New ideas, old spaces and the microbrew renaissance

Sometimes new ideas need old spaces. I think Jane Jacobs coined that phrase. The evolution of cities and the use and re-use of space is fascinating. It also reflects the economic era.

Take the microbrew renaissance in many cities. Old, low-ceiling, unwanted industrial space in almost-forgotten pockets of cities such as Portland Oregon and Vancouver BC, has incubated dozens of craft breweries. The creativity of flavour blending is impressive–and very tasty.

The rise in popularity also tells us something about the economies of these and other cities with a strong brewery sector. They have a “lifestyle industry” around relaxing and appreciating creativity. (The new East Vancouver cliche is becoming one of sitting in a microbrew tasting room in Lululemon pants, and a rain-soaked gortex jacket; bike helmet on the counter). Both Portland and Vancouver have been evolving from only serving a natural resources extraction sector, to having more diverse economies including lifestyle industries and companies, from Lululemon to Nike, as well as hipster technology companies in Vancouver’s case like Hootsuite and Electronic Arts.

THe Microbrew expansion in these places also tells us that broader government policy supports small scale innovation. In places with a thriving industry can sell their wares in mainstream liquor distribution as well as smaller creative options such as farmers markets, specialty stores, or their own brewpub.

Thanks to this article today, I figured out why Toronto has such a limited craft beer scene and therefore mediocre options at the pub. The government favours foreign breweries through the distribution monopoly and the Beer store. Come on Ontario, free the beer distribution. Toronto has lots of older real estate that would incubate craft breweries, and other free thinking, that just might help the economy grow from within. And, it contributes to the evolution of neighbourhoods, which bring new investment and economic growth.

Canadian City Job Trends Outpacing National Average

Whether one looks at the recent monthly figures, or the five-, 10- or 15-year trends, most of Canada’s major cities have seen jobs growing faster than the national average.

This is intriguing. Canada’s economic growth is heavily dependent on resource extraction–whether oil, natural gas, lumber, coal or copper. This activity takes place far from most major cities, save for Edmonton (and even Edmonton is a 2-3 hour journey from the nearest oil sands project).

This urban job growth demonstrates how much overall economic development resources generate–and the more knowledge intensive nature of this activity in the 21st Century. The oil sector is no longer a pump pulling liquid from the ground and putting it in a tanker car.

Instead, Calgary office towers are filled with accountants, lawyers, engineers, more engineers, financing specialists, construction and project managers, etc. etc. all working directly or indirectly on energy-related activity in Alberta, BC and around the world. The Oil Sands are a brain-intensive activity. Forestry and coal, are less changed from their historic roots, but their influence drives employment in Vancouver, the hub for companies and for exports. The wealth this generates then flows through the economy as people buy homes, go to restaurants, and partake in cultural events.

In Toronto, the head offices of these legal and accounting firms provide further support. Moreover, in Canada’s economic hub shares are traded, mortgages for the vast workforce in Alberta processed, etc. As the strong energy economy bolstered the Canadian dollar following the 2009 recession, Canadian banks (Toronto based) went on a foreign acquisition spree, generating more employment.  If one excludes the structural change in manufacturing in the GTA, Toronto has been growing (job wise) almost as fast as the juggernauts in the West.  This can only be attributed to its connection to the resource sector–as a hub of financial and other business activity.

My conclusion: there is a symbiosis between Canada’s major cities and Canada’s continued place in the global economy providing raw resources. ALthough the cities have other sectors that don’t rely on resources–like software–these do not compare in terms of economic impact to the resource sector.

Anyone have a different explanation?

Random Observations from Europe

Here is a post I wrote last summer but never posted. enjoy.

My family and I spent three weeks visiting New York, Brussels, London, Amsterdam and Paris this summer.  Here are some random observations.

New York has the best playgrounds–starchitects like Frank Gehry design them and they are unique.

Amsterdam felt dangerous for pedestrians, especially for children–but not from cars but bikes.  Bikes were running red lights, riding on streets and sidewalks (and the woonerf concept used there meant these were often the same).

Also, in Amsterdam I saw no local children under the age of about 12 riding their bikes; children rode in large wheelbarrow-like baskets at the front of their parents’ bikes.  This was unexpected.  I thought it would look be more like Portland Oregon with families riding bikes together.

