New Urban Agenda

12 Features of Sustainable Community Development: Social, Economic and Environmental Benefits and Two Case Studies

Steven Peck, Peck & Associates
& Guy Dauncey, Sustainable Communities Consultancy

This article contains a description of a framework of twelve major features of sustainable community development. It provides examples of the quantitative and qualitative social, economic and environmental benefits of implementing these features and provides questions that can be used to help determine to what extent they are being incorporated in development plans. Increasingly, the manner in which we develop and redevelop land is being viewed as a key determinant in the social and environmental health and economic well being of Canadians. The framework is used to describe two case studies, one from Davis, California and one from the newly planned Southeast False Creek, Vancouver, British Columbia. The twelve features of sustainable community development were used during research for an upcoming Canada Mortgage and Housing report, entitled, "Sustainable Community Development in Canada & Internationally: Charting a Role for the Federal Government in the 21st Century."

There is no universally acceptable definition of sustainable community development in large measure because each development site has its own characteristics that result in unique opportunities and constraints. For example, a 2,000 hectare greenfield site situated beside a lake clearly presents different opportunities than a 300 acre brownfield redevelopment in the industrial port land area of city. Likewise, an eco-village located fifty miles from an urban centre offers different opportunities for sustainable development than a major condominium development in the core of a city.

There are undoubtedly more approaches to sustainable community development than there are terms used to describe it in the literature, and there are many terms. Sustainable community development is often referred to as ‘green development’, ‘green real estate development’, ‘green communities’, or ‘sustainable built environments’, ‘sustainable communities’, ‘sustainable real estate development’ and ‘healthy communities’.

A research project on barriers to sustainable community development and the potential role of the fedeal government in overcoming them was prepared for Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation (CMHC). The core research team consisted of Ray Tomalty, Ph.D., Anna Hercz, Ph.D., Guy Dauncey and myself. We divided the many distinct characteristics of sustainable community development into a framework of twelve major features. Our review of the literature and interviews with experts from across Canada also helped us identify three major scales, or levels, at which actions in support of sustainable community development and barriers to implementation take place:

·         The building level, where important features include urban design, the use of renewables, improving energy efficiency, facilitating the 3Rs, and using ‘green’ materials. There is a considerable amount of work being undertaken in this area, the focus of significant government programming domestically and internationally since the 1970’s.

·         The development site level where important features include the integration of ecological protection, use of alternative sewage and storm water management, and encouraging alternatives to auto use. This level and the subsequent level have only more recently, in the last decade, become the focus on efforts to develop government programs that support sustainable community development.

·         The planning and infrastructure level which includes features such as promoting higher density, supporting affordability, supporting livable communities with vibrant local economies and adequate community services, and implementing regional growth management and protection of watersheds and other significant ecological resources.

Successful holistic sustainable community development incorporates multiple features, described below, to achieve the maximum social, economic and environmental benefit. The manner in which we develop and redevelop our communities can have significant and long ranging impacts our economic competitiveness, social and environmental health.

Table 1 lists the major features of sustainable community development, each of which is described in more detail below, along with examples of benefits and questions that can help in the planning and implementation of sustainable communities.

Table I: Major Features of Sustainable Communtiy Development

  1. Ecological Protection
  2. Density & Urban Design
  3. Urban Infill
  4. Village Centres
  5. Local Economy
  6. Sustainable Transport
  1. Affordable Housing
  2. Livable Community
  3. Sewage & Stormwater
  4. . Water
  5. . Energy
  6. . The 3 'R's

While all of the features may not be relevant to every development site, they do form a holistic and integrated framework that can help us to understand the potential for sustainable communities and what needs to be considered in development and redevelopment to implement them.


If the current pattern of development continues, one third of Ontario's remaining farmland will be paved over by the year 2020. It is not only loss of farmland which worries people - it is also loss of habitat, forest cover and recreational green space which can be used for parks, nature reserves or trails. In Charleston, Carolina, a study showed that depending on the way it was designed, for the same number of houses a proposed development could provide either 30 acres or 400 acres of green space. When green space is protected, studies show that nearby property values can increase from 5% - 50%, as homeowners place value on the amenity.

