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Planning a Post-Carbon World: The City of North Vancouver and the 100 Year Plan

by Patrick M. Condon


The City of North Vancouver’s 100 Year Sustainability Vision represents perhaps the first attempt to use greenhouse gas (GHG) reduction targets to inform the long-term design of a city. The project was a collaborative partnership between the Design Centre for Sustainability at the University of British Columbia, known for advancing the science and application of sustainable community design strategies, and the City of North Vancouver, known for its deep and abiding commitment to urban sustainability.

The Lower Londsdale neighborhood of North Vancouver
The Lower Lonsdale neighborhood of North Vancouver
as viewed from the water.

Photo courtesy of City of North Vancouver.
City of North Vancouver aerial photo.
Aerial perspective of the City of North Vancouver.
Image courtesy of Design Centre for Sustainability.

From the beginning this project was intended to turn knowledge into policy, and to achieve these policy objectives through a deeply democratic and participatory process. The City of North Vancouver authorized this process and charged participants with producing a workable long-range plan with two key future targets. The first of these was an 80 percent per capita reduction in greenhouse gas production, a target to be met by 2050 (in keeping with current provincial, national, and international targets), and a 100 percent reduction in greenhouse gas production by 2100.

For the City of North Vancouver this project was particularly timely and logical. The city had just celebrated its 100th anniversary, 100 years after the original plan was drafted and surveyed. It took all of the intervening 100 years to execute what is now recognizable as a brilliant urban design, a design organized around a logical street network oriented to outstanding views and benign climatic aspect, and a design organized around preserved natural systems that bound and contain the city and its attractive neighborhoods. North Vancouver is now the region’s most walkable and visually stunning city. But now that the original 100-year plan has filled in, today’s local and global circumstances demand a new, similarly visionary 100-year plan.

City of North Vancouver Context

The city supports a population of 48,000 people and has been growing at an average rate of just over one percent a year over the past two decades. The city has been increasingly accepting of high-density development, particularly along the central north—south spine of Lonsdale Street, resulting in an increase in the rate of population growth to over 1.5 percent during the past five to ten years. This growth is expected to continue for the foreseeable future (baring severe economic constraints), allowing the proponents of this project to anticipate a population of approximately 90,000 by 2050, and a population of approximately 140,000 by 2100. For a city only 4.6 square miles this would be over 30,000 people per square mile, a density approaching that of present-day Brooklyn, New York. The challenge then was to find a way to absorb such daunting increases in population while drastically reducing GHG, eventually to zero.

North Vancouver baseline energy demand per unit.
North Vancouver baseline energy demand per unit.
Click image for larger view of both maps in PDF format.

Image courtesy of Design Centre for Sustainability.
North Vancouver energy demand per unit in 2050.
North Vancouver energy demand per unit in 2050.
Click image for larger view of both maps in PDF format.

Image courtesy of Design Centre for Sustainability.

The Methodology

In keeping with a consistent Design Centre strategy, a series of workshops was conducted prior to a week-long planning and design charrette. During these workshops city stakeholders were given the opportunity to understand the baseline performance of their city, and assess the extent to which aggressive GHG reduction targets were reasonable. One of the crucially important breakthroughs in this methodology was the use of “ neighborhood patterns.” As an easy-to-use “kit of parts” to model existing and future performance, the  neighborhood patterns strategy has great merit. We hope that it is widely emulated and extensively utilized in future years.

Neighborhood patterns are nameable and measurable constellations of urban elements usually found in relation to each other. A simple example is the urban corridor pattern, which is a dominant pattern in the City of North Vancouver. Urban corridors are sets of predictable housing, job, and service types, arranged in a characteristic pattern of blocks and streets, within a common range of site and residential densities (view transit corridor patterns in PDF format). Thus identified, the neighborhoods’ GHG performance, in the main categories of building performance and transportation, can be characterized with relative ease. Prior to the process the city was mapped and measured based on existing patterns. The performance of these patterns subsequently became the basis upon which the performance of future patterns could be assessed.

The Core Issues

For the City of North Vancouver, growth was both a challenge and an opportunity. With such a small and already densely occupied land base, how could the population triple without bringing cultural and ecological systems to the point of collapse? Associated questions included: How can the city ensure that the growth of the city generates an appropriate share of affordable homes? How can the land base be best used to generate new jobs at a rate of one per family without consuming more land? How can the ecological services of the site, its water, and green spaces, be not only protected from overuse but capitalized on for energy and fresh water? How can the fledgling district energy system already in use (North Vancouver has one of only a few new municipal district heating systems in North America) be expanded into what are currently low-density areas, and become itself GHG neutral? And of utmost importance: How is it at all conceivable that you could densify this city to such an extent and still imagine it as a place that becomes even more livable and attractive than it is now?