A pleasant surprise in Amsterdam was that I hardly ever smelled pot (I’m allergic to it so always notice).  In fact, the air was much more free of it than in Vancouver.  I did notice a slight smell right outside the marijuana cafes, but rarely anywhere else.  Maybe the cafes serve to confine the smoke and the smokers to these enclosed spaces. By contrast in Vancouver everyone smokes it in public parks because there is no where to go.


Loved the cobble stone streets; found it rather hilly for “the lowlands.”  And, I was somewhat surprized at how international and multi-cultural the population was (other than the historic architecture, it didn’t feel as European).  I was particularly intrigued to find so many Brazilians and Brazilian cafes dedicated to their favorite futbol teams.  Is there an historic connection between Brazil and Belgium that I missed?

Comments and explanations welcome!

Kids Books and the Absence of Walking to School

My youngest started kindergarten last week. To help her with some anxieties I took her to libraries and bookstores to find some good children’s books about going to school so she could feel more at ease with the concept.

Every single book that I looked at involved either a school bus ride, or a mini-van ride to reach school.  Nobody walked!

Now I better understand why my older child keeps wondering why we can’t drive to school sometimes (it’s 3 blocks!  But 6 blocks to drive because of traffic calming).  Being driven is the norm in what he reads and what I read to him and his sister.

Walkable neighbourhoods are great for building a sense of community. When you walk places (rather than drive) you say hello to your neighbours, sometimes even walking with them a few blocks when you’re going the same way.

Children and their parents walking to school similarly builds community. I meet so many neighbourhood parents as we’re walking our kids to school. If we all drove and just let the kids hop out of the car, when would we meet?

So, can anyone recommend a children’s book, suitable for ages 5-7, that takes place in a metropolitan area in recent times, in which the children walk to school?


Hosting the Winter Olympics versus the Summer Games

With the London Summer Olympic Games starting this week, the critiques have been loud. Unfortunately both the Summer and Winter Games have been tarnished with the same brush.

The Winter Games, I would argue, can provide net benefits to a city and region if managed correctly. Here are three reasons to think differently about these games versus those of summer.

First, the Winter Games have fewer events and require fewer venues.

Second, the Winter Games often take place in the mountains, on snow and at venues that already exist in some form. Yes, some summer tree clearing might happen to make a ski run wider, or some grooming to make it steeper, and you might need a bigger lodge–but the ski hills already exist in most host cities. Ice rinks too, tend to exist, and additional ones that need to be built are more easily transformed into other recreational facilities should additional ice rinks not be required.

The Summer Games require a lot of custom facilities. Most cities don’t have an artificial whitewater kayak facility (nor want one), for example, nor do they have cycle dromes, enough swimming pools with spectator space, etc.  Beijing is finding that many of these custom venues today sit empty.

Third, hosting the Winter Olympics can provide an equal opportunity to lobby for outside funds to help construct infrastructure that improves the city. The Canada Line connecting the Vancouver Airport to Downtown in 20 minutes has made a dramatic difference to congestion and commute times, plus makes business and tourist travel more efficient. Without billions from the federal government (only promised to land and host the Olympics), this would not have been built–or at least not for 2010. The improved highway to Whistler was another achievement of Games planning.

And then there are the small things that make communities nicer places after the Games. New and refurbished ice rinks, expanded recreational opportunities, and better transit (new buses, more metro cars, etc.) benefit everyone.

And all this doesn’t include the city-spirit building that can happen, as Brent Toderian and others have discussed.

The Summer Games have a price tag that may be too high for the benefits received. But the Winter Games may not. Vancouver’s organizing committee officially broke even, however hundreds of thousands were given to a legacy fund (sounds like profit to me, reinvested wisely in sport and arts).*

It would be useful if a neutral party did some accounting and fact finding on the two types of Olympic Games.  Maybe there are some lessons for the Summer Games that can be learned.  Do they need to be so big?  Could two or three cities share in the hosting, specializing in different types of events?


Pink Slime and Sprawl

I apologize for being late to the pink-slime-in-meat discussion, but unlike 99% of blog post ideas that fail to make it to cyberspace, this one keeps weighing on my mind.

I’ve been pondering the relationship between really poor quality food and an auto-centred lifestyle.  Here’s how I think the link works:

The mid-20th century suburban style of housing development separated houses from grocery stores, allowing for larger grocery stores.  It also required a car, which costs money, and time to drive everywhere including to ever-expanding supermarkets.

To keep costs down, supermarkets supported innovations in industrial food supply, including for meat.  This allowed shoppers to afford meat and cars and gasoline.

As Penelope Truck recently commented, meat (especially beef) should be a luxury good but it is not priced like one. She’s right.