Questions for Sustainable Development Proposals –
Ecological Protection

·         Has an ecological and habitat inventory of the site been conducted? 

·         Are plans in place that provide ecological protection for creeks, swamps, nesting sites and groves of trees, on the site? 

·         Do the plans propose conservation covenants or other protective measures for ecologically sensitive areas?

·         Is there a monitoring and enforcement strategy in place for covenants?

·         Is there a watershed management plan or regional green space protection plan?


The typical post-war subdivision has 4-7 units of housing per acre, consuming large areas of land, making it hard for the residents to get around on foot, and economically unviable to run a transit service to the houses (because of the distances involved). In large part because of the design of suburban sprawl, the average household trip in North American increased from 7.9 to 9 miles between 1983 and 1990, while the average household car trips per day rose by 29%.1 Low density development makes it difficult for small businesses to operate successfully within residential areas, requiring instead that they locate on major roadways or in malls to obtain sufficient access to customers to remain viable. The resulting segregation of land uses reinforces the need for and use of cars – without one, access to even local services is severely constrained.

It is this sprawling, low density style of development which is chiefly responsible for the loss of farmland, the weakening of the sense of community, and rising C02 emissions from local travel. In response to these problems, a new approach has been developed known as 'the new urbanism', or 'traditional neighbourhood development' (TND). TND features a grid pattern of narrower streets, sidewalks, smaller set-backs, front porches, the clustering of homes (reducing the need for expensive infrastructure), greater protection of green space, the use of urban design codes, town squares and village centres planned as attractive gathering places, and steps to encourage pedestrian and bicycle travel, in addition to cars.

In New Jersey, a study which looked at the years 1990 - 2010 comparing low-density 'sprawl' development to planned green development showed that the green development model would save taxpayers $9.3 billion in avoided capital costs, while saving 175,000 acres of farmland.2 A recent review of North American studies on infrastructure costs and urban form found that on average, publicly borne capital costs for roads is reduced by 25% and 15% for water/sewer infrastructure in compact development compared to current development patterns.3

Sustainable community developments not only impose far less demands on public finance for infrastructure capitalization and maintenance but also help to ensure quality of life by preserving green spaces and reducing pollution. Metropolitan development patterns are increasingly being recognized as key variables in understanding and controlling pollution. Some research has suggested that the indirect environmental impacts associated with the spatial arrangements of businesses and related transportation impacts outweigh the impacts of direct emissions associated with industrial processes and operations.

Turning farmland into housing is also an expensive option for local tax-payers, because of suburban sprawl's high development costs. A study in Virginia showed that an acre of farmland generated $1 in taxes for every $0.21 that it cost in municipal services, while rural low density housing cost $1.20 for every $1 that it generated in taxes.4  At the current rate of urban growth in Ontario, it is estimated that within 25 years, 20% of the remaining arable farmland in the province will be lost to low density urban developments.5  This degree of loss in farmland raises concerns regarding long term food security in Ontario, which must increasingly rely on imported food as local production diminishes. In the U.S., from 1996 -7, at the local and county level, more than 100 governments sought voter approval for tax increases or bond referendums to curb suburban sprawl by buying undeveloped land.6


Greenfield developments always require new land, whereas urban infill initiatives are inherently more sustainable, because they re-use land that has already been urbanized. At its best, urban infill is a celebration of city life, bringing new housing, commercial life and neighbourhood activity to a neglected or abandoned area. Urban infill can make use of existing infrastructure and help to financially support existing public transit systems and commercial activities. Neighbourhood design charrettes are increasingly being used to involve many players in gathering redesign ideas, and building the kind of partnerships necessary to overcome outmoded zoning patterns or the resistance of local landowners.

A study conducted for the Golden Task Force on the Future of the Greater Toronto Area, found that savings of between 22-32%, depending on the amount of infill and compact development achieved, could be realized for hard services (roads, sewers, water and transit). This would represent savings of $700 to $1 billion annually for the GTA.7


The standard modern subdivision is built without any thought of including a small commercial centre within walking distance of most of the homes. This lack of a social gathering place has a subtle negative effect on neighbourhood life, since people have less occasion to meet each other and build up the network of relationships that creates a true community. The lack of a close-by commercial centre is another encouragement to own and use cars: residents must drive somewhere else to buy a paper or a bottle of milk.


