As the population in the CRD increases, every mayor in a municipality with a commercial centre talks about housing densification to help create a community where residents can live, work and shop without commuting. Green space, essential for health and quality of life, frequently gets squeezed out of the planning.
Look at downtown Victoria. One high-rise after another has gone up, replacing increased suburban sprawl with vertical sprawl. What was once known as the city of gardens is turning into a city of canyons where, on some streets, sunlight seldom reaches the ground. Unless you consider green space to be a shrub in a pot on the sidewalk in front of a condominium complex, you will need to walk to the playground by the Court House, or to Beacon Hill Park, if you want to find a spot to sit down on a bench without having to buy a cup of coffee for the privilege. While shopping, coffee shops, restaurants, banks and the Royal and McPherson Theatres are close by, nature is not. Where’s the green space?
A growing amount of research indicates that people who have regular contact with nature are happier, mentally and physically healthier, and more likely to value environmental sustainability. Densification of housing needs to be planned in an environment that includes access to nature. A truly walkable urban community includes a number of small parks with benches, trees, and a children’s playground. Urban green space provides a necessary place where people find solace in the city. While residential “Walk Scores” posted by realtors focus on access to commercial and service amenities, walkable neighbourhoods must include space where birds and insects can thrive and people of all ages can experience nature within five to ten minutes walking distance from their homes.
Interestingly, older residential neighbourhoods, including parts of Fairfield, James Bay, the Hillside/Finlayson area, parts of Oak Bay, Saanich and Esquimalt include neighbourhood parks that encompass a good size piece of property where, by today’s standards, numerous single family homes (or a sizeable apartment/condo complex) could be constructed. It’s the developers of more recently constructed housing complexes, and the municipal Councils who approve their developments, who have deemed park space too expensive, an extravagance that their communities can’t afford. The exception is affluent suburbs, where, even though residents own single family homes on sizeable pieces of property, additional space has been set aside for parks. An example is the lovely Emily Carr Park in the Broadmead area of Saanich.
And what is the true cost of deleting nature from our urban core? Desirable neighbourhoods, the places where people wish they could live, cities designated as beautiful, are never bereft of nature. No one should need to be affluent in order to have green space in their environment. A good example of a popular urban park in Saanich is Rutledge Park, located in the Cloverdale area where numerous people live in apartments and condos surrounding the park. Another example is the very well used Kings Park near the Royal Jubilee Hospital, where former hydro land will hopefully be saved in entirety to preserve the only neighbourhood park in that part of the city.
Downtown Victoria could use a park on the Capital Iron side of town and another on the site of a car dealership closer to the centre of town when the land is available. It’s not too late for Victoria, and other urban municipalities, to set land aside and build new parks as a priority in their plans for urban densification. Our urban communities need to be built with beauty and nature top of mind. For today and for the future, people have a right to access nature.