I didn’t think that much about the broader role in society of the inexpensive cost of supermarket meat until an organic butcher shop opened 1 block from my house. All the meat comes from animals raised humanely on one ranch about 400 miles away.  It is at least 3X the price and at least 10X as tasty as the supermarket equivalent.

This new butcher shop has been successful in a Walkscore 100 neighbourhood.  I don’t think this is a coincidence.  One reason so many people in this economically diverse community can afford to buy their meat at this butcher shop is that they don’t drive much.


Step 1: Define Affordability

It’s hard to solve a problem without first identifying what it is.  Solving the “housing affordability crisis” is no exception.

What is meant when someone says there is an affordability problem?  Affordability of what? for whom?

Here are four common things that I think people mean when they talk about housing affordability (feel free to add more in the comments):

1. A lack of rental at prices that workers who earn $10 to $15/hr might be able to pay with 1/3 of their income.

2. A lack of housing options for people without jobs who survive on social assistance.

3. Challenging ownership options for middle income households (for argument’s sake lets define this as those earning $50K-$120K)

4. The inability of middle income earners to afford detached single family homes in their preferred location. (Personally, I want a 4 bedroom detached house across from the beach for less than $400K)

After defining the problem, we can then look at the causes and possible solutions.  Once solutions are tried, we’ll also be in a better position to know if they work.

Take definition number 1 above, the rental affordability issue for the $10-$15/hr worker. First, what can someone afford? Let’s say they make $24,000 before taxes, and $21,000 after taxes; using the 1/3-income-on-housing rule, such a person can afford $7000 per year on rent or just under $600 a month. Doesn’t sound like much in the city–but lots of people seem to get by.

According to CMHC, the average rental rate for a 1 bedroom apartment in Vancouver Metro Area is $964.   However, we should also note that the average rental rate for a 2 bedroom place in the CMA is $1237 –two friends each making $12/hr could rent it.

But maybe people don’t want a room-mate, or the person has a dependent such as a child.  Or maybe they want to live in Vancouver itself (not a suburb) where the average 2 bedroom unit goes for $1493 and 1 Bedroom for $1045?

What causes average 1 bedroom rents to exceed $1000/month and 2 bedrooms to reach nearly $1500/month ?

Answer: Demand for rental housing exceeds supply.  This is especially true in locations where you truly don’t need a car; these locales work great for lower income people who can’t afford one anyway.  But these places are now also in demand from middle and higher income renters who enjoy the amenities at their doorsteps and would rather walk, bike or take transit than drive. Whenever a rental unit becomes available, a landlord can push the rents knowing lots of middle and upper income people desperately want to live in the area.

Solution: More supply.  And not just more supply anywhere in the city or metro area (although this will help a bit).  More supply is needed where people want to live–walkable, urban areas. Note: this could mean adding density in existing neighbourhoods; but it could also mean building new urban spaces at new transit stops in traditionally non-residential or lower density areas.

New supply could also mean smaller units, which then rent for less per month than larger ones.

Also note that new apartments (whether in Condo buildings or purpose-built) also tend to draw the middle and higher income renters out of the older stock–they often want the latest in modern appliances, nicer views, etc. and can afford to pay more if this is available.

How will we know that more supply is helping affordability: rental vacancy rates will stabilize or go up slightly; rental rates in older product will stabilize or go down (give some of the demand a nicer alternative and they’ll remove themselves from the demand pool for lower-priced, older suites).  Note that in a city with strong in-migration, it could take a lot of supply to notice a difference.


This was one example of what happens when we define Housing Affordability. We can then pick apart the causes and start to see a path toward improving the situation.  These same steps work for the other definitions (other than maybe #4).

The question of housing affordability is multifaceted.  The term means different things to different people and groups.  Any group claiming to be trying to solve affordability needs to define what they mean by it.  This way successes can better be measured, and proposed solutions be better explained to the general public and other interested stakeholders.

What does the term “housing affordability” mean to you?

Housing affordability sensationalism–enough already!

It has come to this. Every time some bank or other organization releases a new study about housing affordability in various cities I want to scream. Usually, the press release and all media stories have some sensational headline like “Vancouver 2nd most unaffordable city in the world.” As if. Those of you living in San Francisco, New York or London feel free to post in the comments.

What virtually all of these studies do is look at median or average prices of detached bungalows (moderate houses on their own lots) compared to the median or average income. This metric worked okay in the 20th century in most cities when bungalows on modest lots were the first homes of young families.  It is becoming increasingly meaningless in the 21st century. Here’s why.

