Capital Ideas

Opinion: Private gardens are fine, but public space is better

A response to a previous essay, arguing in favour of a denser city with greenspace for everyone

By Leigh Stickle
July 27, 2021
Capital Ideas

Opinion: Private gardens are fine, but public space is better

A response to a previous essay, arguing in favour of a denser city with greenspace for everyone

By Leigh Stickle
Jul 27, 2021
Public parks like Beacon Hill provide better space, ecologically and socially, than fenced-off private gardens, argues Leigh Stickle. James MacDonald / Capital Daily
Capital Ideas

Opinion: Private gardens are fine, but public space is better

A response to a previous essay, arguing in favour of a denser city with greenspace for everyone

By Leigh Stickle
July 27, 2021
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Opinion: Private gardens are fine, but public space is better
Public parks like Beacon Hill provide better space, ecologically and socially, than fenced-off private gardens, argues Leigh Stickle. James MacDonald / Capital Daily

When I read Ms. Sandra Julian’s piece, Trees make a city cool, I couldn’t help but admit that many points hit home. There is no doubt that people are naturally biophilic, and if it's not enough proof to simply go and feel the effects of sitting under a tree or near the gentle lapping of the waves, there has been a huge amount of fantastic research in recent years on the mental and physical benefits that come with proximity to living things. 

Some of us have been lucky enough to experience the joy and relaxation that greenspace brings within the comfort of—literally—our own backyard. For others, touching grass or hearing the wind through the leaves of a towering tree means a walk to the neighbourhood park, or even a half-hour trip to the edge of town to walk through a wild forest or seaside meadow. This primal itch can be scratched in all manner of ways, and planning for equity of access to nature is extremely important to ensure everyone can reap the benefits of communing with the natural world. This is fundamentally a problem of space. If we want to facilitate access to greenspace and bluespace (areas adjacent to water), we firstly need to ensure that the majority of this space is public to begin with, and secondly need to reduce the time and distance needed to reach it. What this means is that single family homes with enclosed private gardens and yards—currently by far the dominant land use provided for in Victoria’s zoning bylaws—are the least space efficient way of partitioning our own ecosystem. 

Reducing the potential of a city to a collection of single-family dwellings with yards and gardens means that, in Victoria’s case, we would be reserving access to greenspace for only those who can afford a $1.2 million price tag (and have the time and money to put into maintaining it), while also increasing spatial pressure on uninhabited areas on the city’s current boundaries. It would also generate a mix of plants and animals that often have a negative impact on the larger ecosystems within which we build our settlements. Pollinators, birds, insects, and mammals do not thrive in the monocultures that we call lawns, and trees and shrubs chosen for their visual attractiveness or pleasing scents are often species that need more water than what our climate can provide and do not offer nearly the carbon sequestration than our wild forests do, if we only left them alone and stopped building new low-density suburbs. 

Compact, denser ways of planning and building reduce environmental costs in a multitude of ways. It is important, for example, that we consider the downstream effects of our land-use patterns, and not just the immediately obvious, experiential ones. Infill housing by its nature consumes less land per inhabitant, saving space for other things. However, when the corresponding reduced need for car use is considered, a broader picture comes into view: less vehicle use means less land needed for roads and other costly infrastructure as well as greatly reduced carbon emissions. The numbers don’t lie—residents of compact neighbourhoods typically produce 30-60% lower emissions than the same household types would produce if they lived in conventional, auto-oriented suburbs. 

Additionally, we must keep in mind that increased greenspace and density can coexist. Between 2013 and 2021, Victoria’s tree canopy increased by an amount equivalent to 60 soccer fields at the same time as density increased. Julian makes the point that it is large, mature trees that do most of the heavy lifting for reducing the urban heat island effect and maintaining pleasant conditions in our urban environment, but what she does not address is that these trees were once small as well. It is the exact industry that she accuses of profiteering that is funding the rejuvenation of our urban forest. One must keep in mind that the worst culprit in terms of worsening the urban heat island effect is paved surface parking lots for private vehicles; responsible development of dense urban centres is our only chance for reducing these polluting machines and, in turn, freeing up parking areas to be used by people of all ages and abilities—maybe even as parks. 

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The accusation that developers are intrinsically motivated only by profit misses the point. It is indisputable that we as a society need to build housing; we will either do this in a sustainable way, or we will continue to build sprawling suburbs and further contribute to habitat loss and climate change. The idea that densification and increased supply of homes does not aid in housing affordability is drastically disproven when one looks abroad; in Germany, for example, which is often cited as a model for long-term housing market affordability, 98 homes are built for every 100 new residents. In Canada, we built 42 for every 100 new residents, which is the lowest amount of housing starts per capita in the G7. It is not that supply doesn’t make homes more affordable, it is that we are so desperately behind in fulfilling our responsibility to provide places to live that we are not even scratching the surface of demand. 

The fact is, density makes two very important things possible: the conservation (and possible expansion) of wild places, and the retention of accessible natural spaces in the public realm. It allows for the space not built on to be parks, sea walks, marshland, and hilltop picnic spots, and it does this in the middle of the city. This is what equity of access looks like: when a parent can meet their child on the walk home from school and grab an ice cream together on the grass next to the cricket field in Beacon Hill; when friends can meet on a Saturday afternoon and have a sandwich amid the camas at Summit Park. Social as well as environmental benefits abound in such a system. 

The private planted garden is beautiful, and with care and skill can be shaped into a flourishing ecosystem. But too often, cultural norms and a focus on aesthetics rather than science results in a sort of green mirage; equating the mere colour green with the idea that we are doing something good for the planet. 

As we experience the effects of climate change with increasing frequency and intensity,, we must admit that we need to look for new ways of living. Integral to this new paradigm will be the already-occurring shift of our species into dense urban environments, and it is the way that we manage this shift that will spell either salvation or doom for our fragile but dominant civilization. 

This is not a niche, development industry-driven way of thinking—the vast majority of academics, along with the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, CMHC, Sierra Club, David Suzuki Foundation, Fraser Basin Council, The White House, as well as our own government in the form of the ‘Canada-British Columbia Expert Panel on the Future of Housing Supply and Affordability Report’ all cite restrictive land use policies as having a negative impact on the environment. 

The increasing desire, or necessity, for people to move into cities, can and should be capitalized on to ensure that large swaths of suburban and exurban land is more or less abandoned to the wild, administered as protected nature sanctuaries. This would mean a return to conditions not seen for hundreds of years, allowing plants and animals to return to their original breeding and hunting grounds, or find new ones that are more advantageous after decades of climate change. It would allow streams, lakes, wetlands, and rivers to flow along their natural courses, reducing the effects of erosion and mitigating flooding. In short, this more urban future is one that facilitates a world where the true natural patrimony of our planet could function in the way it’s supposed to—which I think we can all agree is far more important than everyone having their own quarter acre with a fence. 

Leigh Stickle is a home-grown Victorian and urban planner at Aryze Developments.

contact@capitaldaily.ca

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