Archive for “back to the center”

Urban families after the great reset

As energy becomes expensive and major cities increase their status as economic drivers, families who live in them will inhabit smaller spaces than many do today. Some are already there, and from their lifestyles we can glimpse into the future.

Melanie, her husband and two children live in their 950 square foot condominium in Vancouver’s Yaletown district, adjacent to downtown.  She also runs a pre-and-post-natal fitness (Fit4Two) business from home (although she gives classes and does personal training at local rec centres or outside).  Here are some perspectives on the future, based on their experiences.

Idea #1 – Families of the future valuing time more than space

One main reason Melanie’s family lives in the urban core is to avoid commuting.  If they lived in a suburb, her husband — who works long hours in the film industry — would rarely see the kids between commuting and the job’s hours.  Melanie’s business requires she be near many pending and new moms, and being in Yaletown puts thousands of potential clients within an easy distance to make with a stroller.

Saving time and valuing time as much or more than money or space is becoming a new feature of 21st century life for many young adults.  Although commuting between distant suburban locations and urban cores where the jobs are packed will in the future continue to be possible using various transit and shared options that will emerge, many families will reject this option preferring to focus on the housing option that allows for more quality time together.

Idea #2 – Two bedroom apartments or condos can accommodate a family of four (although some modifications would help)

In the future, although some families will manage to afford single family homes in close proximity to jobs and other needed amenities, more will live in duplexes, triplexes, townhomes and apartment buildings in the bigger, more dynamic cities.

Many families of three of four will live in 2 bedroom condos — so what will that be like?  and what lessons could the architects and developers of future buildings need?

For Melanie’s family, the bedrooms are just that — places to sleep and store your clothes.  They selected their unit in part because the suite maximized space in a well-layed out kitchen-dining-living area.  With Ikea organizing technology in place, the living space offers room for children’s toys; entertaining space for having a few friends over and a vertically-organized home office that partially folds away when not in use.

What isn’t working quite so well for them is the small size of the second bedroom, which must accommodate two children in separate beds.  Bunk beds are not appropriate for children under age 10.  So Melanie is looking into “trundle beds” where one bed pulls out from under the other and tucks away during the day.  A better designed unit for the future family home might offer a second bedroom big enough to accommodate two twin beds.  Maybe furniture makers can get creative as well — how about twin murphy beds?

 Idea # 3 – Families will use creative strategies to avoid over-accumulation of stuff that won’t fit.

Melanie’s general rule: When something new comes home, something else has to go.  This applies to clothes, toys, sports equipment, etc.  Melanie thinks this rule helps kids appreciate what they have and learn that they can’t have everything they want — there are trade offs in life (if you want this, then you won’t be able to have that).  Birthdays and Christmas are focused around receiving one big gift, and one set of (out-of-town) grandparents contributes to a plane ticket fund instead of giving gifts, allowing the whole family to visit at least once per year.

In the future, with fewer families having a basement, garage or spare room into which to dump excess stuff, websites like craigslist and eBay could be even busier as families seek to unload one set of belongings and find others.

#3B – the experience economy rises out of condos

As the children get older, Melanie hopes to shift from giving the kids toys to giving them experiences.

Indeed, many individuals and families are already trying to consume in the experience economy rather than the non-durable goods one, regardless of whether they have kids or live in a condo.  They spend their money on experiences (whether a trip to the spa, having nails done, a fancy dinner, enjoying a $5 latte with a friend, etc.) rather than on lavish belongings if they have to choose.

Families in condos might become a dominant consumer of “experience” rather than what can be purchased at Toys ‘r Us.  (And there might be some great business opportunities in catering to these future families).  I know, or have known, many families who use strategies like this — many young children can understand the choice between receiving lots of toys or getting to go to Hawaii or Disneyland for Christmas.


Do you live in a condo? what insight does this give you into future North American families?

What about participating in the experience economy over the non-durable goods one?

Thanks Melanie, for sharing.

