Flying over the Fraser River

George Massey replacement 2

Over the past decade, taxpayers have invested perhaps $7 billion in new freeways, bridges, and other major highways in Greater Vancouver.

George Massey replacementAnd there’s more to come! British Columbia’s government has produced a fun video about the bridge that will soon replace the George Massey Tunnel (1959).The video testifies to the persuasive power of images alone. No voiceover required.

The tunnel replacement project is underway, and has completed two rounds of public engagement. Searching online, I find only one minor instance of public protest to this point.

Talking Population Forecasting Blues

Population growth forecasts, Metro Vanouver, 2011-2014Our friend Morgan Jensen, a candidate for city council in Maple Ridge, recently shared a chart that lays out growth forecasts for municipalities in Metro Vancouver. It comes from a planning presentation at the Township of Langley.

The chart shows more than a doubling of population in the Township, putting roughly 225,000 people in that area in 2041. The City of Vancouver would acquire the same number of people as the Township, but grow much more slowly in percentage terms, reaching a population of 765,000. Surrey would become the region’s largest city, with about 880,000 people.

The forecasts matter because they influence provincial and local government spending  plans — a new hospital here, a new freeway there. And they play a part in local zoning decisions, such as (heh heh) a city council’s redefinition of green space as potential land for subdivision housing.

But I’m reminded of my post last week about Harrison Hot Springs, where the village’s 2007 official plan focuses on how to cope with ongoing growth. Since the plan was published, there has been zero population growth. In another B.C. small-town plan that I reviewed, the planners presented scenarios for 3%, 2% and 1% annual growth looking forward from 2006. The town has seen zero growth.

Port Haney construction reducedThere’s an industry built around population forecasting. An independent think tank, the U.S.  Population Reference Bureau, has a staff of 48. But there are some frustrations built into the job. A 2009  methodological study suggests that after decades of crunching numbers, demographers are still at the start line in predicting local population trends.

An abstract of the study resides at US National Library of Medicine website. Researcher Guangqing Chi looked at 30 years worth of town and city population records from Wisconsin. He or she offers the ambitious reader about 60 different ways of chopping up the data, if you can cope with terms like “heteroskedacicity” and “coefficient drift”, the latter being a “major problem.”

To simplify, it seems a standard population forecast begins by establishing the age of the current population, measures long-term trends in birth rates, death rates and migration patterns, and boots the whole thing into the future. And voilà, a population figure for 2041.

Researcher Chi, probably like you or me, imagined it might make sense to predict local population numbers by examining local conditions. What does the town have that will attract people, or cause them to look elsewhere? Jobs, health and recreation services, housing, safe streets, transportation accessibility, air and water quality, character, access to nature, forward-looking leadership…?  Under “natural amenities,” to take just one heading, Chi proposed five variables that may influence in- our out-migration: the proportion of forestry areas, the proportion of water areas, lengths of shoreline, total areas of golf courses [!], and “the proportion of areas with slope between 12.5% and 20%.”

Yaletown mini-park croppedFascinating concepts, but they’re too complex to implement. Different age groups, ethnic groups or consumer subcultures will react to each of these variables in different ways, and the selection of measures is itself highly  subjective. We can’t predict how many people will move to Maple Ridge in 2035 to work at the college, because there is no college in Maple Ridge and its future existence is hypothetical. The results from dozens of alternative forecasting methods including Chi’s, are found in the study to be less reliable than the crude formula that dates from the age of radio.

A handbook from the State of Florida, published two years before Chi’s study, counsels local governments to forget the soft variables, partly for reasons of cost. The 20-year forecasts published in Florida in 1980, based on the back-to-the-future model, were off by an average of 17 per cent; but that’s good enough. The Florida handbook  advises that forecasts for small places (Harrison) will be especially unreliable, as will forecasts for fast-growing areas at the urban fringe (Township of Langley).

Of course, if we see a new era of social instability — radical changes to Canada’s immigration system, or a collapse in housing prices — the average forecasting inaccuracy may exceed 17 per cent. The application of a single urban planning system on all of Metro Vancouver’s areas might also have interesting effects on the distribution of population growth around the region, and on the numbers shown in the chart at the top of this post.

At the provincial level, BC Stats currently offers this caveat on its predictions:

“BC Stats applies the Component/Cohort-Survival method to project the population. This method “grows” the population from the latest base year estimate by forecasting births, deaths and migration by age. These forecasts are based on past trends modified to account for possible future changes and, consequently, should be viewed as only one possible scenario of future population.”

Sales Centre sign

The village at Harrison Lake

Dock 4 reduced For the visitor, the impressive view of the lake and surrounding mountains is a big part of the experience — and a dip in the hot pools, of course.

The resident has access to the same views and the poetic cycle of a climate that is on the soggy side*– 69 inches (175 cm.) of annual precipitation through the late 20th century, including the occasional dramatic snow event. There’s also the opportunity for regular visits to Agassiz, a larger hamlet about 10 minutes away in the District of Kent, since Harrison has no supermarket, drug store or bank. The BC Transit bus runs to Agassiz nine times per day.

