Land Values: Vancouver’s love for sun casts a shadow over real estate developments in the city

Where does B.C.’s argument for shadow avoidance stand in the middle of a housing crisis?

Whenever people talk about the negative impacts they imagine from a new building near them, whether it’s a laneway house or a 60-storey tower, there’s a short but explosive list of hot buttons. Number one: parking. Number two: how local services—from transit to sewers to hospitals—will get overwhelmed by all these new people. (Unless they’re empty investor condos, in which case, that’s also bad.) And somewhere near the top: The Dreaded Shadow.

I remember listening once to a woman from Dunbar who almost started weeping as she catastrophized aloud to the audience that, if taller buildings were ever permitted on her street, the sidewalk would be permanently in shadow, which would mean there would be ice on it all winter, which would mean she’d likely slip and fall and break something.

Others have talked about how they’ll never be able to grow a tomato in their backyard again or how parks will become bleak, Arctic-like landscapes as they’re cast into permanent shade by nearby tall buildings. One of the favourite visuals of groups opposed to density in recent years has been an image of a proposed tower casting an ominous shadow across the city for multiple kilometres.

Vancouver, more than any other city in the region, has made shadow avoidance a priority. (I checked with Surrey, Burnaby and Coquitlam and they all appear to have some kind of shadow policy, though far less prescriptive and more open to negotiation.) That’s common for major cities as they start to see a big push upward. New York has had shadow policies for 100 years, which is one of the reasons why many historic buildings there are stepped back on upper floors.

But thoughts about shadows are morphing in many cities, with the issues of shade and light being reconsidered as we move into an era with a whole bunch of new world conditions. Climate change is heating up many cities to the point that they’re appointing “shade czars” to make sure there are enough public spaces free of direct sunlight.

The housing-shortage crisis has prompted a lot of re-thinking about whether losing dozens of potential homes is a good trade-off to get an extra 30 minutes of sun on a patch of park or street on a mid-winter afternoon.

And there are new tools being developed that cities like San Francisco are using to assess not just whether there is a shadow at a particular point in the day, but also what the total amount of sun and shade is at various points around the building for every day of the year.

This new perspective is percolating into Vancouver. As our housing situation—which can only be objectively described as insane—continues to get uglier by the day and after a lot of griping by developers who’ve had to lop off units to achieve some marginal solar-access benefit, the city’s new council is trying to bring in a different approach.

Mayor Ken Sim announced in an early speech that “Vancouver doesn’t have a shadow crisis. Vancouver doesn’t have a view cone crisis. Vancouver has a housing crisis.” During the summer and fall, the new ABC Vancouver council made plans to ask staff to look at the city’s shadow policies, with an aim to add both more consistency and more flexibility. “The shadow policy has restrained the ability to produce housing,” says one of the councillors who’s spending some time on the issue, Mike Klassen. “Our ask will be to simplify. There hasn’t been any clear policy and there’s the appearance of a lot of different regulations.”

I’ll be watching with interest to see how staff work with that direction from council, because if there’s something I’ve learned about shadow policies in my various research forays, it’s that they’re not easily simplified.

Shadows have very different impacts depending on where a building is on the slope of a hill, whether it’s on an east-west or north-south street, what the height of buildings around it is and what the tree cover is like in the area. It gets even more complicated as city planners and engineers start to consider whether the shadow from a tall building might interfere with the operation of a nearby solar roof, along with all the concerns about vegetable gardens, parks, icy sidewalks, worries about living in a place that feels like Mordor and the rest.

Ryan Danks is an engineer with Ontario-based RWDI, an international consultancy that specializes in “climate-performance engineering,” or how the things we build interact with nature. That means how wind moves around buildings, noise levels, where water runs to, how to make birds stop flying into glass, air quality, shadows and more.

He’s got a motto when it comes to that dreaded S word: “Not all shadows are created equal.” And the fear they seem to inspire appears to be more emotional than data-driven, in some cases.

For Danks, what’s more important than a focus on where a shadow falls at 2 p.m. on March 21 is whether there is what he calls “sky access”— access to light overall. And it’s also more important to look at the 24-hour duration (or not) of shadows, not just a point-in-time snap.

“We’re moving toward a more holistic, more nuanced approach and a focus more on human comfort,” says Danks. As well: “Understanding equitable access to sunlight—that’s a missing element in a lot of cities. We do need to build, but we don’t want to create a situation where only those who can afford it have access to the sun.”

One of the things that Danks and his company look at is what the real impacts are. It turns out that a music festival in a park does a lot more damage to vegetation than passing shadows. They do a full scoping of how much sun someone next to a tall building will get in a year before and after the building goes up. And they stay focused on what’s really important. “It’s not the light from the sun that drives plant growth. It’s the light from the sky.” So “sky access”—the ability to look up and not feel like you’re only seeing a sliver of light in a building canyon—is key for that.

Another observation: low-rise buildings can end up creating longer, denser shadows than towers. The tall, thin towers that Vancouver has become famous for look as though they cast deadly rays of blackness across helpless neighbourhoods below. But those shadows move very quickly. The same is not true for a lower-rise (say, six storeys) building that covers half a block.

“If it’s a monolithic block, it has a shorter shadow but that lasts longer,” says Danks. “With towers, there’s a longer shadow, but the sun sweeps across any point faster.” On the other hand, shorter buildings don’t intrude into the sky.

The change in thinking on shadows is good news for the CEO of Vancouver-based development company Intracorp, which has spent years tussling with the city on shadow policies. Intracorp’s president for B.C., Evan Allegretto, battled for months to keep the height of a building near Thurlow and Davie the same when he wanted to convert it from condos to rentals. City staff were trying to enforce a new West End policy on shadows if he opted to make a change, something that would have meant removing apartments. (He eventually won.) Lately, he is pulling his hair out over the city’s requirement to provide a shadow study for an apartment building on Arbutus—even though the shadow would go over a tree-packed ravine.

He says things are improving at city hall, because staff is getting the message from council and the public that prioritizing shadow avoidance over housing is not winning any popularity contests.

In the meantime, Vancouver’s planners are still working away at achieving balance among all the different goals for a city—light, housing, climate resilience, equity. Yes, there are different policies in different parts of the city, says Kevin Spaans, the acting assistant director of development planning and urban design.

“Topography changes the impact of the sun,” he explains. “One part of the city can have a different climate than another.” Planners are also thinking about whether building forms can be used strategically to reduce urban heat, another emerging preoccupation. It’s a pretty complicated math equation, one that is slightly different with each location. “We do try to identify where flexibility can exist, but this is a challenge.”

And public attitudes are changing, a little, which helps, Spaans adds. “It used to be that the sun is always good, shadow is always bad and cold. It’s becoming more nuanced.”