Is Vancouver ready for a million more people?

Local leaders explore the role that technology can play in ensuring equitable and sustainable growth across the region at the CityAge: Vancouver conference.

Presently, Metro Vancouver is home to roughly 2.8 million people — a population projected to grow to over four million by 2050. Last Tuesday at the Vancouver Club, CityAge hosted city planners and private sector leaders to explore if the city is ready for this growth.

Zahra Alani, MC, CityAge, addresses the audience at the Vancouver Club. Photo: CityAge

Undoubtedly, growing crises of housing affordability, the opioid epidemic, and climate change have threatened the very quality of life that makes Metro Vancouver so attractive for settlement. With this in mind, Christine Bergeron, CEO of Vancity, opened the morning with a different question. “What we really should be asking ourselves is — what do we need to do to make sure that everyone here can live a decent life?”

Presently, Vancouver has the second-highest number of job vacancies in the country. Given the importance of immigration in meeting the region’s labour needs, Bergeron called for the audience to think critically about how the event’s discussions can lay the groundwork for the future. “If by 2050, we become mostly home for a privileged class — a place that's out of reach for most average, working people — we’ll know that we started the conversations today, probably with the wrong assumptions.”

The day’s conversations that followed explored the solutions that could get Metro Vancouver to support a million more people, sustainably. Let’s unpack the technology behind them.

Carbon-free transport in the suburbs

Building effective public transportation in Vancouver’s suburbs was a central point of discussion. “Growth is happening in areas that aren't well served [by public transportation],” said Jerry Dobrovolny, chief administrative officer at Metro Vancouver. “And that's because TransLink hasn't been delivering their major projects and their minor projects nearly fast enough [...] We need to invest in transit infrastructure much, much more quickly.”

Notably, TransLink took a big hit during the pandemic, with ridership at a remarkable low across the region, resulting in reduced revenues that still affect the company today. Since then, user numbers have slowly begun to bounce back — and for the suburbs of Vancouver, TransLink is supporting even more riders than before. “We're moving more people today in Surrey than we were before the pandemic,” said Kevin Desmond, CEO of TransLink. “That also results in things like overcrowding [...] I think that really shines a light on the future needs of this region when it comes to transit.”

people sitting down inside vehicle

Photo: Mitchell Johnson/Unsplash

Dobrovolny emphasized the heterogeneous nature of these communities in developing transportation solutions. “We've got 25 urban centres around the region. And they're all different: the downtown core is different [from] the Surrey core,” he said. “Each of those 25 centres is slated for growth, both [in terms of] jobs and population. [...] When we're looking at development, it's in those 25 centres. That's where we need to intensify.”

Desmond, along with the rest of TransLink, is betting on Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) systems as a solution to serve these regions, as outlined in its Transport 2050 plan. BRT first gained popularity in Latin America, and can now be found in cities all over the world. It allows for public transit vehicles to occupy their own lanes that are physically separated from general traffic, and is notably cheaper and faster to construct than a SkyTrain line.

TransLink is eyeing installation of these systems with zero-emission vehicles, such as those that use hydrogen or electric technology. However, Desmond noted that Vancouver’s public transit is already largely carbon-neutral, with a third of customers currently traveling carbon-free via electricity-powered transit, such as SkyTrain or certain buses. This electricity can’t be taken for granted, though: Malcolm Shield, vice president of sustainability at Wesgroup Properties, called on BC Hydro to anticipate and develop appropriate infrastructure at scale.

“BC Hydro knows how to generate electricity. Where we see the crunch now is within our urban centers: the distribution [of energy] and meeting the need for new SkyTrain or electric vehicles,” he said. “The crunch is going to be — how do we electrify on the scale that we know is coming? The lack of supply isn't going to be that hindrance to getting more climate ready.”

Digital twins in Vancouver’s metaverse

An architect, a developer, and a city planner discuss the future of Vancouver: what conclusions could this panel provide? Using the case study of the False Creek Flats — a 450-acre patch of land just east of Main Street and north of the new Broadway subway line by Emily Carr University of Art and Design — the panelists explored what it takes to develop a region of Vancouver. David Thom, architect and president of Arcadis IBI group, pointed to digital twins as a tool to plan and build better cities. “[Using digital twins], you can take the entire False Creek Flats, and you can model pretty precisely how it's going to evolve.” However, Thom found that the current municipal bureaucracy and planning departments didn’t have the right tools to do so.

Here enters a technology provider to the day’s discussions: Telus, a national telecommunications company, envisions a Metro Vancouver that is equipped with sensors and other data-collecting mechanisms to enable better decision-making for urban developers. “We're able to integrate data from disparate sources all in one place. We call this our Telus Smart Data Platform,” said Dan Watson, senior market manager at Telus Business’ Smart City department,. Notably, Telus also proposed the use of digital twins to build a city-equivalent metaverse. “This includes powerful analytics and digital twins, which are interactive, virtual 3D models of real-world cities, bridges, ports, or other assets.”

Watson outlined a potential application of this technology for emergency services. “Sometimes an emergency vehicle has to go through the intersection against the light, and that can be quite dangerous,” he said. “By integrating our transportation systems, signals, and streetlights with information from fleet vehicles and emergency vehicles, we can start to implement tools like emergency vehicle preemption. So that all the lights can be green when an ambulance is trying to get from point A to point B.”

Telus has not yet implemented such systems in Metro Vancouver. Such an application would require widespread adoption of sensors and other technology in vehicles, buildings, and infrastructure across the city. Similar solutions — as proposed by the now-cancelled Sidewalk Labs project in Toronto — have caused great controversy around ethics and privacy, and it will take notable trust and development among both private- and public-sector partners for such technology to take off in the city.

Housing meets agritech

The Lower Mainland’s unique scheme for protecting agricultural lands from development, called the Agricultural Land Reserve (ALR), was the topic of creative discussion among the panel of developers representing Indigenous nations. “You look at the [ALR] land — basically from Vancouver out to Hope — you speak to farmers, and their yields are down substantially,” said David Negrin, CEO of MST Development. Negrin, who represents the Musqueam, Squamish, and Tsleil-Wautuh nations in development projects, eyes the role of agritech in concurrently building housing while boosting yields on ALR land.

woman in pink long sleeve shirt wearing black sunglasses

Photo: Unsplash

“What we want to do is — we don't want to take [land] out of the ALR. We got to think differently. We want to create an agri-hood — that agri-hood will have agritech,” he said. Negrin cited a farmer he knew personally who was able to boost his yields by 45 percent using tech-supported methods. He didn’t specify the technology, but was optimistic to propose it as a solution. “If we can prove that the yields are up 40 percent, why can't we look at [agritech as a solution]?”

Negrin briefly referenced vertical farming technology, which allows for efficient use of space with voluminous yield. However, not all crops are appropriate to grow using this system. The most efficient use of vertical farming is in growing leafy greens and mushrooms, and given that the Lower Mainland also produces other vegetables that require soil-based systems such as potatoes, it will take some clever investment and imagination to develop both housing and agriculture solutions on the same land — especially in a changing climate.


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