Reflecting Vancouver

Urbanism and Life on the West Coast


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Vancouver Pillow Shots: Summer Sunset at Kitsilano Pool

Kitsilano Pool Pillow Shot

Kitsilano Pool at closing is a world-class panorama. What has always inspired me most about the place is not the unrivaled view, but the tremendous ambition of constructing a public pool along one of the most scenic plots of shoreline in the city.

Sometimes I wonder: is real estate freakishly expensive in Vancouver in part because the world has realized how rare and spectacular a place this is?

See previous Vancouver Pillow Shots here.


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A New Vancouverism

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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Whither Vancouverism?

Vancouver False Creek
The natural setting of Vancouver is world-class, but fortune of geography is not what brought the city to global recognition. Cities become bywords for ideas and identities. They are clusters of the material and intangible, and acquire status on the basis of what those represent — or are thought to represent.

The core ideas of Vancouver, to which it owes its spot on the map, are conveniently bundled under the banner of Vancouverism. Its popular image is blue-green Yaletown, tucked between springtime mountains and False Creek, a kind of faceless urban mirage both delicate and impressive. The glassy view of downtown on a clear day is indeed breathtaking, but Vancouverism encompasses a broader set of design and governance concepts, of which Yaletown is but one manifestation. These include active densification, cooperative planning, inclusionary zoning, amenity contributions, view corridors, design reviews, and a general fettering of the automobile within city limits, among other policies. Each has its own origin, story, philosophy, reality, and collection of graduate theses (usually from SCARP).

Vancouverism is the city’s true international merit, and its most significant export after all that oil and lumber. In the end, people esteem Vancouver because of Vancouverism. But ask why, and one soon realizes that there are many answers. Vancouverism is a successful model of postindustrial redevelopment. Vancouverism is green. Vancouverism builds complete urban neighbourhoods. Vancouverism is an alternative to suburbia. Vancouverism is amenable to mass transit. Vancouverism respects the human scale. Above all, Vancouverism seems to work.
Vancouver David Lam Park
Except that in some crucial respects, Vancouverism does not seem to be working. The symptoms largely result from the unintended consequences of its own success. Indexed to local incomes, Vancouver ranks as one of the most unaffordable cities in the world. According to the Real Estate Board of Greater Vancouver, the benchmark price of an apartment in the metro area is $371,500, rising to $482,300 in Vancouver West where Vancouverism is the norm. Assuming a maximum amortization of 25 years and a minimum down payment of 5%, purchasing at the Vancouver West benchmark price requires over $30,000 of cash on hand and over $35,000 dollars a year for mortgage and related homeowner expenses alone. Assuming you have no preexisting debt, have saved dilligently, and that you are willing to spend an extreme 60% of your net income on housing, it is theoretically possible to purchase the average west side condo with an annual salary of $60,000. Scraping the bottom of the barrel, a $350,000 studio can be had with $45,000 per year of income. This latter figure hovers around the mean individual income in Vancouver proper, although the median income is $24,100 according to Statistics Canada. Two parent households earn a median income of $68,970, and single parent households earn a worrying $39,210. In other words, young single professionals can barely afford a studio in Vancouver, and well-off dual-income couples can probably swing a two-bedroom condo with some financial grit. Families are flatly unable to afford their own home unless both incomes are very high. Anyone below a professional salary can’t achieve the lowest point of entry. Vancouverism does not work for the majority of people who want the security of owning their home.

And what of the little people? At full-time minimum wage, nearly 50% of income is spent on the cheapest market rents in shared accommodation, to say nothing of living alone. Any way you cut it, there is trouble in Vancouverist paradise.
Vancouver Downtown Sunset
Vancouver has long been an expensive place to live, additionally marked by property value spikes throughout its history. The earliest experiments of Vancouverism sought to address the need for stable, affordable housing, such as False Creek South, conceived in the early 1970s as a mixed-use urban village. False Creek South originated the “one-third” policy in master-planned Vancouver developments: one-third market housing to own, one-third affordable housing (or in the case of False Creek South, cooperatives), and one-third subsidized social housing. Arrayed around Charleson Park in a maze of pathways and deliberately ensconced from automobiles, False Creek South presaged the idea of pedestrian-first, transit-friendly livability in Vancouver, codified in the 1975 Livable Region plan.

