Picture of Michele Beasley

Michele Beasley

Lessons from North of the Border

Vancouver, Canada consistently ranks as one of the world’s most livable cities and now has a plan to become the greenest city in the world by 2020.

Sadhu Johnston, Vancouver’s Deputy City Manager, came to San Jose this October to talk about the ingredients for greening our cities. San Jose already has some of these ingredients enshrined in its General Plan, such as urban villages—walkable, transit-friendly, mixed-use neighborhoods—and putting pedestrians and cyclists first. Vancouver made this commitment in its 1997 Transportation Plan, ranking pedestrians first and cars fifth.

The numbers tell the story

Between 1996 and 2011, Downtown Vancouver has seen a 75% increase in its population and a 26% increase in its jobs. And while there are 15% more people entering downtown on a daily basis, there are 25% fewer cars entering.

Vancouver has seen a 400% increase in morning commuters along new bike corridors while the vacancy rates along these same roads have gone down. Vancouver’s Broadway line is the busiest in North America with 90 second headways. The City has actively pursued downtown density and walkable neighborhoods, and the result is a dynamic, attractive city designed for people first with a rapidly shrinking carbon footprint.

Another positive side effect of this progressive land-use vision has been a significant decrease in the number of cars parking in downtown garages. The City found an innovative use for one superfluous garage, leasing the roof to Alterrus, which created  North America’s first VertiCrop farm. This rooftop garden grows enough leafy greens to stock four large grocery stores for an entire year.

Lessons for San Jose

At least two valuable lessons came out of Sadhu’s presentation.

The first is the application of a Community Amenities Contribution. When cities upzone properties—reclassifying from lower to higher use—they create a windfall for property owners. The City of Vancouver takes 75% of that upzoning value and uses it for community amenities such as parks or affordable homes.

As San Jose moves forward with plans for Diridon Station, West San Carlos Street, and South Bascom Avenue, zoning changes are inevitable. Recapturing that value for the community in the form of parks, public art, and affordable housing is a surefire way to fund needed improvements that create great neighborhoods.

The second lesson is the importance of standing firm on a vision for your city. The Chicago Department of Planning and Development actively encourages green roofs through their “green roof policy matrix”—any project that receives public financial assistance or is in a planned development area has to contain certain design elements, including a green roof. When Target wanted to come to town, they initially said no to the green roof requirement. However, the City held firm and Target relented to including a green roof on top of its new store.

A common fear in San Jose is that if the City requires certain design elements and fees for amenities from developers, they will just pick up and take their business to the next town. Vancouver deals with the same dilemma—Sadhu Johnston sees this as a race to the bottom.

“The types of businesses we want—they want to be in an interesting, walkable, dense environment,” says Sadhu Johnston. Vancouver is currently experiencing its largest commercial building boom in history.

Cities like San Jose should be raising the bar and upholding good design. San Jose has a lot going for it, including a General Plan with visionary policies. San Jose does not need to become Vancouver or Portland, it needs to let its true self shine through. San Jose is built on innovation, and there is no reason why that can’t extend to its built environment.

One of Sadhu’s parting pearls of wisdom was that we usually overestimate what we can accomplish in one year and underestimate what we can accomplish in five. I have high hopes for what we’ll see in San Jose by 2018.

Greenbelt Alliance was able to bring Sadhu Johnston to San Jose thanks to our partnership with the Island Press Sustainability Knowledge Network.

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