Conventional suburban development – especially in "bedroom communities" -- pays little attention to the need for "complete" communities, i.e., a balance among residential and employment development. Without a local economy, the residents of a new development are obliged to drive to work somewhere else, leaving the neighbourhood empty of life in the daytime, while filling up the roads and releasing more carbon dioxide emissions.

Questions for Sustainable Development Proposals

  • Do the plans include a practical strategy for local economic development?
  • Are local economic plans in sync with land use and transportation planning?
  • Has land been zoned for commercial or industrial uses?
  • Do they encourage home based businesses?
  • Do they include zoning for live-work units?
  • Do they encourage eco-industrial networking and shared resource use between facilities?


In a 1996 US national home-buyers survey, almost three-quarters of the respondents indicated that they would like to live in a community "where I can walk or bicycle everywhere."8  In 1995, a Louis Harris poll found that 21 million Americans would be willing to ride a bicycle to work "at least occasionally" if they could do so on a safe bicycle lane or off-road path, and 13% of all Americans said that they would be willing to ride a bicycle to work on "a regular basis" if they had the facilities to do so.9  And yet in today's real estate market, this option is very rarely available. A mixture of design strategies including the provision of greenways, traffic calming and attractive pedestrian connections can encourage residents to walk or cycle around, increasing their health and enjoyment, while reducing C02 emissions. Narrower roads reduce the paved surface area and lower construction costs, and by enabling a family to live with one car instead of two (or without a car), a larger percentage of their income can go towards a home mortgage.

Questions for Sustainable Development Proposals

  • Is the development served by public transit and/or light rail transit?
  • Does it have narrower, interconnecting streets with sidewalks, as opposed to the typical wider suburban streets?
  • Does it have traffic calming at pedestrian crossing & neighbourhood centres?
  • Does it have pedestrian trails and cut-throughs, to encourage walking?
  • Does it have cycle-lanes on the busier roads?
  • Does it have local greenways connections?
  • Does it have any car-free residential areas, where you park your car and walk?
  • Do the plans include an overall Transport Demand Strategy, to reduce overall trips and parking requirements?


A sustainable community involves human diversity and variety - but the high cost of housing in many modern subdivisions effectively excludes people of different income levels. More sustainable communities encourage a mix of housing types and income levels by adopting housing policies such as density bonusing, inclusionary zoning or by creating land trusts and encouraging non-profit housing.

Questions for Sustainable Development Proposals

  • Does it include a range of housing types and prices?
  • Does it include 20% or more of its units for sale at a price that is affordable to people on lower incomes?
  • Are secondary suites encouraged?
  • Are granny suites, garage conversions and live-above garages encouraged?
  • Have units been set aside for ‘sweat equity’ construction by non-profit housing groups such as Habitat for Humanity?
  • If there are no affordable units, has a development cost charge been paid to finance the construction of affordable units elsewhere?
  • Does it blend affordable units in with the community as a whole?


A sustainable community is one that provides ample opportunity for sociability, personal development, and community participation. The New Urbanism makes a conscious effort to design for community as a whole, including the community facilities that make a place more than a set of roads flanked by houses. Village Homes (Davis, CA, see below) is an excellent example of the way in which something as small and inexpensive as a community barbecue pit on common land can bring people together, and add livability.

New Urbanism differs from conventional development in a wide variety of ways (at least in principle – in practice, many new urbanist developments are not so different from conventional developments. Ellis (1998, p. 46) has identified forty-one different design features, grouped into four different categories: aesthetics, connection, housing cost, and utility (see the table below).