In the wave of construction that followed Expo ’86, a distinctly downtown version of Vancouverism emerged over North False Creek. Perhaps inspired by Hong Kong, where the bulk of investments originated, the top-down one-third policy was modified to a cooperative model of high-rise development, in which additional floors were permitted in exchange for either implementation of on-site affordable housing or contribution to community amenities. The City maintained a flexible, project-by-project approach, requesting contributions for adjacent amenities in some instances, for social housing in others, or amenity land outright. Particularly in later sections of Yaletown toward the Granville Bridge, the empty lots for long-anticipated social housing developments can still be seen, waiting for provincial or federal funding to break ground. The one-third policy was relaxed to 20% affordable units in the planning of North False Creek, until on-site mixed housing requirements were fully abandoned in the early 2000s.
Vancouver City Hall
Due to the express desire of the current Vision Vancouver government to tackle street homelessness, recent cooperative planning has aimed instead to fund social housing for tenants at high risk. This is a laudable goal that has succeeded to slow homelessness, if not reverse it. But with this emphasis on at-risk social housing, eschewing mixed-income development, Yaletown and its progeny have come to resemble economically segregated neighbourhoods of struggling near-homeless beside luxurious peacoats and designer dogs. Free from any requirement to provide mixed housing within the same parcel of land, and treating social and amenity contributions as a mere fee-to-play, developers have pursued high-end, internationally marketable condominiums at the expense of community diversity. In many cases, funded social housing does not even lie adjacent to the levied development. One may legitimately ask whether the cooperative model of development serves its imagined purpose, and whether Vancouverism still stands for a livable city in any economic sense. The Vancouver model has proven itself to be an effective vehicle for property investment — not entirely undesirable for municipal tax revenues — but an increasingly blunt policy for addressing social diversity in Vancouver.

The challenge for Vancouverism today is to successfully rival the suburban model for all kinds of households. It has succeeded to pull the young and some of the wealthy away from their automobiles, particularly in conjunction with transit-oriented development throughout the region. This is to be commended, and represents the great exception of Vancouver among most North American cities. But the steady departure of families and mid-career professionals is a red flag for a neglected problem: Vancouver has become too expensive for complete communities to stably exist. Vancouverism needs new ideas in this regard. Purpose-built rental housing offers nothing on this particular issue. Soft densification of single-family neighbourhoods, although unpopular, would be one politically courageous possibility. Fee-simple row housing is virtually nonexistent in Vancouver, and has been proposed as one way forward. Can the City take such difficult but necessary steps?

Read David Ley and Nicholas Lynch’s analysis of Vancouver’s missing middle here: http://neighbourhoodchange.ca/documents/2012/10/divisions-and-disparities-in-lotus-land-socio-spatial-income-polarization-in-greater-vancouver-1970-2005-by-david-ley-nicholas-lynch.pdf
Reported by way of Richard Florida at the Atlantic Cities: http://www.theatlanticcities.com/neighborhoods/2012/11/growing-urban-class-divide-vancouver-edition/3302/

The loss of the middle class has also been discussed by Jillian Glover in her terrific blog This City Life: http://thiscitylife.tumblr.com/post/36154132172/vancouver-is-losing-its-middle-class

Finally, you can read the final report of the Mayor’s 2012 Affordability Task Force here: http://vancouver.ca/files/cov/Staff_report_to_Council_re_task_force_report.pdf
And the expected hyperbolic response from The Mainlander: http://themainlander.com/2012/09/27/mayor-uses-affordability-task-force-to-deregulate-and-privatize-housing/