Skip to content

What is eco-design, and how is Squamish doing with it?

District planner discusses repurposing old industrial areas, density, creating a more walkable community, parking, viewsheds, upcoming parks, and more.

Eco-design basically means integrating the way cities — or districts — are planned so that they are sustainable for people and the environment. 

That sounds like something folks in the Sea to Sky could all get behind, so The Chief caught up with District of Squamish's director of planning, Jonas Velaniskis to find out how we are doing with this concept and what is in the works to get us closer to the sustainability goal. 

What follows is an edited version of that conversation.

Q: How do you define eco-design? 

A: It is really making communities holistic and thinking about climate change and our impact as accumulative rather than as part of one field separate from another field of planning. It is all interconnected and that understanding is really growing among planners and among community builders. 

Our planet is such an interconnected system, made up of many systems, but it is all related. You can no longer separate eco-design as a field. It touches on everything. 

Q: There's no perfectly eco-designed city yet, but some places are doing many aspects of it well. Where do you look to for inspiration? 

A: In Canada, we often look at other B.C. communities and what they are doing. 

For smaller towns like us, the City of Vancouver is the place that we carefully watch because they have a considerable administration and capacity to research things and come up with ideas for addressing issues. And because it is a bigger city, issues they deal with show up there before they do here. 

Q: Part of eco-design is repurposing large, obsolete former industrial areas. That is what is happening with the Oceanfront Squamish development. Where else are we doing that, or will we be doing that? 

A: I think we will end up having to repurpose most developed areas in Squamish. A few years ago, before the new Official Community Plan (OCP), we came up with the new growth management boundary. That is at the core of eco-design.

The best you can do is try to grow within your existing areas rather than sprawl out, which is what you see in some of the bigger cities in Canada. I think we are fortunate in B.C. to be constrained by the environment itself. The biggest shift in our understanding now is anticipating growth within our boundary and preventing it outside of it. So, contain growth. The way we have been doing that for the last two years is neighbourhood planning. 

There's Oceanfront Squamish and Waterfront Landing [SEAandSKY], which is another old industrial site that is being repurposed. Loggers Lane East is another area we just finished the plan for. It is a low-density area, well-connected. We are going to try to do all of our neighbourhoods. In some cases, there might not be a lot of growth because of constraints.

Nevertheless, I think we need a plan for every neighbourhood. ss

Q: We have to have some density as we grow to prevent sprawl, as you say, but many folks in Squamish are vehemently opposed to density, so how do you bridge that gap? 

A: Many people talk about how much busier downtown is and that there are a lot of buildings going up; there hasn't been a lot of new public space created downtown other than Sirocco, with its new walkway — which is eventually going to the oceanfront. Like a lot of towns like ours, the problem with downtown is its zoning is quite historic. At one time, Squamish was desperate for growth downtown. It was not doing well. So years ago, we adopted zoning that would facilitate growth downtown and make it easier for developers. 

Some of the recent projects — that took years to come to fruition — are legacies of the previous zoning — the C4 zone. What we need to do is, through these neighbourhood planning processes, establish better examples of growth, frankly, that have more open space. We have examples coming up. 

Q: What are other regulatory challenges for planners aiming to implement eco-design? 

A: Downtown zoning is not perfect yet, though it is much better than it used to be. The main change we made in the C4 zone is to require much more employment space, which often impacts the feel of the building. We also reduced the density on big empty lots that have development potential, which will either mean that there will be smaller buildings, or the property owners are going to have to come in for a rezoning where we can — with lots of discretion on the District's side — design something that fits that particular spot downtown. 

Zoning is an obstacle and huge power, if you come up with a master plan and design the zoning based on that plan. 

Downtown, I think we have some work to do around uses. We have to make sure that downtown is well activated — we don't want a proliferation of businesses that people go to specifically for that use. 

Instead, we want uses that integrate well with the street and make the city more walkable— with retail and restaurants, for example. 

We have a large population downtown, and you want to provide those services, so people don't have to drive as much. 

There's more work to do in defining areas that are appropriate for commercial uses. 

Q: A goal of eco-design is to have the "city" be the third-place people spend their time after home and work. How is Squamish doing with that?