A. Architecture/Urban Design

  1. Architectural code/controls
  2. Better landscaped front lawns
  3. Canals
  4. Designed town centre (e.g. 'Main Street')
  5. Heritage features preserved, e.g. houses, trees
  6. Older, formal par layouts
  7. Paving stones/other designed street furniture
  8. Unique street pattern that gives a 'sense of place'

B. Technical

  1. Dimmer street lights
  2. Garages at back or recessed/rear lanes
  3. Hidden/shrunken commercial parking lots
  4. Hollywood/limited-size front driveways
  5. Increased street trees/tree canopy/tree 'pods'
  6. No single home builder


A. Better transit

15.  Incorporated/increased mass transit

B. Design of parks

16.  Interconnected park system/walkways/bike trails

C. Design of streets

  1. Alternative culs-de-sac
  2. Many streets connect straight to town centre
  3. Narrow/one-way streets with tight corner radii
  4. No curb/no sidewalks
  5. Planting strip between sidewalk and road
  6. Traffic calming measures

D. Integrated Commerce

  1. Jobs close to residences
  2. Local commercial functions


25.  Borad mix of density and housing types

A. Density

  1. Densely packed houses/reduced lot size/frontage
  2. Granny-flats/garden suites
  3. Residential uses above commercial ones
  4. Shared parking courts/driveways/garages
  5. Shorter or zero-lot-line setbacks

B. Mix of Housing Types

  1. New housing concepts



A. Amenity

  1. Extra amenities in public spaces
  2. Pedestrian-pockets/passive parks/tot lots

B. Efficiency

  1. Conservation areas
  2. Ecological energy/water use/waste systems
  3. Efficiently designed playing fields
  4. On-street parking lanes
  5. Reduced infrastructure
  6. Wired Houses, e.g. wtih fiber-optic cable

C. Safety

  1. Porches on all/most houses
  2. Special emergency vehicle access designs

Table 4.1 (Ellis, 1998, p. 46)

New urbanism began in the US. The first project identified as new urbanist was Seaside, a new community built on a 32 hectare piece of beachfront along the Florida Panhandle in 1982. The second project was in Kentlands, a 352 acre community located outside of Washington, D.C., From there, new urbanist designs spread to many other locations in the US and in Canada, where over 40 such projects have been or are being built.

Questions for Sustainable Development Proposals

  • Do the plans include parks, tot-lots and open green space, beyond the minimum 5% that is sometimes required?
  • Do they include community allotment gardens?
  • Do they include a community hall?
  • Do they include space for a church, or place of worship?
  • Do they include the necessary schools?
  • Do they include a seniors centre?
  • Do they include facilities for teens?
  • Do the designs and construction include the arts?
  • Is there a strategy in place to finance and build the community facilities?


The normal approaches here are (a) to pipe the sewage to whatever treatment plant exists locally or to plan an individual septic field for every house, and (b) to collect the stormwater run-off in an engineered underground system and pipe it to the nearest river or ocean.  From an engineering perspective, this seems efficient.

From nature's perspective, however, things look a little different. That sewage may only receive primary or secondary treatment, allowing all sorts of nutrients to be wasted, and all sorts of chemical pollutants to be entering the ecosystem. Those septic fields take up a lot of space, and make it hard to cluster houses together in order to protect green space. And those underground stormwater drains carry away the rainwater that used to permeate gradually into soil, allowing the root systems of trees and shrubs to feed. Without the moisture, they become stressed, and may die. The greater the paved area within a development, the more stormwater is collected, and the less is returned to the ground.

When a traditional neighbourhood development (TND) was compared to a typical low density suburban subdivision, a study found that the volume of run-off from the subdivision was 43% higher than from the TND, because less land had been hard-topped. In addition, the nitrogen and phosphorus loadings and the chemical oxygen demand were all higher in the subdivision.10

The sustainable approach to sewage looks in two directions, towards (a) individual composting toilets coupled with miniature constructed wetlands, for greywater treatment, and (b) tertiary sewage treatment systems with source control programmes, or large-scale constructed wetlands to control stormwater run-off. These techniques often bring ancillary benefits. For instance, a 1995 EPA report found that aesthetically landscaped run-off controls such as ponds and wetlands can increase property values by as much as 50% by appealing to buyers who are interested in hiking around wetlands and lakes, or bird watching.11


Water management cuts across many features of sustainable community development. Because of their more compact nature, sustainable developments can use up to 35% less water for lawns than a typical low density subdivision,12 and up to three times less herbicides and pesticides. There are numerous opportunities to improve water use and management using green roof technology in buildings, and designing parking lots and roadways in a manner that allows for the ground to absorb water rather than removing it. The reestablishment of wetlands in degraded rivers and streams is another approach to improving water quality and quantity management while also providing opportunities for habitat and amenity space.


