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The cost of saying “no”

When you rezone a property to build something new, pretty much every city will ask you to provide reports and studies that assess the potential impacts of that something new. 

They’ll ask you to look at the impact on traffic, the impact on storm water, the impact on shadows in the area, and the list goes. This, of course, is fair and reasonable. It makes sense to measure the impact of the proposed changes to see if it will work in the given context. 

But those are not the only impacts to consider. I think that many of us underestimate the flip side, which is the impact of doing nothing, or in this case, building nothing. Here’s a recent quote from an excellent interview with urban economist Edward Glaeser:

Personally, I believe there are always huge costs to saying “no” to people who want to create space for new families that want to live in the city; who want to make the city more affordable. There are always costs – I believe that very, very strongly – but, sure, there are also benefits to saying “no” at certain times.

Glaeser is, of course, not saying that we should allow unfettered development. He is saying that there are costs (or impacts) to building and costs to not building. The challenge is that we assume, often incorrectly, that saying “no” simply means the status quo will prevail. And we do not consider the impacts.

So what does that mean? Here’s an example.

The Neptis Foundation, which is a nonpartisan and charitable urban research group, just published an interesting report called, Growing Pains: Understanding the new reality of population and dwelling patterns in the Toronto and Vancouver regions

What the report did was compare growth and settlement patterns in both the Greater Toronto (and Hamilton) Area and Metro Vancouver between 2001 and 2011. And what they found was two different stories.

Of the one million people that moved to the Toronto region between this period, roughly 80% of them settled in new greenfield housing subdivisions at the urban edge. And only 18% of people moved to areas that were well serviced by public transit.

By contrast, only 31% of Metro Vancouver’s population growth went to greenfield areas and 69% went to urban intensification areas. Nearly half of these new residents ended up settling next to high frequency transit.

From an environmental standpoint, Vancouver’s settlement pattern is obviously preferable. But it takes hard work to achieve that. The barriers to infill development are more formidable than the barriers to greenfield development. This is despite the fact that there are well documented social, economic, and environmental costs associated with urban sprawl.

My point with this example is that growth and demand will find somewhere to settle. Some locations make more sense than others, but sometimes there’s no choice when we have decided to say “no.” So what we ought to be doing is measuring both the impact of building, as well as the impact of not building.

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