Past points to better suburbs, says study

by Stephen Forgacs
Staff writer

Real estate developers and urban planners in Vancouver's suburbs could reduce both cost and environmental impact by revisiting the layout of some of the city's earliest residential developments, a UBC study suggests.

The study, undertaken by Prof. Patrick Condon, who holds UBC's James Taylor Chair in Landscape and Livable Environments, found that by reducing standard parcel size, allowing more than one dwelling unit per lot in some cases, and returning to the traditional block arrangement of narrow streets with permeable, unpaved shoulders and lanes, designers could reduce single-family housing costs by as much as 30 per cent while reducing environmental impact primarily related to run-off.

"There really isn't any mystery to this," says Condon. "Traditional neighborhoods built before World War II commonly supplied this many homes per acre. It was only when we changed over to wide streets, wide frontages, eliminated lanes, and required deep front yard set-backs that we lost the land-use efficiency we once had."

In the study, Condon compared a typical single-family development in Surrey, B.C. with a more sustainable alternative -- a hypothetical plan for a real site, also in Surrey.

By reducing lot size from the suburban standard to 25 to 35 feet by 100 feet developers could fit more than 10 single-family or duplex dwellings, each with private yards, on each acre of land, Condon says.

This increased density has important implications for making municipal services such as transit more workable. Greater density can also make possible convenience stores within walking distance of most homes.

"We will never get people out of cars until we give them something to walk to. People will be forced to use their car to satisfy even their simplest needs unless you have a sufficient number of customers per acre to support frequent transit service and to support a mom and pop store where your kid can get a popsicle," Condon says.

Other features, such as narrow streets bordered by permeable surfaces such as crushed gravel, allow for streetside parking while allowing water to return to the soil and streams before being channeled away in storm drains. This return of moisture to the soil ensures stream levels remain high enough to support fish and other animals year-round.

The size of the homes, whether single-family or semi-detached, also plays an important role in reducing costs, Condon says, adding that slightly smaller homes can still meet the needs of residents.

"The cost of the average home on each site in the study was also dramatically different, with the 2,300-square-foot home on a typical site costing more than 30 per cent more than a home of nearly equal interior space in the more sustainable community," he says.

The study received funding from the Real Estate Foundation of B.C., the City of Surrey, and the Greater Vancouver Regional District, and was jointly sponsored by UBC and the Fraser Valley Real Estate Board.

Condon recently presented the study's findings during a workshop in Surrey to a capacity crowd of planners, engineers, developers, real estate agents and federal, provincial and municipal government representatives and members of the public.