A: We are doing quite well, and part of that is just the growing population downtown. But we definitely see some traffic challenges — at the highway intersection with Cleveland Avenue, for example. 

We have plans to mitigate that, but those are big infrastructure projects. The main thing is the planned Pemberton Bridge, which will provide that second access to downtown. 

Q: Over successive councils, it has been an aim to have more active transportation. It doesn't particularly feel safe cycling in some areas around town still though.

What are the challenges with the way Squamish is designed that make it difficult? 

A: One of the main challenges is the rail line that crosses the entrance into downtown. There's no way to get over that. We are looking at doing some improvements — creating better crosswalks where the crossings are — and even opening another way across the rail line for vehicles. Our engineering department has a team of people working on sustainability and active transportation. Downtown is a focus for them. 

Downtown is challenging because development is really established, and doing those retrofits is really expensive. 

Downtown is a typical B.C. resource downtown. You have the waterfront, with historically industrial all along the waterfront, and then it is cut off by a rail line. Nelson has a similar downtown. It just used to be a different focus for planners. 

Q: The focus used to be primarily on making it easy for cars, right? 

A: Yes. That was the planning regime everywhere in North America. It was all about the car. The other thing the Industrial Revolution brought was the separation of uses — because industry at that time had serious health implications, and in some cases, still does, but that drove the planning regime to separate residential from commercial and industrial. We are now trying to undo that. Integrating the uses back together is what you have to do to have a walkable town. 

Q: Is it fair to say, though, because I think people worry about this — that the car and parking are not going to go away? 

A: Definitely here to stay. There's always going to be a place for that in community planning, but we now have to put a lot more focus on active transportation. That might mean there are some constraints on vehicle parking. I think you can't change behaviour by designing everything for the car. 

Q: How do you ensure that neighbourhoods have economic diversity?

A: We are trying to make sure every bigger development has a Community Amenity Contribution (CAC) policy that requires a certain amount of affordable housing included. Those are usually integrated into the same building or separately with market rental and affordable housing. For smaller developments, we collect cash in lieu for affordable housing. 

Q: What about creating diversity in the Garibaldi Highlands?

A: It is a tough area. It has been essentially designed as a single-family neighbourhood. There are no local services. 

When it was designed in the 1960s or 70s, a covenant was put on most of those properties that restrict uses. It restricts coach houses; it restricts even chickens. We at the District can allow all kinds of things to make the community more walkable and add neighbourhood commercial services, but people are hesitant because of the covenants that the residents have signed onto by buying their properties that pretty much restricts it to a single-family neighbourhood. 

That will continue until someone challenges the covenants. The District has nothing to do with those.

Q: In some bigger centres, there are obsolete areas that are repurposed for public use — like New York turning a disused railway track into a raised park. Is there anything we could do like that in Squamish? 

A: We are looking at establishing a larger active transportation corridor where the decommissioned BC Rail line is currently. The one that runs down to the oceanfront. That is a good example of something that might happen in the future. It is in the OCP.

Q: Can you speak to protecting public views in town? 

A: We have a project on the books for next year or the year after, especially for downtown, to look at the most important places for us to protect the viewsheds — like in any of the parks downtown or on major street corners. But the scope of that project will not include how to protect the views for recent developments. When you are downtown, buying or living in an apartment building, it is hard to expect that your views will always be there because it is the densest neighbourhood in town and is still growing. 

  Q: One of the factors of eco-design is protecting heritage as a resource, but we don't seem to do that?

A: We are doing a scoping study this year. We have a little bit of money in the budget this year, so we have hired someone to define the scope of a heritage project. The aim is for 2023, to do a more extensive project around heritage protection and develop a strategy. I know it has been something people want; it has just been having resources to do it. 

Q: What do you think is misunderstood about planning in Squamish? 

A: Something people may not know is that we are looking at smart growth neighbourhood incentives. We have a transit network in Squamish, and we know what the transit network might look like in a few years, so we are doing a long community engagement project regarding gentle density around that network. 

Also, there are three large parks in the works in town — the oceanfront park, the waterfront park and the one at Garibaldi Springs. Those are going to be significant park additions to Squamish. It will take another two years or so before it is all said and done, but then we will have three new parks.

push icon
Be the first to read breaking stories. Enable push notifications on your device. Disable anytime.
No thanks