The Esplanade in Harrison Hot Springs, looking toward the main hotel

The Esplanade in Harrison Hot Springs, looking toward the main hotel

Harrison Hot Springs is a quasi-alpine resort municipality in the Fraser Valley region. It’s about 75 minutes from the Port Mann Bridge at the entrance to Vancouver, and hosts conventions and weekend getaways at modest rates. The mountain surround is a bit of an illusion; Harrison sits almost on the Fraser River flood plain, or 30 metres above sea level, and because there are no winter sports nearby.

The Harrison plan is dated 2007, and two themes emerge: first, how to find enough land for a growing population, since the village had doubled in size from 1991 to 2006, and the quality of residential development was very good; and second, how to foster a higher-quality tourist economy, with a greater variety of tourist attractions and services.

Harrison land use conceptThere was an assumption, I think, that the growing population would drive an improvement in retail services. But just as the plan was being developed, the population levelled off at about 1500. I suppose it’s a place for retirees, and for people who commute to Chilliwack, about half an hour away; but while people are still retiring, and Chilliwack is still thriving, Harrison stopped attracting new people on a net basis, and that is that. The plan contains no suggestions on how the community should recruit new residents, although it would help to prop up the local service economy.

Apartment housing on the Esplanade, facing the lake

Apartment housing on the Esplanade, facing the lake

The plan’s plea for better and more diverse tourist facilities is a reminder of the prominence, even today, of budget motels, lunch counters and RV parks in the village landscape. A couple of good hotels have been added to the mix since the mid-2000s, and the main hotel/spa continues to flirt with three-and-a-half-star status, depending on the changing ownership. My recent meal at the Copper Room restaurant was fine, and the service excellent.

Harrison Hot Springs is a resort for people who like to fish or hike, or for the undemanding who want to linger in a hot pool or visit the goat’s-milk cheesery down a country road. A packet of seven tickets to the public pool costs 55 bucks, while guests at the big hotel get their own pools with the price of their room. But I am more interested here in imagining the life of a resident: watching the rain on the lake, shopping at the gas station, and finding out about the people who live in those nice houses and why they stopped moving in.

[*Correction: we first posted this piece using the figure 39 inches or 97 centimetres of precipitation drawing on information from a tourism website. After checking Environment Canada data a day later, this was corrected to the higher amount. The weather station is located at the Agassiz research farm about 5 kilometres outside Harrison.]  

Residential street, Harrison Hot Springs

Residential street, Harrison Hot Springs

Dock 2 reduced

Hot Springs Hotel, interior

Harrison Hot Springs Hotel, interior

A rendering of the Harrison Hot Springs Hotel from the 1997 version of the village plan

A rendering of the Harrison Hot Springs Hotel from the 1997 version of the village plan

Traffic off the North Shore

Lions Gate Bridge, Saturday morning

Lions Gate Bridge, Saturday morning

If North Vancouver continues to grow at the current rate, the bridges into the City of Vancouver will lock up altogether and people will have to SWIM to work, navigating the oil tankers and seaplanes….

At least, this is what “Ed” suggested recently in an anonymous note to Fraseropolis.  Whether Ed is real or not, the idea that the North Shore of the Burrard Inlet has reached capacity recurs in debates over the pace of development in the Central and Lower Lonsdale communities. “There’s no room for more people on the North Shore: the bridges are already jammed!” Continue reading

Slowing down in Trail, B.C.

Downtown Trail with the smelter on the hill

Downtown Trail with the smelter on the hill

The city of Trail, British Columbia, about 600 kilometres east of Metro Vancouver, lies in a valley near the American border. We visited Trail, which is my wife’s birthplace, as part of our summer vacation, and we took some time to walk around and see what hasn’t changed.

Bay Avenue, downtown Trail

Bay Avenue, downtown Trail

Central Trail presents a museum of mid-20th-century architecture, which is great for a visitor like me. Some residents, however, worry that the city has been forgotten by the outside world.

To be fair, there have been improvements since the 1970s; the city is much greener than it was, due to emissions  improvements at the smelter that dominates the town. Trail’s 1961 hockey world champions were called the “Smoke Eaters”; the smoke used to kill the trees for miles around, as well as driving away tourists; but that is in the past. Continue reading

Along the Number 20 Line

Grain terminal in Port Metro Vancouver, seen from Powell St.

Grain terminal in Port Metro Vancouver, seen from Powell Street

Vancouver writer Rolf Knight published Along The No. 20 Line  in 1980. It’s a book of working-class memoirs and oral histories about the Vancouver of the 1940s.

Cordova Street

Cordova Street

The title essay recalls a 1949 trip on the Number 20 streetcar through East Vancouver, from the intersection of Kamloops and McGill streets, near where the author grew up, to Cambie and Hastings, “the informal boundary of Vancouver East’s downtown.” Continue reading

Bringing the world to North Van’s waterfront

The Lower Lonsdale waterfront. The restored yellow crane is decorative.

The Lower Lonsdale waterfront. The restored yellow crane is decorative.

Lower Lonsdale in North Vancouver presents a big-city feel, looking across at downtown Vancouver across the Burrard Inlet. It deserves high marks as an urban village and is worth a visit from other parts of the region. Continue reading