It has recently become accepted by leading scientists that global climate change is probably the most serious global environmental problem facing the world. The primary cause is the burning of fossil fuels in our homes, cars and factories, releasing carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, which traps the sun's heat. The consequences of continued climate change will impact cities, regions and ecosystems all over the world, mostly in a negative manner, whether through the death of the world's coral reef systems, the warming of the oceans which is causing the northward movement of the salmon, or the increased frequency and intensity of floods, droughts and hurricanes.

Canada has made a commitment under the Kyoto Treaty to reduce its C02 emissions by 6% below the 1990 level by 2010. In reality, that means a 25% reduction in the level that emissions will rise to under our current patterns of energy use. The average Canadian household produces 4 - 5 tonnes of C02 emissions from their home energy use, and a further 3 - 5 tonnes from burning fossil fuels while driving. By designing a community with energy efficient homes, where the residents can walk or cycle to local shops and jobs, this can be reduced by up to 45%13, a challenge which the International Council for Local Environmental Initiatives (ICLEI) and the Federation of Canadian Municipalities (FCM) are encouraging municipalities around the world to embrace. Overall, buildings produce 35% of the carbon dioxide emissions in the US.

In regions that experience hot summers, where asphalt and concrete surfaces absorb heat, tree-planting turns out to be one of the most cost-effective ways of reducing energy use and emissions. A Chicago study found that in one day, 120 acres of canopy cover could absorb up to 5.5 lbs. of carbon monoxide, 127 lbs. of sulfur dioxide, 24 lbs. of nitrogen dioxide and 170 lbs. of particulates.14

Questions for Sustainable Development Proposals

  • Do the plans encourage or require passive or active solar design?
  • Do they require a minimum level of energy efficiency?
  • Do they include district heating & cooling or a ground source heat system?

12. THE 3 'R's

The environmental impact of buildings and related systems cannot be easily overstated, nor can the contribution that more sustainable design, construction and reconstruction. According to the Athena Institute the construction and operation of buildings account for approximately 40% of the total global energy and resource use on earth. For sustainable community design, the 3 'R's include construction wastes recycling, the use of environmentally sound building materials, and the provision of in-house recycling areas. Buildings take up significant amounts of land, modify natural hydrological cycle, affect biodiversity, have major impacts on water and air quality and are the final resting place of over 90 per cent of all extracted materials from the earth.15   A typical 1700 sq. ft. house requires the equivalent of an acre of clear-cut forest, and produces 3 - 7 tons of construction wastes. New home construction consumes 2/5ths of all the lumber and plywood used in the U.S.16

In Texas, the City of Austin has developed a very successful Green Builder Programme which encourages builders to construct and homeowners to buy "Four Star" homes, which have been rated for factors ranging from non-toxicity to energy efficiency and recyclability.17  When green design approaches were used in a New York City office retrofit, the client paid 27 per cent less than the $52 per sq. ft normally incurred by the city.18

Few communities have all of these features fully implemented. Most projects in Canada have only on or two of these features in place, and have not yet been able to realize the multiple and reinforcing benefits that numerous features can provide, such as higher densities which support active transportation which supports the competitiveness of local economies. For one project, the most visible ‘green’ feature might be energy performance; for another, restoration of prairie ecosystems; for yet another, the fostering of community cohesion and reduced dependence on the automobile. The following two case studies demonstrate how the twelve features of sustainable communities can be realized and provide insight into some of the many challenges related to implementation.

Case Study:
Village Homes, Davis, California

When Village Homes was built in the 1970s, the local realtors refused to show anyone round the 70 acre, 240 home development because they didn’t think anyone would want to live there. There were no front roads, no storm drains, and the houses all faced the same way - for solar gain. Today, it is one of the most sought-after subdivisions in Davis, and Coldwell Banker Residential identified Village Homes as "Davis’s most desirable subdivision". The crime rate is 10th that of Davis as whole, and in 1995 the homes sold for 13% more than the equivalent-sized homes in a traditional post WWII subdivision located across the road.