1. Average and median home prices are being driven up by the larger, mature demographic (think those over 50) who have equity and are now trading homes. Some are buying a nicer location, some are downsizing to a penthouse condo. Everyone has their own reason. Regardless, they are not taking out a $1 million mortgage on their $80,000 salary.

Average prices are also being driven up in some cities, like Vancouver, by an increase in “Luxury Market” sales.  Over 700 homes priced at over $3 Million sold in Vancouver in 2011, nearly doubling the previous record of 375.

This luxury product is not about homes for younger families. Therefore, we should stop including it in analysis of housing market affordability for young families. Bob Rennie argued this in a talk last year. With help from Urban Futures, he noted that if you removed the top 20% of sales from analysis, pricing and affordability had not changed much in Metro Vancouver in recent years.  Suburban developers tell me pricing has been quite flat for some time.

2. With number one said, we can still see that demand today is strong and growing in walkable, mature cities and neighbourhoods; the detached houses are often in highest demand (even when more modest price strata-homes exist).  Because you can’t make more detached homes on lots in these mature areas, demand exceeds supply for this type of product.  This drives up the average and median price of even fixer-uper, non-luxury product; increasingly only those trading an existing home or coming in with cash can purchase them.  Families are buying in these neighbourhoods, but they are typically not first-time buyers; they have above average incomes and often equity from a condo or suburban home.

3. Points one and two above illustrate that detached bungalows are no longer typical first-time buyer product. When individuals, couples or families buy their first home in larger Canadian cities (and many cities around the world), increasingly it is more likely to be a townhouse or a condo. According to Realnet, In the Greater Toronto Area, 62% of homes sold in 2011 were high rise condos. And from watching House Hunters on HGTV this is also happening in many US cities as well.

Therefore a statement like “Vancouver 2nd most unaffordable city” is not that helpful if we are concerned about the “affordability” of buying a decent home for young families. Measuring something that is not first time buyer product against the incomes of first time buyers is comparing apples to Yugos.

If we are truly interested in understanding the ability of individuals with average incomes to buy a home in the higher priced, metro areas, then at minimum look at strata-titled attached homes (rowhouses and condos) instead of detached homes. Ideally you also remove the product coveted by the multi-millionaire club from the analysis.  Suddenly the income needed to get into the market looks more familiar to most of us — $50,000 for Metro Vancouver, $38,000 in Greater Toronto according to this study.

Flashy headlines about Vancouver and other cities being unaffordable get the publisher of the reports and newspaper articles attention–this is why they publish them.  Also it’s much easier to calculate median price and median income, and harder to do real housing market analysis.

What worries me is that politicians, policy makers and lobby groups are using this mis-information.  I fear for the results.  So banks and others, please move your thinking into the 21st century!


The Heights: Anatomy of a Skyscraper (Book Review)


Kate Ascher, The Heights: Anatomy of a Skyscraper (New York: Penguin Press, 2011)

Skyscrapers are a vital component of modern cites.  They allow tens of thousands of people to work in close proximity, allowing them to share ideas.  Tall residential buildings have also become important to supporting vibrant 24 X 7 downtowns, keeping thousands in close proximity to downtown amenities after the workforce has gone home.

Anyone interested in understanding the modern city would benefit from reading Kate Ascher’s masterful tribute to the skyscraper.

Ascher inter-weaves detailed technical descriptions of building components with a overarching narrative covering the relationship between skyscrapers and broader human history and the history of science.  The beautiful illustrations and photographs assist in the visual appeal of this book that would proudly sit atop any coffee table.  Her descriptions of the technology, materials, mechanical  systems and engineering challenges involved in constructing tall buildings are fascinating and highly readable to a non-technical reader (such as me).  Yet, I suspect those with an engineering or construction background would find the descriptions equally compelling.

This book offers something for almost everyone, whether your interest lies in engineering, construction, real estate or cities.  As someone with a Ph.D. in history (although I work in the real estate investment industry), I was particularly drawn to Ascher’s discussion of the relationship between the economy, history of capitalism, history of technology and skyscraper evolution.

The industrial revolution and more specifically the mass-production of steel made the skyscraper revolution possible.