North Vancouver charrette concept plan.
North Vancouver charrette concept plan.
Click image for larger view of both plans in PDF format.

Image courtesy of Design Centre for Sustainability.
North Vancouver plan.
North Vancouver plan.
Click image for larger view of both plans in PDF format.

Image courtesy of Design Centre for Sustainability.

Overarching Sustainability Principles

The Design Centre has tried hard to identify what we think are the fundamental principles for sustainable urban design. These principles represent a synthesis of hundreds of sustainability case studies, distilled down into a set of overarching or meta principles for urban design. Unlike abstract principles such as “reduce energy demand” or “consider the triple bottom line,” these principles are explicitly physical and thus capable of profoundly guiding urban design strategies. The seven sustainability design principles that formed the foundation for this project are:

  1. Mixed-use corridors accessible to all
  2. A five-minute walking distance to commercial services and transit
  3. Appropriate housing for all
  4. Good and plentiful jobs close to home
  5. Access to linked public places, parks, and natural areas
  6. Green durable, timeless infrastructure
  7. Long-term adaptation to unavoidable climate change

The Charrette Process

Fundamental to this project is the following premise: Given the highly interconnected nature of any sustainability question, any methods for attacking sustainability problems must be similarly integrative. This calls into question typical methodologies of both planning and research. Planning has proceeded on an unspoken and often erroneous assumption that linear and analytical methods are sufficiently powerful to “solve” any definable problem, even those pertaining to sustainability. This premise ignores the fact that linear problem-solving models collapse in the face of multiple variables.

The failure to acknowledge these limits has led to obvious calamities, ranging from the tragedy of Pruitt-Igoe housing complex in St. Louis to the destruction of so many U.S. center cities by freeway construction. The common and critical flaw in both is a failure of methodology, where a narrow methodology blinded proponents and technicians from seeing what has, in retrospect, become all too obvious. Now when we, as planners, are emerging from a period of modernist hubris to a period of ecological catastrophe, it behooves us to examine our core principles. At the Design Centre, we argue that any planner who wants to move our culture towards sustainability must embrace new collaborative and participatory planning models—planning models that are open to complexity and synergy, even if the downside risk is loss of “certainty.”

The Design Centre design workshop, or design charrette, is such a model. It presumes that a group of intelligent stakeholders collaborating creatively and collectively are more capable of producing effective and holistic responses to sustainability challenges than can technicians who focus narrowly on one or another component.

North Vancouver described as "neighborhood
North Vancouver described as "neighborhood

Image courtesy of Design Centre for Sustainability.

This does not suggest that data, logic, reason, and rationality have no place in this process. Far from it. More accurate to say that the ideal process as envisioned by the Design Centre is a dialectic between the innate capacity of collaborative groups to synthesize holistic solutions, and the also innate capacity of those same individuals to evaluate those solutions against empirical benchmarks or targets—in real time as an integral part of the charrette process.

For the City of North Vancouver charrette this dialectic was especially intense. A team was available onsite that was capable of mapping the GHG consequences of alternative proposals in real time, helping the stakeholder teams arrive at more intelligent and no less synthetic solutions. The “ neighborhood patterns” strategy was crucial to this success. The patterns strategy allows for very rapid calculations and recalculations of GHG consequence, many times faster than the most usual alternative—a parcel-based strategy—would require.

Key Outcomes

The key outcome was the restoration of the city’s many urban corridors, in keeping with the original “streetcar city” armature of the city. This original armature was restored and intensified (through additional residential density and mixed uses) allowing for much-reduced dependence on the single passenger automobile. Gains were not purely speculative, but were computed based on an analysis of behavior associated with real-world neighborhood and district pattern types, and an analysis of local travel logs compiled for the regional transit authority. Based on the increased density along corridors, and the assumption that that density would be followed by an appropriate level of transit service (a safe assumption so far), car use would be reduced by well over 50 percent per capita.

North Vancouver's Lonsdale Avenue buildout and
North Vancouver's Lonsdale Avenue buildout and
densification between 2010 and 2050.

Images courtesy of Design Centre for Sustainability.

