When It Comes to Sustainability, We’re Ranking Our Cities Wrong

It’s been two weeks since the publishing of my commentary with Daniel Aldana Cohen and Hillary Angelo in Nature on the limits of current urban environmental thinking, and the response so far has been terrific. We argued that policymakers and researchers need to expand the way we define and measure urban sustainability in both social and spatial terms, and while this argument won’t be surprising to critical urban scholars, our goal was to boil it down to its most accessible and intuitive formula.

Building on this goal, I recently sat down with Vanessa Quirk from Metropolis Magazine to unpack some of the arguments we made in Nature, including the idea that the current “leaders” in urban sustainability policy such as New York and San Francisco only look like leaders because we do a very poor job of properly capturing their broader environmental impacts.

Part of the reason why wealthy cities are so wealthy is not that they removed themselves from global manufacturing, but that they occupy a very privileged position there. The banks are located in New York, the same banks that finance all the factories. It seems pretty unjust to say, “Look at how successful New York’s been at reducing carbon emissions” when New York is the center of all the global activity that pollutes other parts of the world. New York has exported its pollution. That’s partly why we say that a lot of sustainability gains actually turn out to be “regressive redistributions.”

We also discuss the difficulties with ranking or comparing cities’ environmental performance. Even if good consumption-based measures of carbon footprints were common, I argue, we’d still have intractable problems of how we define cities and regions:

If we’re comparing cities, we have to compare whole regions. You don’t just look at the city, because the city boundary is a historical accident. We look at the whole urban region that’s all functionally interconnected.

But the problem is that the way that these are defined really varies across place. Even just within the United States, the census bureau defines urban regions based on counties, but if you look at the southwest the counties are huge. But in the northeast they’re tiny. Even just within the U.S., where statistics are really good, it’s very hard to compare cities. If you look at it internationally, forget it. At the end of the day the problem is we don’t have the data to do a good job of comparing cities. Period.

The entire interview is available at Metropolis Magazine, and the original commentary is available at Nature.

Vancouver’s foreign-owned real estate: Is public policy required?



(Source: Asia Pacific Foundation of Canada)

The Asia Pacific Foundation of Canada has just published a “virtual roundtable” on the increasingly contentious question of whether and how to regulate foreign ownership of residential real estate in Vancouver. I’m honoured to be one of the experts who was asked to weigh in.

In general, the panel expressed strong concern about housing affordability in Vancouver, but also warnings not to uncritically demonize “foreigners”.

As I argue:

There’s a strong public interest in regulating the sale of housing to people who don’t live and work in the Vancouver region, because non-local buyers make housing less affordable for everyone else. The specific question of foreign nationality isn’t the problem (although it may be the easiest way to tackle the problem politically); the problem is people buying houses who aren’t living in those houses year-round and contributing to the local economy.

See more: Vancouver’s Foreign-owned Real Estate: Is Public Policy Required?

Getting a grip on the vacant housing problem (plus: urban geology!)

Urban geologist? What's that?

Urban geologist? What’s that?

A new City of Vancouver proposal to start addressing the city’s scourge of speculation-driven housing vacancy is in the news. The municipal government wants to comprehensively identify vacant houses throughout the city, building on important work being done by the grassroots group Beautiful Empty Homes but leveraging governmental data (namely from BC Hydro) that the public doesn’t have access to.

I spoke to a number of news outlets about the proposal yesterday, starting with the Vancouver Sun, which focused on the spectre of xenophobia in discussions of Vancouver’s expensive property market. As I argued, though, the major issue here isn’t whether it’s foreigners buying houses or other Canadians, it’s that Vancouver’s housing market isn’t strongly connected to the local economy, and speculators buying properties but not living in them just makes that problem worse:

“The problem in Vancouver is that demand for housing doesn’t have that strong of a relationship with the local economy, which means that prices are out of whack with what people who live and work in the city can afford.”

CTV News Vancouver ran a good summary of the proposal to start counting vacant housing, and paid good attention to the connection between housing affordability and housing vacancy:

“The crisis of housing affordability is also a crisis of vacant buildings.”

Finally, as pictured in the screen cap at the top of this post, Global News bestowed on me the dubious title of “UBC Urban Geologist” in their newscast. No doubt this is some cutting edge new subfield in the discipline, but alas not one I am actually acquainted with.

See more: Vancouver looks to gather data on vacant homes; Vancouver to count empty housesWebsite could be in the works to identify vacant homes in Vancouver

Municipal mergers in Metro Vancouver?

Should Vancouver municipalities merge? (theprovince.com)

Should Vancouver municipalities merge? (theprovince.com)

Over the weekend, The Province ran a front-page story about a new opinion poll suggesting strong public support for municipal mergers in Metro Vancouver. I was interviewed for the piece, and spoke about the decades of austerity and fiscal tightening city governments have been subjected to, and the wastefulness of economic competition between municipalities:

“The more separate municipalities you have competing over jobs and investment within a single metropolitan region, the more corporate giveaways you see, and the fewer benefits communities actually achieve.”

See more here: Residents have big appetite for merging of cities in Metro Vancouver

The Vancouver transit referendum

Metro Vancouver from the sky (news1130.com)

Metro Vancouver from the sky (news1130.com)

Last week I was interviewed by News 1130 about the upcoming metro Vancouver transit referendum, and particularly about the prospects for more formal regional governance if the referendum failed. As the story discusses, I’m pessimistic about the prospects for governance reform if voters reject the transit plan.

See more here: If the transportation vote fails, is there any appetite for a Metro Vancouver megacity?

“Vancouverism” and urban development policy

Vancouver's glass skyline (Mikul Media, Flickr)

Vancouver’s glass skyline (Mikul Media, Flickr)

The Globe and Mail conducted a short video interview with me about Toronto and Vancouver’s different urban development policies. In it I discuss the idea of “Vancouverism”, and whether this condo-driven model of development would work for Toronto.

It didn’t make it into the video, but I was drawing on insights from the excellent recent article “Vancouver’s suburban involution” in CITY, written by Jamie Peck, Elliot Siemiatycki, and Elvin Wyly.

See more here: Vancouverism: It’s time for Toronto to take note of this urban development model

Real estate booms and housing abandonment

An abandoned building in Toronto (David Wachsmuth)

An abandoned building in Toronto (David Wachsmuth)

When we think of property abandonment in North America, we usually think of de-industrializing cities such as Detroit and Philadelphia. But abandonment and vacancy is also a problem of cities undergoing property booms, such as Vancouver, and here it’s tied to speculation.

The Globe and Mail interviewed me for a feature about Vancouver’s abandonment problem, and I discuss both the roots of the problem and how communities can go about addressing it.

My thoughts in the article build on research and activism from my days in Toronto, as part of the Abandonment Issues initiative which Shiri Pasternak and I led. The full Abandonment Issues policy report was released through the University of Toronto Cities Centre, and Shiri and I wrote about the vacant property problem for Critical Planning.

See more here: The problem with vacant homes amid Vancouver’s real estate boom