Reflecting Vancouver

Urbanism and Life on the West Coast


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Post-Referendum Blues

Vancouver Trolley Bus

The weather in Vancouver has been glorious this summer, but something if not rain had to dampen the mood. Last Thursday we learned that the transit referendum had failed. Decades of regional transportation directives have, to pardon the impolitic wildfire pun, gone up in smoke.

Siege Mentality

In the immediate aftermath, Michal Rozworski criticized the Yes campaign for sticking to “severely-limited, feel-good, paternalistic liberalism”, and failing to stand on the social politics of transit. This is nowhere more apparent than downtown Vancouver, the heartland of the city’s centre-left elite, where the campaign had little to do with connecting people to their workplaces and everything to do with a continued legacy of progressive urbanism. The loss was interpreted as a repudiation of decades of technocratic planning, anchored in False Creek, by encroaching hordes of clueless suburbanites. Pete McMartin’s polemic against the No vote, soaked with despair over the implied rejection of Vancouverism, drew many puzzled comments in the Vancouver Sun. “What the hell is Vancouverism?” wrote one No voter. “I have never heard that word used to describe Vancouver”. Gordon Price went so far as to characterize the referendum as a public expression of our civic identity. Under this interpretation, the resounding message is that Metro Vancouver wants to drive, regardless of what Vancouverism has come to signify or what its proponents believe.

Don’t panic. While the Broadway subway was a key plank of the transit package, the tangible effects of the referendum loss in Lotusland — most of Vancouver proper — will be comparatively small. We retain a dense fabric of frequent trolleys, express buses that function despite limited capacity, and a growing network of bikeways to serve a rapidly shifting mode share. “What’s really going to change for us if the referendum fails?” my partner mused once the gloomy outcome grew clearer. “We already bike everywhere.” If anything, the greatest impacts fall on the suburban drivers who voted against the tax, where transit will be unable to keep up with rapid changes in land-use. Barring the end of the ALR, Metro Vancouver suburbs are all going to grow more dense. A drive around Richmond or Surrey reveals a surprising abundance of multifamily housing, and more are on the way. Residents of these sprouting south-of-Fraser townhouse developments will now have little choice about getting around: they will have to drive. To rudely paraphrase George Orwell, imagine traffic running over a human face, forever. That’s the foreseeable future of transit in Metro Vancouver where it does not currently exist.

“A Demoralizing Political Game”

Like many engaged local commentators, Paul Hillsdon views the referendum loss though the prism of political failure, a perpetual funding hot-potato that no one in office wants to own. The roots of this conflict run to the foundation of Translink as Gordon Campbell’s vehicle for sidestepping the Metro Vancouver mayors, many years before Canada Line and the 2010 Winter Olympics. Antipathy of Metro Vancouver governments to an imposed Translink management, who they were then cruelly forced to back in the referendum by a hostile Province, doomed the Yes coalition from the start. No united message could possibly emerge from this uneasy partnership, and no leadership of the Yes vote was forthcoming, least of all from the Province. Christy Clark claimed to support a Yes vote under duress of a microphone, but she could not plausibly give a different answer given her role in starting the referendum circus. (She was unavailable for comment once it failed.) The best the pro-tax coalition could do to rally the Lower Mainland vote was Mayor Robertson, the mythical personification of a self-absorbed Vancouver that surrounding municipalities make sport to ridicule.

In a sense, this clinical view of the referendum’s political pathology is still more disturbing than the purported ignorance of suburban rabble. It means not merely that a large portion of the population opposes crucial improvements to the transit network, but that the political elites themselves are unable to form a consensus and indeed are too cynically mired in cycles of retribution to make tangible progress. Blame is ultimately directed at the BC Liberals, or the provincial government in abstract, with vague hope of redemption in the 2017 election. But that’s a long way off to make Christy pay, a lifetime in politics, and offers cold comfort to those whose day jobs are to press for a unified transportation strategy to meet inevitably rising demand.

