Debate over smart growth showed there are some challenges

“Boutique cities cater only to the elite,” says smart growth critic Randal O'Toole.

Two sides of smart growth  were clearly presented at a debate Thursday, sponsored by South Fraser OnTrax and supported by both the City and Township.

I was privileged to serve as moderator for the debate between Todd Litman of the Victoria Transport Policy Institute, and Oregon resident Randal O’Toole of the Cato Institute. Both marshaled facts and arguments to bolster their cases, which again proved that statistics can be used to make vastly different arguments. It all depends how the case is made.

The gist of their arguments was this. Litman says that denser neighbourhoods allow people to walk, cycle and use transit more easily. They also promote a feeling of neighbourliness, and people end up having more money to spend if they don’t need a vehicle, or need one infrequently.

O’Toole says that smart growth policies have driven up the cost of housing and limited freedom of choice, because high housing costs preclude many people who want to own a home on a lot from doing so.  He sees no need for any type of protection for agricultural land, because “housing is more valuable than farmland.” He also states that bus transportation in particular is no more energy-efficient than private cars.

“Boutique cities cater only to the elite,” he says, defining Vancouver, Portland and other cities that promote green agendas and have anti-car policies as such cities.

While on the surface his arguments may sound like little more than a standard pro-growth, anti-regulation tirade, he used statistics to help prove at least some of his arguments. It is fascinating that both Ottawa and Winnipeg have a much higher proportion of transit use than the Vancouver area (with three SkyTrain lines) does.

Part of that is due to the lack of transit service south of the Fraser. It is clear that  extensive promotion of transit is no replacement for actually providing the service.

It is also true that municipal policies, such as ever-growing development cost charges, have added substantially to the cost of housing, as has the HST, the property purchase tax and numerous other government policies.

Many of the 80 people present are in favour of smart growth. At the end of the debate, about two-thirds voted in favour of the debate resolution which favoured smart growth south of the Fraser, along with much more in the way of transportation alternatives.

However, it was clear that both speakers made some powerful arguments and got members of the audience thinking  — which was the entire purpose of the evening.  Three members of the two local councils sat through and listened as well — Langley City Mayor Peter Fassbender and Councillor Dave Hall, and Township Councillor Charlie Fox. Councillor Steve Ferguson was present for a short time.

Langley City is using many elements of smart growth, as it works towards a denser, more walkable city with more transit service. The Township has a long way to go.

For  those interested in hearing more of the debate for themselves, go to

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