If you won’t permit the introduction of new households in your own neighbourhoods through the gradual densification of urban and ‘sub-urban’ areas, you are actively contributing to habitat loss for vulnerable species in the region.
As every biologist will tell you, habitat loss is the most significant threat facing endangered species in our world. “Habitat loss is the greatest threat to species in Canada and globally. Protecting and restoring natural habitats is one of the most effective ways to help wildlife.” (WWF-Canada)
Delta has a considerable number of environmental organizations and volunteer groups who are passionately working to protect and restore natural areas within the boundaries of the City of Delta. They do amazing work and I’d encourage you to check out ways to get involved!
To be an awesome place for millions of migrating birds of all stripes and sizes, the Reifel Bird Sanctuary manages wetlands and marshes to provide a safe home away from home for nearly 300 species of birds!
To provide essential wildlife habitat for birds of prey and migratory birds, The Delta Farmland and Wildlife Trust provides local farmers with a subsidy to set aside numerous fields for 4-6 years. These “grassland set-asides benefit farming and wildlife by providing habitat for wildlife including grassland raptors, wading birds, songbirds, small mammals, and pollinating insects.” My son calls a nearby farm road “Hawk Road” because of these grassland set-asides which have created a fantastic space for critters and birds to hang out and serve as a hawk-friendly buffet.
To restore and renew the salmon-bearing Cougar Creek watershed, the Cougar Creek Streamkeepers in North Delta devote countless hours to the work of stream restoration and advocating for better rainwater management practices in the city.
To create healthy shoreline habitat, fish and game clubs like the Delta-Ladner Rod & Gun Club participate in marsh cleanups to mitigate the impact of negligent human activities along the shores of the Fraser River.
To help wildlife, international organizations like Ducks Unlimited work with farmers, fishers, hunters, and land-owners to protect wetland habitats that are so essential to biodiversity.
I hope you can appreciate the profoundly beneficial work of environmental conservation groups and that you’re inclined to support their efforts to preserve wetlands, forests, farm fields, and flower-filled grasslands.
Focusing on building strong cities is *also* a valuable form of productive conservation.
I wish to make a simple but provocative point: focusing on building strong cities is also a valuable form of productive conservation. Or, to put it negatively, you can’t persistently block new housing in your neighbourhood while boldly claiming to care about the environment.
Reconsider Before Fighting Against Neighbourhood Changes
We should do a lot to protect wetlands and other crucial ecosystems while simultaneously reconsidering the way that we have tried to protect our built up residential areas.
The unintentional consequence of various iterations of the “not in my backyard movements” has been the intensification of development pressures on our fringes and transition zones. The communities of Mission, Hope, and even Chilliwack would not be growing as they are were it not for the well-meaning but counter-productive efforts of single family neighbourhood preservationists. Closer to home, the Southlands development would not be needed if the remainder of Tsawwassen’s urban areas were not so closed to the gradual densification of its existing neighbourhoods.
Fighting against fourplexes (a rare breed in these parts for some reason) and walk-up apartments has meant that the normal process of urban renewal and neighbourhood development has been stunted and not allowed to keep pace with residential housing demand.
Delta has, like most North American cities, set up giant hoops for infill developments (that increase density) to pass through. Yet our archaic zoning system makes it super easy to do single detached house replacements if they are like-for-like. You can easily, with minimal issues from the city, tear down a small home with a large yard so that you can put a large home with a small remaining yard in its place. Increase indoor square footage all you like – just don’t add any additional housing units aside from a secondary suite.
Now, to give credit where credit is due, Delta has belatedly moved to permit laneway houses and coach houses to be built in very specific areas in the city. This allows one lot to hold two homes. Unfortunately, builders must get these properties rezoned at considerable cost of time and money and consequently they aren’t commonplace.
Likewise, secondary suites were begrudgingly authorized by the city after realizing that houses were already being adapted to create multiple homes for residents of our city. Nonetheless, the regulations for these secondary suites are among the most restrictive in the region.
Can you detach the suite from the house in the form of Delta-built Mint Tiny Home? Nope! This amazing company will build you a home in Delta but you can’t live in it here. How’s that for supporting local business?
Can you convert a shed into a bachelor pad? Nope!
Can you build a collection of homes to house you and your growing family? Nope! (Well, technically you can if you have the determination, patience, and negotiating skills of the Higgins family who are legends in Delta because of the feat they managed to pull off.)
What we do with the land that our cities are on is of massive significance to the prospects of the conservation effort.
Now, some people oppose the gradual densification of the City of Delta because of self-interested (and incorrect) assumptions about property values being negatively impacted by greater densities. Others oppose the gradual densification of our neighbourhoods because of xenophobia or classist assumptions about the people who are likely to move into their neighbourhood. I’ve read the correspondence and heard the comments at public hearings.