Doubting Vancouver Exceptionalism

Despite its design to fail, the referendum has forced a sober look in the mirror by those of us who think of Vancouver as someplace different. If not already clear from the content of Reflecting Vancouver, I moved here because Vancouver offered a different vision of development and city life than the sprawling suburbs of my youth. In the geographically dispersed cul-de-sacs, a bicycle was an amusing way to reach the kid’s house down the street and buses were things you might have to navigate on a tour of Europe. I saw much more of the interior of a city bus from documentary photos of Rosa Parks and the Montgomery Bus Boycott than I ever did in reality. So the following sentiment of a Metro Vancouver voter struck me rather sharply:

The few times I have used transit I found it inconvenient, dirty and unpleasant. Even diehard greenies in this town ride their bikes to avoid it. People want cars. They want good roads. They do not want to be told to take a bus by some holier than thou types who condemn drivers’ legitimate choices. WE are Vancouver. We drive. We also vote.

There is perhaps a dose of magical thinking in the Dream City echo chamber. We have spent decades reinforcing the idea that people are willing to live in small apartments provided an urban environment that obviates the need for a car. We’ve pointed to Europe and Asia, invoking a kind of universal model that we can achieve in North America with enough foresight and will. The most strongly felt disappointment of the referendum loss is to dampen this hope, to seed worry that Vancouver is really just a North American city like any other, perhaps with a few lucky perks of landscape, climate, and history. That people here really want to drive on big, fast roads for everything, like innumerable other sprawling North American municipalities, excepting a few token walkable districts with abundant parking. Buses, sure, but not too many and only for the poor. All that theory about livable, walkable neighbourhoods? A load of elitist tripe for those who can afford it.

I strongly reject this fatalism, and I hope you do too. The population of the downtown peninsula has nearly tripled since the start of the modern Vancouver experiment, and jobs have roughly doubled, while traffic volumes into and out of the city centre have continuously declined to the lowest levels since 1965. Mode share has dramatically shifted, with over half of Vancouver’s trips made by means other than an automobile, six years ahead of the Greenest City 2020 goal. Land has spiked in value, but the inflation-adjusted cost of an apartment in Vancouver proper has barely risen in a decade. As I have voiced before, I strongly support increased density in our residential districts to ensure more, varied, and affordable housing stock for future residents of our city — see (1), (2), and (3). That surrounding municipalities do not want to emulate the successes of Vancouver does not negate the radical progress our city has made in shifting the way people inhabit the urban fabric. Communities in Metro Vancouver that most need density for rising populations are precisely those who voted against the sales tax by the widest margins. These cities didn’t negate Vancouverism — they are merely ignoring its lessons and making some mistakes that Vancouver has sought to remedy or avoid.

The Question of Translink

The last and possibly most pernicious issue is the fate of Translink. The referendum laid bare the public disdain for the agency, a result of smear campaigns, poor public relations, and provincial neglect. Vancouver has many tools at its disposal for implementing a progressive urban vision within its borders, but the governance of Translink dictates that public transportation is not currently among them. Bike lanes have gone further than many of us imagined to change the way people get around Vancouver, but it can only go so far, both physically and in abstract. Bicycles cannot connect cities in a sea of green. In the wake to the failed referendum, it is really the Livable Region Strategic Plan, and successor Regional Growth Strategy, that remain threatened.

Rebuked by the suburbs, will Translink focus resources on Vancouver, where routes are more profitable? Will the mayors simply boycott Translink until voters turn their ire on Victoria, or is this too dangerous a game against the provincial hand that feeds? Will changes in the federal government, a likely possibility in the autumn, open paths to direct investment in Vancouver and Surrey? If so, how will Translink fit into the picture? Sadly, we have not seen the end of brinksmanship over transit in Vancouver, and we have not yet witnessed a sea change in Translink. Regardless the outcome of specific battles to come, it seems like the era of a unified Metro Vancouver transportation plan may be drawing to a close.


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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/