Design Features

·         ECOLOGICAL PROTECTION: 12 acres of greenbelt & open space; 12 acres of common agricultural land.

·         DENSITY & URBAN DESIGN: A whole-systems approach to design. The houses are clustered into groups of 8 and are surrounded by common space. The early residents were responsible for the landscaping and design of the green space in front of their housing clusters. 25% of the acreage is open space (agricultural and recreational).

·         LOCAL ECONOMY: 4000 square feet of commercial office space. Thanks to the agricultural space, by 1989, much of the Village Homes residents’ food was being grown in the neighbourhood. The agricultural areas include commercial fruit and nut orchards, a commercial organic produce farm, home-scale garden plots and edible landscaping along pathways and roads.

·         TRANSPORTATION: Vehicle access is by the back lanes only, with pedestrian lanes for walking and cycling. The "front streets" are designed by the residents as grassy areas, gardens with shrubs, etc. Pedestrian paths and traffic calming designs with narrow streets encourage a strong sense of community and high property values. The compact design encourages residents to walk rather than drive for their daily needs. The grocery store is 10’ walk away, and the largest employer - the university - is nearby.

·         AFFORDABLE HOUSING: A ‘sweat equity’ programme allowed several low-income construction workers to buy homes, and some apartment units are part of the development project as well.

·         LIVABLE COMMUNITIES: The local Homeowners Association owns and manages the household commons, greenbelt commons, agricultural lands and the community center, and handles the revenues from office space and some rental units. There are frequent community events, and 80% of the residents participate in community activities.

·         Community barbecue pits encourage spontaneous evening gatherings. The turnover rate is very low, with most residents preferring to remodel and add on, rather than move to a larger home.

·         SEWAGE & STORMWATER: The narrower streets produce less stormwater run-off, which is handled by simple infiltration swales and on-site detention basins instead of storm drains, saving nearly $200,000 (1980 dollars). These savings were invested into public parks, walkways, gardens and other amenities.

·         ENERGY: All the houses are passive solar designed, with natural cooling and solar hot water. The overall design, with reduced pavement and more space for trees, lowers ambient air temperature and reduces the need for air-conditioning. Annual household bills are 1/2 to 1/3rd less than those of surrounding neighbourhoods, because of the locally grown food and the energy savings.

Barriers/Successes: When Village Homes went through the planning process in the 1970s, the plans were opposed by the planning staff, the public works department and the Federal Housing Authority (FHA). The police had concerns about patrolling the narrower streets, and the fire officials worried about maneuvering their fire trucks. The FHA questioned the inclusion of agricultural uses, fearing that it would reduce property values. The engineers opposed the natural drainage system, saying that it wouldn’t work, and would harbor "vermin". In order to get approval, Michael Corbett, the developer, had to put up a bond to pay for retrofitting with storm sewers in case the system failed. Soon after, Davis was hit with a 100-year storm, when the Village Homes system worked fine, and also handled some of the run-off from the neighbouring subdivisions, whose storm sewers failed.

In normal circumstances, the opposition from multiple organizations would have killed the project, and Village Homes would never have been built. At the time, however, three of Davis’s City Council Members were environmental activists who were willing to read Corbett’s point-by-point rebuttal of the objections, made up their own minds and approved the project against the advice of their staff. Obtaining the financing was also a problem. The banks turned him down because he had no track record as a developer, and they didn’t approve of the project’s many innovative features. Corbett eventually obtained infrastructure financing for the first 10 acres, was able to buy the land over a 5-year period, and raised $120,000 from 13 investors, who realized a 30% return on their money.19

Case Study:
Southeast False Creek,
British Columbia

Project History

In the mid 1990s, in response to regional concerns of air quality and goals of densification and family housing in the downtown, Vancouver City Council gave instructions to its Planning Department and Real Estate Services to begin planning a model sustainable urban neighbourhood with a focus on housing for families for an 80 acre site in the downtown, along False Creek. (between Cambie and Main Streets, north of West 2nd Avenue.) The City owns over half (45 acres) of this site.20

The planning began with economic feasibility studies in 1996. Development planning began in 1997, using a three step process: Developing a Policy Statement, creating an Official Development Plan, and Rezoning the development parcels. Following these stages, development can begin as the market allows