Reconsider Objections to Gradual Densification Cloaked in Environmental Language
There is a sub-section of opponents of gradual neighbourhood densification who like to make themselves out as environmental advocates who are opposing growth for the sake of the birds, bats, and bees. If you’re still reading, you might be in this camp and interested in hearing about the connection between conservation and densification.
No matter how many flowers you plant or bug hotels you create in a backyard, your green haven is not as rich of a habitat as it would be if you and your house weren’t there. Similarly, it does not matter how many Delta residents choose to till up their mono-culture lawns in favour of gardens and ‘natural’ landscaping, your space is not optimized to host the full array of flora and fauna that would otherwise dwell there.
A sprawling neighbourhood of leafy streets and broad lawns is not as green as you think it is. Pesticides, pavement, and the perpetuation of auto-dependency are all consequences of protecting enclaves of single detached houses. Protecting ‘neighbourhood character’ by opposing gradual densification is to ensure that it remains perpetually marginal housing land that provides homes to a limited number of people while also doing less than you think for the environment.
In areas where there is abundant housing supply and miniscule demand for homes, it is understandable to see houses on large lots at some distance from one another. Within Metro Vancouver’s and its sustained population increase, it is inconceivable that vast swathes of the City of Delta are reserved for single-detached houses.
Let’s Turn to Productive Conservation
What is productive conservation?
By forcing our built environment to occupy a limited footprint, we enable the remainder of our natural environment to be effectively preserved as rich habitats for wildlife, wildflowers, and other wild things.
Delta has a lot to be proud of in terms of the conservation of resources when it comes to the foreshore of Boundary Bay and the Fraser River estuary, parts of Burns Bog, Reifel Bird Sanctuary, and other waterways that have been protected as environmentally sensitive areas. Understandably, we resist any and all efforts to build townhouses and manor homes in those ESAs! Those places are not open to development. Period.
In addition to our preservation of critical natural habitat, we can also be proud of the continued success of the Agricultural Land Reserve system and the way that the majority of good farmland is still preserved for farming purposes and protected (for the most part) from being used for non-agricultural purposes.
In both cases, we have set aside lands for environmental and economic/food-security reasons.
If we set aside lands for such purposes, it raises this question: what is the purpose of housing, retail, and industrial lands?
Well, to be used for homes, shops, and factories!
When more factories are required, what do we do? We increase the intensity of use on the industrial lands so that more activity can take place there. When more shops are needed, what do we do? We (should) add more shop spaces so that we can have more commercial enterprises to meet our needs.
What do we do when more homes are needed? You need to put the homes where the homes go!
What happens when you say no to gradual densification?
You drive development to the fringes where the environmentally sensitive areas and farmlands are. You push your neighbours out and force your dental hygienist to commute from his home in Mission. You chop down the forests of Aldergrove, Sumas Mountain, and Bridle Falls. You give generously to Reifel Bird Sanctuary while plopping unsustainable neighbourhoods in the floodplains of the Chilliwack River.
How do you say yes to environmentally responsible densification of housing lands?
How do we responsibly increase our deliberate use of some land for housing so that other lands can be set aside for farming and rich environmental habitats?
We welcome intensification. We encourage the development of housing types that provide homes to more people per acre. We embrace the complexity that comes with vibrant neighbourhoods. We see transit services increase in our neighbourhoods as we reduce our auto-dependency. We improve our health and well-being by living in walkable neighbourhoods with a sufficient population density to allow numerous shops and services to be nearby where we can benefit from them. We use the land that we have set aside for housing!
Productive conservation is to productively use the land we have for housing so that we can conserve the land that is not yet developed and valuable as habitat and farmland.
There is a bond between the educational efforts of bio-conservationists and the city-making efforts of urbanists. This bond is frequently overlooked but essential. When we build strong neighbourhoods as the building blocks of a strong city, we are enabling ourselves to proactively devote considerable portions of our city’s landmass to other uses like habitat for endangered species and farmland for hungry children.
Delta, with provincial guidance, has effectively preserved a number of islands in the Fraser River Estuary and protected numerous other environmentally sensitive areas. Delta has also been a pretty good steward of agricultural lands and accepted that the ALR restrictions are generally positive. The City has also begun to acknowledge the need for stronger, denser neighbourhoods.
However, the voices of opposition to new projects in Delta have been so loud that the efforts to add homes to our city are routinely frustrated at the pre-planning stage as builders face a daunting series of hurdles that need to be overcome at great cost of time and money.
If you oppose gradual densification of our city’s neighbourhoods, you are not acting in a way that is consistent with the principles of responsible environmentalism.
NEXT UP: I will return with a post about the objections that could be made to the point I’ve raised here. If you want to add your own objections, please get in touch! My focus will be on trees, water, shade, and… Surrey. I will give you my take which is that these topics are not a very good argument for maintaining the status quo and resisting the gradual densification of our urban and ‘sub-urban’ areas.