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July 21, 2014 No Comments

Why highrises are good for the environment

vancouver

Cross posted from the Ottawa Citizen July 5th, 2014

 What type of housing do you think has the smallest environmental impact? If you’re picturing a cabin in the woods, think again.

Actually, high-density living, such as a downtown apartment building, is much more environmentally friendly than living in a rural community. It may surprise you to learn that New York City has the lowest per capita energy use in North America by far.

In high-density areas, both household and transportation energy use are significantly lower than in suburban or rural areas. Apartment-style housing is typically smaller than single-family homes, and shared walls means there is less heat loss. Highise buildings are also typically located near public transportation and commercial centres, so people can walk, bike or take the bus to get around.

According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, someone living in a typical suburban community will use around three times more energy per year than someone living in an apartment-style building near public transportation.

The City of Ottawa is very aware of the benefits of high-density living, which is why in Ottawa’s Official Master Plan they have an explicit strategy to direct growth to urban areas.

Services that improve the environmental performance of a city, such as wastewater treatment, recycling, and composting, are all easier when everyone lives close together. Of course the main benefits to municipal governments are the cost savings and reduced infrastructure investments, but the potential environmental benefits are undeniable.

Realistically though, energy use and the cost of city services are probably the last things on a person’s mind when they are looking for a new home. Other factors such as affordability, greenspace, nearby amenities, and proximity to schools are more important for most people.

Downtown living is clearly not for everyone. Young families in particular tend to prefer the suburban lifestyle.

These personal preferences should not be trivialized. We need a mix of housing types to satisfy our varied population.

The Ottawa-Gatineau region’s population grows by 15,000 to 20,000 new residents per year. If the number of new houses doesn’t keep pace with population growth, home prices will increase for everyone.

In order to keep up with this growth, Ottawa will have to build both within the city core as well as out on the city’s edges. How much this growth occurs in highrise development compared to suburban growth will depend on consumer preferences, affordability, land availability and city policies.

These issues are all related.

The city’s main tools for influencing growth patterns are raising development charges for new construction and limiting the areas where construction can occur (referred to as the urban boundary). Both of these measures have the net effect of raising home prices.

Vancouver is the poster child for this type of growth. It’s one of the most energy-efficient cities in the world, but it’s also one of the most expensive to live in due mainly to a very strict urban boundary policy.

Surely there are better ways to promote efficient construction without limiting choice and artificially raising land prices? There are, but municipalities don’t have the power or flexibility to promote them, so they use the tools they have at their disposal.

Though there’s no clear definition of what makes a city environmentally friendly, the housing options available definitely play a role. Reducing carbon emissions, improved wastewater treatment, access to recycling and composting, and many other environmental benefits are all cheaper and easier to do when people live in dense communities.

Unfortunately, the current tools for promoting denser cities has the unwanted impact of increasing housing prices for everyone.

 

Posted by Matthew

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR:

Matthew Sachs

P. Eng. LEED AP

  • COO of Peak Power since July 2016
  • General Manager of Urbandale Construction (May 2008 – Oct 2014)
  • Vice-Chair R-2000 Renewal Committee
  • Member of Energy Star Technical Advisory Committee
  • Greater Ottawa Homebuilders Green Committee
  • Recipient of Canadian Homebuilder’s Association 2009 R-2000 Builder of the Year Award
  • Participant in Natural Resources Canada’s Technology Roadmap for Sustainable Housing
  • Energy Consultant with Marbek Resource Consultants (Feb 2002 – May 2006)

ABOUT PEAK POWER

Peak Power is a Microgrid project development company focused on delivering innovative solutions to offset the most expensive hours of electric demand. We specialize in optimizing the revenue streams from energy storage, advanced building automation, and renewable technologies for customer sited and utility scale projects. Please visit www.peakpowerenergy.com.