Think ahead: 3 bedroom condos needed

During the last real estate cycle, condominium living became popular in many cities.  Most buyers were singles or either young couples without kids or empty-nesters.  With perhaps Manhattan and Vancouver being notable exceptions, families with young children have generally not been among the new inner urban residents.

In part, this is because few new condominiums offer more than two bedrooms.  A two bedroom works fine with one child, but can be challenging with two or more kids.

This week in the Globe and Mail, Terrence Belford laments the lack of three bedroom units in Toronto’s new condos, seeing this as very short sighted.  He quotes urbanization specialist Jane Renwick who astutely notes: “Concrete lasts 200 years, so how will this situation change the face of the city 50 or 100 years down the road?”

Looking ahead in the future of North American civilization, more families will want to live in condominiums in order to be close to work as well as urban amenities.  Fuel prices will be high again, making commuting not only a time waster but also expensive.   Additionally, real estate prices will dictate that a condominium will be the starter home for many families, while others will prefer to spend their money on vacations, educations and other experiences rather than an expensive home with white picket fence.

Belford correctly notes that developers rarely build three bedroom units because at present there is not much demand for them, and profits are higher building 1 and 2 bedroom units.

What he doesn’t mention, is a solution that has been proposed in Vancouver (although not really implemented yet).  Vancouver condo marketer Bob Rennie as well as former chief city planner Larry Beasley, have both suggested that perhaps condominiums need “secondary suites” or “mortgage helpers.”

What if a building offered two bedroom suites with an attached small studio apartment of say 350 square feet.  The studio would have its own entrance, like a back door, as well as a door connecting it to the main unit that could be locked.  A couple or small family could live in the two bedroom unit and rent out the studio for a few years until enough mortgage is paid down or household income increases.   Then, they could take back the suite and use it as a master bedroom.

These studio suites would also serve to help alliviate the rental housing shortage in many cities.

Alternatively, with the separate entrance someone could use the studio suite as a home office or home business space.

Perhaps the slowing of the real estate markets in most cities will allow urban planners and developers to rethink what they’ve been  approving and building in order to think long term.  On the 100 year horizon, cities may need more 3 bedroom+ units.  If they fail, then Belford believes:

By mid-century, the lack of family-sized condominiums in the Toronto area may prove as effective a birth control measure as China’s one-child policy.

Telecommuting is so ex-urban

Sure, working from home occasionally can offer a productivity boost. Getting away from the phone and co-workers is sometimes necessary to accomplish large, solitary projects or catch up on a dozen loose ends.

But everyone working from home, connecting via the internet and VOIP or video conference to each other is not going to happen.  As suburbanization and then ex-urbanization became the trend, there were workplace gurus who insisted that the office building would soon be a dinosaur.  This hasn’t happened.  Office space is more expensive than ever in most cities and globally.

In the modern economy, far too much productive economic activity requires collaboration. Companies ranging from banks to software companies, law firms and financial advisory companies need bright people working together. Many brains thinking about an issue differently — but together — solve problems faster and innovate better than individuals working alone.

That’s one reason why cities are spikes of economic activity, to use a Richard Florida term. That’s why industries cluster together — they take advantage of many brains thinking about interconnected subjects.

Few companies that require creativity — that earn their revenue or stock value from the collective brain power of their people — can afford to have them working in silos at home.  Working independently, thousands of wheels will be continually reinvented, and won’t get around to creating an automobile.

But, many people when given a choice do not telecommute very often. I can’t find the source right now, but I recall a recent UK study in which only about 10% of people who could do so telecommuted regularly, and most of them only did so only 1 or 2 days per week.
There are a variety of reasons why people don’t telecommute most of the time.

  • Some don’t want to be forgotten about at the office. The best projects may go to people who are physically there when they are dreamed up.
  • Most people enjoy being part of a group — some would argue that it’s human nature to want to belong and the workplace provides an avenue for that expression. For many, going to work has become especially important given how many more years people are now single and often living alone. People all crowd into expensive “superstar” cities in order to be around other people (why else would you pay the rent, tolerate the traffic, and accept the noise? it comes with great creative and inspirational benefits.
  • Collaborating with smart co-workers to solve complex problems can be exhilarating.

