6 levels of underground parking for another high-rise apartment building.  Both of these experiences remain vividly in my memory.  Having lived in and designed a few high buildings, I feel that it is safe to say that a debate on the quality of life experienced in tower living is a valid one and will rage on for some time yet.

To make my point about sustainable and liveable communities in 4-6 storeys of building height, I needed to conduct a simple exercise – revision Vancouver without it’s high-rises and debate the outcome.  Using some math that I just learned helping my grade 4 daughter with her homework called “calcul mental” I determined that there were approximately 24,346 storeys of high-rise construction in the 634 buildings in Vancouver.  If we divided this number into groups of 6, we would get the equivalent of about 4,000 mid-rise 6 storey buildings. If we took all of these new mid-rise buildings and spread them out onto other sites, we would need an area roughly the size of Kitsilano.  The end result would be a city more like historic Paris and London, similar to other vibrant parts of Vancouver that already exist.

The Area required to accommodate all of Vancouver's high-rise buildings if they were broken down in to 6 storey pieces.

Would this be a good thing?  Would it still provide the density to support all the amazing things that Vancouver has?  Could Vancouver afford to replace some of its large proportion of single family housing with 4,000 new apartments?  Would we be better off living closer to the ground, in closer contact with the life of the streets and public spaces?  Is our need to go so high more about ego and real estate prices?  Would the planet be better off without all the concrete, steel and curtain wall glazing required for high-rise construction?  I am leaning towards a yes answer to all of these questions.  They are questions that I put to you for debate.

As to my friend and colleague, get back out there and keep protesting that proposed  new coal mine!