The trebling of density within the City of North Vancouver can be accomplished without land assembly. The charrette team was able to triple the total number of city dwelling units through growing up in many locations (notably along corridors) and through growing within the parcels in the city’s many single-family home areas (by subdividing within the existing or modestly expanded building envelope). The resilience of the original “City Beautiful” plan was revealed in the charrette, where the consistent and logically interconnected block and lane pattern proved itself highly adaptable to a number of new and modified housing types. Notably, the concept of the “hyperburb” emerged during this charrette, a strategy for gradually growing new housing units from the single family home in 2010, to a four-, five-, or six-plex by 2100—all without demolition or substantial disruption to the appearance or function of the neighborhood.

The “emerald necklace” of parks and natural areas in the city become increasingly important as the city moves toward a carbon-zero future. The park and greenway system provides an alternative circulation system, a location for community agriculture, a water source, a power source, and, most importantly, a location for spiritual and emotional re-creation for residents. The fingers of this system are, in the plan, extended deep into the community, in the form of green streets and sites, and, indeed, up the very “green walls” and over the green roofs of city buildings.

Packing 40,000 jobs into 4.6 square miles would seem no easy task, especially since job densities of over five per acre are often considered high in contemporary North America. However, certain job types—financial services, for example—produce very high job densities per acre. Since most job growth for the city is projected to be in the knowledge labor sector (medical, educational, financial, consulting, etc.) it is reasonable to shoot for very high per-acre job densities. For the City of North Vancouver the job density target was 80 per acre. Consequently, lands currently zoned for industry and business are adequate to accommodate this number. New and adapted models of multi-story business buildings are assumed for this purpose.

So how much does the project cut GHG production per capita? And what is the role of land use changes in this cut? We calculate that just from land use changes alone, and assuming no changes in technology, per capita GHG production was reduced by over 40 percent from an already relatively low GHG baseline. This was a consequence of reduced car use, increased walking and transit, and building performance that is enhanced as density increases. Then, in a way that is related to land use, as the City of North Vancouver district heating system is extended to most of the city (and new density would make this economically practical) the reductions increase to 70 percent. With modest increases in building performance and the shift of the bus fleet to electric by 2050, 80 percent per capita reduction can be attained (view baseline and 2050 GHG reduction charts in PDF format).

Hyperburbia: a strategy for gradually growing new
Hyperburbia: a strategy for gradually growing new
housing units from the single family home in 2010, to a
four-, five-, or six-plex by 2100
Image courtesy of Design Centre for Sustainability.

As can be seen, nearly all of this improvement is attributable to land use change. Meeting the 100 Year goal becomes relatively easy after this 80 percent gain. With relatively little change to buildings, energy can be generated internally from solar and wind. Additional energy needs can be met from British Columbia’s ample hydroelectric resources, much of which is presently untapped.


Greenhouse gas is the issue of our time. Most of the GHG comes from cities—from the buildings we build, the stuff we put in them, and the way we get from one building to the other. Planners have tremendous control over this, perhaps more than any other discipline. We hope that this project provides a real-world case study to inspire planners, and a set of tools to help them take on these challenges in their own communities.

If we are to save this planet, it will require thousands of planners who wake up every day determined to reduce the greenhouse gases coming from their town. If we change the way our cities and towns are built we can prevent the blackest of the global warming nightmare scenarios from coming true, and can create the conditions for a livable life for our children and our grandchildren. It’s not too apocalyptic to say we can save their lives.


Professor Patrick M. Condon teaches and practices in Vancouver, British Columbia. Born in Massachusetts he is trained as a landscape architect and began his professional career as director of planning and community development for Westfield, Massachusetts. He taught at the University of Minnesota before joining the faculty at the University of British Columbia. He took the James Taylor Chair in Landscape and Livable Environments in 1994 and is now senior researcher at the Design Centre for Sustainability at UBC. He is author of many books including Design Charrettes for Sustainable Communities (Island Press, 2007) and Seven Rules for Sustainable Communities: Design Strategies for the Post Carbon World (Island Press, 2010).
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British Columbia Climate Action Legislation

City Beautiful Movement

City of North Vancouver

City of North Vancouver 100 Year Sustainability Vision

City of North Vancouver 100 Year Sustainability Vision GHG Measurement and Mapping
Technical Paper

Design Centre for Sustainability

Sustainability by Design: City of North Vancouver 100 Year Sustainability Vision (Presentation)



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