News / Vancouver

Sprawl vs. density showdown: What's better for cities?

The media goes wild for Demographia's annual housing affordability survey, but critics abound

The Vancouver Skyline seen form Burnaby Heights on Jan. 26, 2017.

Jennifer Gauthier / For Metro

The Vancouver Skyline seen form Burnaby Heights on Jan. 26, 2017.

Hey, did you read last month that Vancouver is one of the world’s most unaffordable housing markets? 

That list is very likely Demographia’s. The U.S. think tank comes out with its “International Housing Affordability Survey” every year. Media around the world love reporting on it, and 2018 marks its 14th edition, which names Vancouver as the world’s third most unaffordable market after Hong Kong and Sydney.

While Demographia offers data, the think tank also has strong opinions, and critics have questioned the data’s validity. Demographia blames policies that limit development to certain areas for housing unaffordability; instead, they say allowing cities to build out helps keeps costs down.

“…urban containment policies have been strongly associated with much higher house prices,” said Wendell Cox, Demographia’s principal, via email. He has a Canadian position too, a senior fellow at Winnipeg’s Frontier Centre for Public Policy, which funds Demographia’s work.

Demographia’s views put it at odds with the movement of New Urbanism, which emphasizes the importance of a mix of housing and transportation options.

What Demographia calls urban containment New Urbanists call building livable communities. What Demographia calls spatial expansion New Urbanists call sprawl.

Building infrastructure to support housing in sprawl is expensive, and sprawl also gobbles up agricultural land and prioritizes cars over pedestrian and transit.

Todd Litman, the founder and executive director of the Victoria Transport Policy Institute, is one critic of Demographia’s work.

“Their whole survey is structured to make sprawl look good,” said Litman. “They make no effort to give both sides of the story.”

Todd Litman, the founder and executive director of the Victoria Transport Policy Institute, is one critic of Demographia’s work.

Contributed

Todd Litman, the founder and executive director of the Victoria Transport Policy Institute, is one critic of Demographia’s work.

Critics say that the survey, which judges affordability based on whether the typical household can buy the typical house, ignores renters and homelessness in its measure. Cox
said renting and homelessness “tend to be worse where house prices are
higher.”

Critics say the survey ignores the high costs that might come with cheaper housing in sprawl, such as having to spend more on cars. Demographia has said cars help get more people to work than transit.

Critics cite surveys that found more people nowadays are willing to give in a denser environment if they have urban conveniences. Cox cited other surveys that found the opposite, and said that while “some people prefer dense urban environments (which is, of course, fine) [it’s] not a justification for urban containment policy.”

Many planners in our geographically-challenged region would disagree with pro-sprawl ideas. Even car-oriented Abbotsford pledged to stop sprawling in its 2016 official community plan. 

So what should we do about the popular survey next year?

Andy Yan, data guru and director of SFU’s City Program, said he wouldn’t bet his career on the data’s accuracy, but noted that there are serious scholars mention who mention it in passing as a quick discussion point to say Vancouver’s expensive.

“Every survey has its limits,” said Yan. “There’s a desire for a magic bullet in understanding housing and cities, but it’s the thoughtful toolkit, not the magic bullet, that wins the day.”

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