The Footprint of Highways

April 5, 2020

The activists of the City of Vancouver are rightly proud of keeping highways at bay, more or less, in our city.

The always reliable Visual Capitalist has a feature today on the cost certain US cities paid for allowing the growth of highways. They share bird’s eye views of Oakland (1946-2020), Providence (1955-2020), Miami (1961-2020), and Cincinnati (1955-2020), which were swept along in the highways movement:



They note:

“Since 1987, there have been more than 20 urban highway segments removed from downtown cores, neighborhoods and waterfronts, mostly in North America. The pace of removals has picked up significantly and an additional 10 highways are now planned for removal in the United States. During the COVID-19 pandemic, American cities have seen their traffic plummet. Rush-hour trips into cities are taking nearly half the time while some are not even commuting at all. While this situation is likely temporary, it is offering a moment for reflection of how cities operate and whether the car should be at the center of urban planning.”

Many of us hope that Vancouver lives up to its historic role, cancels the demolition of the viaducts, and ignores the call to build a brutal urban highway — in all but name — in its place.

Planning For People

February 7, 2020

About six years ago, I came across this excellent TEDTalk by architect Jan Gehl on urban planning for people, and recapturing the human scale.  A fascinating and informative 20 minutes that I thought worth sharing once again.


One of his key themes is that planning needs to start with the people, and then the spaces they use, and only then concern yourself with buildings. The City at eye-level, the street, the square, should be the most interesting and most important criteria.

He uses Copenhagen as an example of good planning.  In fact, Copenhagen’s policy is to become The Best City In The World For People. We can compare that with Vancouver’s mantra of making Vancouver the most expensive (oops, I meant “Greenest”) city in the world.


An Interesting Debate Upcoming

March 9, 2018

The next Smart City Debate, the 11th in the Urbanarium series, will take place on Wednesday 28th March, beginning at 6:30pm at UBC Robson Square, 800 Robson.  The topic ls: Building Middle Housing Without Lot Assembly:

The pervasive development culture, requiring land assembly, underground parking, presentation center marketing and tendency towards large scale developments begs big questions for this missing housing type.

Will neighbourhoods embrace more density, and more neighbours, necessary for new approaches to affordable housing? Will local governments politically support the opening up of low density neighbourhoods that have historically been sacrosanct? Will municipal rules be quickly adjusted to support the design profession in the innovation of new typologies? Will the prevailing high cost of land hinder, or enhance, Missing Middle potential?

It promises to be a fascinating debate between two acknowledged experts from UBC, Patrick Conden and Scott Hein who have made substantial careers advocating for sustainable neighbourhood development, and Chuck Brook and Anne McMullin. Ms McMullin is the President and CEO of the Urban Development Institute (UDI), the home club for the development industry, close buddies with Vision Vancouver, and which many of us consider to be the generator of much of the disaster that is housing in Vancouver today.

I’m looking forward to it.  Hope to see some of you there.


Good Density

February 9, 2018

There are groups of people  who camp out on Twitter and other social media outlets demanding more and more density as the solution to Vancouver’s housing crisis. I absolutely agree we need to densify. But I have noticed two things about these twitterers:

  • their primary solution is to build new buildings;
  • affordability is of no account;

They are wrong on both counts.

It is clear from Stats Can’s numbers and all the analysis people like Andy Yan have conducted that supply is not the issue here. Even Gregor Robertson in a deathbed conversion has agreed that supply is not the primary problem and our General Manager of Planning says we have spent a decade building the wrong things.  With 25,000+ empty housing units in the City, and tens of thousands of more units in the pipeline, any attempt to blame lack of supply is simply ludicrous.

I will make one exception to that statement:  housing for very low- or no-income  people has been sorely lacking for a decade, probably because it makes so little profit for the developers.  The City and Province are slowly beginning, albeit with some problems, to deal with that with their modular housing schemes. We need to do a lot more, but at least a start has been made.

The crisis is primarily for the regular working Janes and Joes of Vancouver; the folks who are hard-working productive employees but only make at or below the median wage in Vancouver (which is a notoriously low paid City).  These build-build-build types don’t seem to give a damn about these people. They are quite happy to build condos and townhouses and even apartment blocks that the majority of people cannot afford.

The only people who benefit from such buildings are the developers themselves, speculators, and those who already have houses to sell to finance the purchase.

We need to look at ways that can provide decent housing for the median folks, and we need to do it fast or they will simply move out of the city and take their vitality and talents with them. We can do this by encouraging owners of single detached houses to provide at least two and hopefully three households on each lot. This encouragement could come by relaxing the extraordinarily onerous, expensive, and time-consuming regulations the City imposes today on both in-house suites and laneway houses. We need to legalize all the “illegal” suites and encourage their refurbishment and expansion.

Such increases could easily double the density in Grandview, for example (as opposed to the 30% increase envisioned in the Community Plan). And this will be many times less expensive than new building as land costs will be irrelevant.

Finally, while this crisis lasts, it is incumbent on the City to ensure that City-owned land is sold/used only for genuinely affordable housing and not sold or handed over to developers for unaffordable condo towers and the like.

Density is a good thing, but only if regular local people can afford to buy what is built.

