Green and Gray: New Ideologies of Nature in Urban Sustainability Policy

Wachsmuth and Angelo 2018, Figure 4

“Green surface, gray substrate” in Masdar City (source: LAVA)

I’m pleased to announce that a new paper by Hillary Angelo and me has just been published in the Annals of the American Association of Geographers. It’s called “Green and Gray: New Ideologies of Nature in Urban Sustainability Policy”, and it reflects nearly a decade of thinking and research on our part.

In a nutshell, the paper argues that when policymakers, planners and other policy actors talk about “urban sustainability”, they are actually drawing on two quite different underlying ideas about cities and the environment. We call these “green urban nature” and “grey urban nature”. Green urban nature is the return of verdant, living nature to the city—trees, gardens, and postindustrial greening. Gray urban nature is the idea of the city as inherently sustainable thanks to its concentration of people and technology, embodied in urban density schemes, public transit, and energy-efficient buildings.

We use brief case studies of sustainability planning in three global urban contexts (the Ruhr Valley, Germany; Vancouver, Canada; and Masdar City, Abu Dhabi) to demonstrate several different concrete configurations of green and gray urban nature. One of them is what we call “green surface, gray substrate”—substantively high-tech (“gray”) urban sustainability policy which is dressed up with green visual signifiers to help intuitively communicate its environmental content.

Here’s the abstract of the paper:

In the past two decades, urban sustainability has become a new policy common sense. This article argues that contemporary urban sustainability thought and practice is coconstituted by two distinct representational forms, which we call green urban nature and gray urban nature. Green urban nature is the return of nature to the city in its most verdant form, signified by street trees, urban gardens, and the greening of postindustrial landscapes. Gray urban nature is the concept of social, technological, urban space as already inherently sustainable, signified by dense urban cores, high-speed public transit, and energy-efficient buildings. We develop Lefebvre’s ideas of the realistic and transparent illusions as the constitutive ideologies of the social production of space to offer a framework for interpreting contemporary urban sustainability thinking in these terms and concretize this argument through case studies of postindustrial greening in the Ruhr Valley, Germany; municipal sustainability planning in Vancouver, Canada; and the Masdar smart city project in Abu Dhabi. We conclude by examining the implications of green and gray urban natures for the politics of urban sustainability.

The final author draft of the paper is freely available to download. The Version of Record of this manuscript has been published and is available in the Annals of the American Association of Geographers, 22 February 2018.

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? (

Should Vancouver municipalities merge? (

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 (

Metro Vancouver from the sky (

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