Reflecting Vancouver

Urbanism and Life on the West Coast

A New Vancouverism

3 Comments

This video segment from CBC has been making rounds:

Planners around the world once looked to Vancouver for advice on transforming their cities. Today we face a looming urban design crisis, and are rapidly losing vanguard status to cities willing to take greater risks. Our legacy still informs dense residential developments and luxurious condo schemes, particularly in North American cities where urban revitalization is incomplete. But we have precious little to teach the world about the challenges we now face, and that our imitators will soon be forced to confront as well: a rapidly rising population, diminishing brownfield, and intense resistance from inner suburbs to the platform-and-tower model.

I previously discussed the impact of this crisis on housing affordability, the gravest symptom of our need for new ideas. As the addition of new housing stock slows due to fewer available development sites, along with financial incentives to build smaller and smaller units on increasingly expensive land, housing for young families will soon vanish from Vancouver. Even if we mandate a minimum percentage of new apartments with two or more bedrooms — a recent Vision promise — less and less construction will occur as available land for traditional Vancouverism runs out. In parallel, these units will become more and more expensive, until they rocket past the financial means of young couples to afford them. Purchasing a two-bedroom apartment in Vancouver now requires a household income of about $70,000 per year, given a brutal 60% to housing expenses, plus a hefty down payment. There is dangerously little room for the cost of housing to rise further if we want a demographically balanced city.

It is often said that high housing costs are a geographic inevitability in Vancouver. That we are doomed to be a city of expensive condos and strapped renters because there just isn’t enough space to go around. But we are not Hong Kong, and this crisis is not for lack of land — greater than 50% of our city is zoned for single family homes. It is unthinkable to allow our city to slip into stasis after the final CD-1 tower, while pretending that our vast single-family vernacular should remain untouched. Vancouver must accept that single-family neighbourhoods will densify, or otherwise become vacant portfolio assets beside packed and pricey towers. Our city deserves better.

If we don’t start planning for the densification of our residential neighbourhoods, many thousands of new Metro Vancouver arrivals will instead flow to suburban development outside Vancouver’s borders. This almost certainly means being trapped in a vicious cycle of new automobile infrastructure to facilitate one-car commutes. Motordom will win. It’s time for Vancouver to step up again and show a better way forward for urban living, one in which everyone can participate. Diverse transportation options are crucial for healthy urban design, and the transit plebiscite must be won. But land use planning is the foundation on which transportation policy is framed, and changes to zoning start with the City.

The concern isn’t whether Vancouver has an optimal number of residents, but how we will design our city to remain livable as our population increases. Constraints of comfort, space, and price will determine our quality of life in tomorrow’s Vancouver, and these are all factors amenable to policy. In the coming months, I’ll share ideas from my own neighbourhood of Kitsilano, where a history of creative densification provides many instructive examples.

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Author: Chris

I'm the author of Reflecting Vancouver, a West Coast blog devoted to urbanism, culture, politics, philosophy, and everyday living in Vancouver. Right now I'm taking a break to travel.

3 thoughts on “A New Vancouverism

  1. If Vancouver included Burnaby, Coquitlam, N-West, Surrey and/or Delta housing would be far far more affordable. Of course everyone wants to live cheaply two blocks from the beach. That is not realistic. You can buy a 2 BR 850 sq ft condo for sub $300,000. Very affordable !

    We could also create more land, for example west of Richmond or in Boundary Bay, or reduce the ALR footprint. We could also lower parking requirements, or built rapid transit further out, say to Langley or Delta. High housing prices are the result of an anti-growth attitude by the politicians. MetroVan is poorly governed. With proper RAPID transit investments to reach further out places like S-Surrey/WhiteRock, Delta or Langley housing could be far far cheaper.

  2. The sick thing is that these sorts of questions seem to rarely enter the minds of those whom are displacing or able to pay the high prices. Thus, the more such a place becomes saturated with such people (as in SF), the less it gets raised, or at least the conversation shifts from “people who lived here for 25 years being evicted be used their rent tripled” to “oh you only pay 3k for your apt? Lucky I’m paying 4.5”

    Then it’s over.

  3. Pingback: Post-Referendum Blues | Reflecting Vancouver

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