The SEFC Policy Statement was adopted by City Council in October 1999, following over two years of planning work, including the widest public involvement process ever undertaken for the Policy Statement stage of any single development in the city. The Official Development Plan (ODP), which will locate buildings, streets, parks, etc... and ensure the intent and targets set in the Policy Statement will be met, will take about 1 ½ years to complete, and will ultimately be adopted by City Council as a bylaw, giving it legal status. The third and final step in the planning process is the rezoning of the site, into development parcels, with legal rights and responsibilities, permitted land uses, densities, and form of development guidelines attached to each parcel. These parcels can be then sold for development. The zoning and associated guidelines will ensure it is built as planned.

Following consultant studies and much public consultation, the city settled on an approach to sustainability which noted that to be classified as "sustainable", at the neighbourhood scale, SEFC needed to make a significant contribution to the larger goals of global sustainability, as summarized below.

·         Promote healthy social community;

·         Promote a stable, diverse site & context economy, which assists all in meeting their needs;

·         Reduce the consumption of non-renewable energy and resources;

·         Reduce the production of waste and pollution; and

·         Enhance the health of the environment, both locally and globally.

Bringing these essential goals to the table for every decision, helped give the planning team, stakeholders and the public, clarity on how to proceed in policy and design. These goals, in addition to many other more conventional city-building objectives, formed the basis for the creation of the Policy Statement.

The Policy Statement outlines a vision and detailed policies to achieve one of the first complete, "high-density", sustainable, urban neighbourhoods ever planned.

Design Features

ECOLOGICAL PROTECTION: High density will help preserve farmland and natural areas in the region. Waterfront and parks areas will have designed habitat areas. Surface water management will increase biodiversity and livability. Contaminated soils will be entombed and/or treated over time to help clean groundwater. Native plants and non-native plants used in landscape which support native species of insects, birds and other wildlife.

DENSITY & URBAN DESIGN: High density design, celebrating magnificent views, providing for extensive open space areas. Street wall podiums with a high degree of pedestrian permeability will make it urban but livable. Some small development parcels will allow smaller development groups to try innovative housing forms, such as cohousing. Live/work promoted. Solar access preserved throughout.

URBAN INFILL: Reuse and rehabilitation of derelict and contaminated industrial land in the downtown, to provide a diversity of high density housing close to the downtown job base. Existing clean industry will be encouraged to stay.

TOWN/VILLAGE CENTRE: Commercial areas will be provided, allowing retail, commercial, office and clean industry (high tech) throughout the neighbourhood, providing some "centres" as well as linear links to the surrounding neighbourhoods. All such uses will be linked closely with transit.

LOCAL ECONOMY: A wide range of commercial and employment opportunities will be offered, including low, medium and high income jobs, to reflect the housing mix. Mixed use zoning will be employed throughout. Jobs/housing mix analysis includes employment base offered in downtown as part of larger strategy. Environmentally and socially responsible business practices promoted. Full cost accounting methodology to be created to understand long term economic analysis of development.

TRANSPORTATION: Fine-grained network of pedestrian and bicycle paths throughout, connecting to nearby neighbourhoods and shopping/employment areas, particularly the downtown. Public transit includes bus, streetcar and elevated rapid transit all provided on or immediately adjacent the site. All residences within a 400m distance of a transit stop, most much closer. Narrow streets, with extensive traffic calming measures. A reduced parking requirement. Extensive live/work development promoted.

AFFORDABLE HOUSING: Housing will be provided for between 4,500 - 7,500 people. 20% of total housing capacity reserved for (publicly funded) social housing. Some small development parcels to allow smaller developers / co-ops to build. 35% of the market housing to meet guidelines for housing families at high-density. Aging-in-place oriented design encouraged.

LIVABLE COMMUNITIES: Full community facilities planned, including community centre, public art, outdoor recreation and performance areas, a neighbourhood office, a demonstration garden, waterfront boating facilities, and probably a school. Heritage conservation of many buildings on site, and heritage qualities to be enhanced through public art and landscape design throughout. A major park (over 26 acres) will be provided to offer a full range of recreational opportunities. The park will also offer areas of urban forest, native species habitat, surface water management systems, and a significant component of community gardens.