Putting Air Parcels To Good Use

November 13, 2017

In the ongoing discussions regarding the possibility of putting residential housing on the redeveloped Britannia site, there has been much talk about the use of “air parcels” or “air spaces.”  Although Planner Andrew Pask admitted at the last GWAC meeting that Council has not formally defined what these terms mean, a general definition might be the erection of usable space above buildings that are specifically designed for a different purpose. In the case of Britannia, this could be housing built above the library or other community facility.

The SPCA office just east of Clark at 7th has similar ideas, as reported in the Vancouver Sun.

“With the land being in “what has become a very sought-after location, there is lots of interest” in seeing how the SPCA can maximize the property, “how we can build what we need and also add a student housing dimension” on the property. We would look to be getting value in those air rights (so that we can build student housing towers) and putting (revenue gained from that) toward our new facility. It’ll go a long way…”  Constructing rental units at a deeper discount, as opposed to luxury properties, would return less profit, but help more people struggling with housing affordability.

I am not keen on them using the term “towers” but it is outside my neighbourhood (just) and it would be up to the local community to decide on whether that would be acceptable. But the general idea is, I believe, to be welcomed.

[many thanks to the regular reader and dog-lover who pointed me to this story]

Densifying Grandview

July 21, 2017

A couple of weeks ago I wrote my position on increasing density in Grandview. One of the suggestions I made was:

“Lot owners currently with SFH or duplexes should be allowed and encouraged (by a reduction in the City’s expensive development procedures) to have three housing units on each lot. This would generally be two suites in the main house and a laneway or similar building.”

I am glad to report that a similar suggestion is part of a new proposal before City Council:

“The report also suggests changes for Mount Pleasant and Grandview-Woodland areas (RT zones) that would increase housing options on 4,800 properties. The suggested changes include: increasing the number of homes permitted on a 33-foot lot; allowing laneway homes to be built for rent or sale; and permitting owners of large lots to build four-plexes.”

My own preference would be for these laneway houses to remain as rentals rather than sold as strata.  This would boost that kind of vitally needed stock and provide a steady income to the lot owner rather than a one-time windfall with a house that few could afford to buy.

Apart from the zoning changes proposed, we would see a great deal more movement in this area if the cost of building a laneway house could be made more reasonable. My understanding is that city permits and certain city regulations add many tens of thousands to the cost of building and add months to each project. These need to be trimmed to the least requirements.

In addition, we need to get creative about what we use as “laneway houses”.  For one example, manufactured houses of all kinds can be bought and erected far less expensively than traditional brick and mortar. Another example, suggested by local engineer Eric Philips, would be to take some of the well-built heritage cottages we have on large lots and physically move them to a laneway site elsewhere; this would provide a far-less-expensive laneway house and provide an empty lot for new construction.

Whatever new zoning is approved, the regulations and bureaucracy must allow wide latitude for creative thinking.

Scot Hein at GWAC

September 15, 2015

Last night’s monthly meeting of the Grandview Woodland Area Council (GWAC) was filled by a presentation and QA session with the articulate and interesting Scot Hein.  Scot was for ten years the head of City of Vancouver’s Urban Design Studio (UDS) until he resigned about 18 months ago.  He is now an adjunct professor in urban planning at UBC.

Scot gave the thirty or so attendees an excellent run-through of the urban design principles that drove Vancouver planning in the years he was at UDS. He noted that these design principles were the first lens through which development proposals were viewed. Ed: This should still be the case but increasingly developer profit, a sterile technocratic managerialism, and sheer panic seem to have taken over.

Scot noted his support for a city-wide plan — it helps “discipline” the planning process, he believes — but was adamant that contextuality is key and that “appropriate discussions” on form and style need to be hyper-local.  He then moved on to discuss and illustrate a wide range of case studies from across the city, featuring the Arbutus Walk development that was propelled by local activists and architects.

Discussing Grandview Woodland in particular, Scot noted that Grandview is already at or close to the 40 units per acre number that is considered reasonable urban density.  He made it clear that he and the UDS were firmly opposed to towers in our neighbourhood and similar inner ring suburbs.  In fact, he and his team produced low-rise alternatives that planners in the four Community Plans could use.

Scot put forward his theory that if land assembly by developers was prohibited in these kinds of neighbourhoods, then land value would immediately be removed from the pricing equation and lower costs housing could be built. He would prefer Council to loosen the rules on what lot owners could develop on their own land, easing the way to second houses, laneway structures, etc.  He also suggested that neighbours should be allowed to pool their lots to develop more imaginative low-impact density and thus make best use of the latent capacity already contained within the zoning guidelines.

Discussing the Boffo Tower, Scot said that UDS had seen the original proposal in 2013 (even though other planners have told us that no proposal had been submitted) and which he described as “a pig in space” meaning an inappropriate structure for the local environment and character. In December of that year UDS had presented Boffo with some ideas to reduce the height of the proposed tower from 15 storeys down to about 9.  (ed: However, they were working with the total square footage that Boffo said they needed and so their potential alternatives were limited by those requirements.) He said Boffo had agreed to proceed on that basis. However, the latest designs Scot had seen seemed to him to have reverted to the original size and massing.

Finally, Scot suggested that we gather architects and designers on our side with an alternative plan and then to request a design mediation.

When there is intelligent talk and good questions and responses, two hours seems to fly by.  Such was the case last night and I am glad to have been there to take part.