…the development of the internal steel skeleton permitted larger windows and more usable floor area…by the turn of the [19th] century, steel had replaced cast iron as the backbone of choice for new skyscrapers, and buildings of 15 to 20 stories [sic] had been completed in both New York and Chicago

The booming US economy from the 1880s through to 1929 allowed for a race to the sky that did not occur elsewhere, and New York and Chicago were the preeminent cities for this race..  Ascher describes how booming corporations each attempted to out-do each other in constructing ever taller buildings.  In 1930 there were vrtually no buildings with skyscraper technology outside of the USA.  This was an American phenomenon.

It was not until the post-world-war-two expansion in the 1950s and 1960s that the skyscraper race to the top began again (although the style was the plain, modernist rather than the ornate art deco of the 1930s notes Ascher). And this time, it was slightly more global with Europe joining in.

Ascher correctly notes that the tallest buildings of an era tend to begin just before an economic downturn. The twin World Trade Centre towers of New York began construction in 1972.  Although Ascher avoids much non-technical (and therefore political) discussion of these buildings, looking back as an historian, I might argue that they represented the culmination of America’s 20th century economic expansion—the end of an era.

When the skyscraper race began again, in the 1990s, Ascher notes it became an Asian era.  Here’s some perspective she offers on the Asian rise: before 1980, 85% of buildings over 500 feet high (150 metres) were in North America.  By 2008 72% of skyscrapers were outside of North America.

The Asian version has tended to be mixed use.  Whereas in North America skyscrapers tended to offer only office and occasionally residential, in Asia developers combine retail, residential and even hotels within a single building. The new Burj Khalifa in Dubai is presented as the prime example of this urban lifestyle building where people live, work and play.

Ascher covers an impressive range of subjects and knowledge in this book from history to civil, mechanical and environmental engineering. Her background is a Ph.D. in government from the London School of Economics followed up with time in the real estate and consulting sectors. Specialists in any of the myriad topics she covers will no doubt find the occasional fact or interpretation to quibble with, as I did. But these do not detract from what the book offers–a comprehensive, multi-disciplinary examination of skyscrapers and their relationship to economic and urban history.

Ascher ends with a good question: what would Jane Jacobs think of cites in which a large percentage of the population lives in skyscrapers?  Do they allow for enough informal interaction that Jacobs believed helps to build community?

Maybe these are good questions for the TED prize initiative around Cities 2.0. How to we better build communities in the sky?

Urban Housing Prices Reveal Urban Shift


A new survey in the United States revealed that only 12% of future home buyers wanted to purchase a home in the suburban-fringe. A decade ago, it is quite possible that the number would have been reversed with over 80% wanting a large suburban home.  Certainly, house prices were more expensive on a per square foot basis than in mature urban markets.

We have more than survey evidence of what people say.  You can see it in the housing prices–what they are doing (where they are putting their money).

In the US, housing prices in higher density, older urban areas have begun to rise. From the New York Times

Today, the most expensive housing is in the high-density, pedestrian-friendly neighborhoods of the center city and inner suburbs. Some of the most expensive neighborhoods in their metropolitan areas are Capitol Hill in Seattle; Virginia Highland in Atlanta; German Village in Columbus, Ohio, and Logan Circle in Washington. Considered slums as recently as 30 years ago, they have been transformed

Meanwhile in some suburban fringe locations it is hard to give away a McMansion–or they are being used as low-cost (!) student housing.

In Canada, you could see the shift in urban vs suburban housing prices beginning in about 2003.  Urban prices began to rise more quickly than suburban ones.  What began as a trickle of people choosing a more urban lifestyle has become a flood, with various consequences and responses from residents, city halls and builders.

In Toronto there has been a massive push to add housing supply downtown–in the form of condominiums (there are more under construction in Toronto than anywhere else in the world).  This actually improved affordability for switching from rental to ownership in Toronto between 2006 and 2010.

In Vancouver city itself (the urban core)  the most significant evidence comes in the pricing of ground oriented housing.  In neighbourhoods with good transit, walkable and close to downtown prices have tripled (that is risen 200%) for detached homes in about 7 years.  Officially, the stats for East Vancouver say prices are up 41% in 5 years and on the west side 71% in 5 years.  Meanwhile in the suburbs, prices are up only 14% in 5 years.

In Calgary, a city that once sold itself on offering less-expensive, suburban-style housing than Vancouver or Toronto now promotes its urban-ness.  Condos are sprouting up on the fringe of downtown, particularly in the Beltline and areas immediately south.  And money is being pumped into museums and the arts (it is cowboy country no more).

The challenge going forward for all cities in North America will likely be to ensure enough amenities (parks and recreation) and services (including transit) are available to a much larger population than a given geography has ever held before.

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