SEWAGE & STORMWATER: Surface water management system to be employed, including cleaning road runoff. Alternative sewage management systems promoted, including composting toilets.

WATER: Low flow fixtures required throughout. Rainwater harvesting from building roofs used for irrigation. No/low irrigation landscape design. Surface water management landscape plan. Education for residents. Possibly water metering at the unit. Goal is up to 50% reduction in per capita water use.

ENERGY: 80% of energy to be from renewable sources (including hydroelectric). Alternative, renewable and district energy systems promoted, including ground source and solar. Green building strategy to be created and implemented. Low-energy maintenance landscape design. Goal of 40% per capita reduction in green house gas emissions. Air quality strategy created and implemented for neighbourhood.

THE 3 'R'S: Full recycling systems in every residential and commercial unit. Industrial ecology waste recycling system promoted. Goal of 80% of demolition waste diverted from landfills to recycling depots. Landscape waste composted on or near site. Residential composting systems and education. Green building strategy, including recycled materials.

BARRIERS: Existing government regulations and policies, including the Building Code, that prohibit innovative work. Added legal liability for innovative on-site systems is a barrier. Financing ‘green’ buildings has proven to be difficult. Controversy over land use issues and the density for the site has been a challenge. Financial resources to educate all stakeholders and complete needed research and strategic plans are required and hard to come by in an era of local government fiscal constraint. There are also very real limits of what can be accomplished with current technology.

Committed stakeholders and enthusiastic Council and staff are key to success. Vancouver’s high land values and a desirable location combined with strong technical and design resources in nearby academic institutions should help to propel Southeast False Creek through the implementation phase.


Sustainable community development requires new ways of thinking about the interrelationship between economy, environment and community and new ways of examining the full costs and benefits of alternatives to conventional approaches to development. There are many barriers to the implementation of sustainable communities that cut across the twelve major features described above. These will be discussed in a subsequent article.

The benefits of implementing sustainable communities can be significant in both the short and long term – for developers, residents and society in general. This framework should help those who are working to implement sustainable community development projects by bringing a more holistic, rather than the current piecemeal approach to these developments in Canada.



Steven Peck, is the principal of Peck & Associates, a Toronto-based consulting firm specializing in urban sustainability and sustainable technology development.

Guy Dauncey is the principal of Sustainable Communities Consultancy, based in Victoria B.C. and development consultant.


1.       'The Benefits of Green Development', Smart Growth Network, USA

2.       Rutgers University, Gersh, 1996

3.       "Fiscal Impacts of Alternative Land Developments in Michigan: The costs of current development versus compact growth, Final Report." June 1997. P. 1-23. South East Michigan Council of Governments in "Economic Competitiveness, Urban Form and Environmental Sustainability: Toward a Green Economy Plan for the City of Toronto" Draft Report. Sept. 1999. Metropole Consultants.

4.       'Two Possible Futures', American Farmland Trust, 1992

5.       See 1998 Ontario Environment Commissioners Report".

6.       New York Times, 9, June '98.

7.       "The Economics of Urban Form". Prepared for the GTA Task Force by P. Blais. January 1996.

8.       Harney

9.       Getting Smart, Newsletter of Smart Growth Network, July 1999

10.   Dr E. Blood, Jones Ecological Research Center, Newton, Georgia.

11.   "Economic Benefits of Run-off Controls" U.S., EPA, 1995

12.   Real Estate Research Corp, 1974, quoted by Smart Growth Network

13.   Ibid

14.   U.S. EPA, 1995

15.   "Listen To Your Mother: Applying Insights from nature is one way to green the construction industry" C. Kibert et al., in Alternatives Journal, Winter 2000.

16.   US Department of Environment, Center of Excellence for Sustainable Communities

17.   US DoE Center of Excellence for Sustainable Communities, Austin Green Builder Case Study,

18.   Building Design, 1995

19.   Green Development: Integrating Ecology and Real Estate, by the Rocky Mountain Institute. (John Wiley & Sons, 1988)

20.   This case study was prepared by Mark Holland, Planner, City of Vancouver.

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