In some cases today, people don’t have the room at home to telecommute much. For families living in urban spaces rather than suburban ones, there isn’t a separate “study”.

For decades, people have been predicting the end of the office building and the end of downtowns. The suburbanization trend lead many to dream of living in the mountains or by the beach or lake and away from a city altogether. Some did this in the ex-urbs. Why can’t I just telecommute rather than drive was the plea.

Noting that occasional telecommuting was highly productive, many blamed inflexible employers for chaining them to their desks. However, as employers have brought in increasingly flexible work policies at many companies, regular telecommuting has not caught on. Most of the time, people want to be near people to stay in the know, hear the latest industry news, and collaborate.

Working from the ex-urban mansion is not efficient for participating in a collaborative world.

Back to the future

In the Philadelphia area (link via Planetizen), city officials representing older neighbourhoods and inner ring, older suburbs are now working together to promote these communities as great alternatives to far flung, distant suburbs:

They are places that have been long suffering as homebuyers the past few decades have opted for more spacious homes on large lots in new subdivisions on the suburban fringe….

All the Classic Towns – the boroughs of Ambler, Bristol, Collingswood, Doylestown, Haddon Heights, Lansdowne, Media, Riverton and West Chester, along with Philadelphia’s Manayunk and Overbrook Farms neighborhoods – have made significant comeback strides with a variety of revitalization efforts….

Organizers already have worked up a sales pitch that plays off the budget-busting gas situation: If you live in these walkable mixed-use communities with convenient access to public transit, you probably can get rid of at least one car in your driveway.

While planners have been advocating for years a return to older communities as a way to curb suburban sprawl, Seymour said, “I think now with gas prices, the market is finally catching up to those policy objectives.”

And this is happening not just in Philadelphia. Communities around North America with rich and sometimes forgotten histories are now seeking to restore and revitalize boarded up or otherwise dilapidated former-downtowns or industrial areas. Many are creating higher density housing in the process, such as loft apartments in restored older brick warehouses.

Many older neighborhoods in the core cities and suburbs of North America were built around transit 100 years ago. In Vancouver Gordon Price famously calls them the “street car neighbourhoods.” Where the street cars stopped, family-owned retail thrived. Many North American cities have similar histories. As the automobile took over, and suburbanization thrived, street cars disappeared and street car communities often fell on hard times, even becoming rough “inner city” spaces.

But the old spaces are often still there and offer an authenticity as well as an opportunity to return to higher density and walkable living. Apartments can be built above retail if they are not already there from 100 years ago. Neighboring single family housing is often on much smaller lots than in a more recently laid out suburb. This allows people craving even a small backyard along with walkability and transit accessibility the possibility of finding that (see the recent blogosphere discussion on this between Avent, Atrios, and McArdle.)

As in Metro Philadelphia, it may be important for certain civic leaders to promote what these communities offer to families and individuals struggling to deal with the challenges facing the automobile-based sprawl model as gasoline becomes less affordable.

End of the Megalopolis?

What if the costs of operating an automobile permanently reach or exceed $10 per gallon and alternative fuels cannot offer any savings just an alternative?

Then, we may see the end of the Megalopolis — although not the end of the mega-region.

On CBC’s The National Wednesday night a person interviewed (James Kunstler, I believe) in Kelly Crowe’s second story suggested that among the consequences for urban life is that cities will become more compact and many people will move to smaller cities.

He described how people will seek urban life on a more personal, human scale where they have access to everything they need in close proximity — homes, jobs, schools, recreation, entertainment, shopping, etc. Fuel consumption would therefore drop dramatically.

If this happens, it would mean the gradual emptying of outer suburbs and exurbs over the next 10-20 years.

By my read, a consequence would be that today’s mega-regions, as defined in Richard Florida’s work, would probably remain much the same. But people would be clustered in cities — some big, some small some medium sized — with large expanses of non-urban space in between, space that used to be housing or malls.

So, Florida’s famous shot of North America at night from which he developed the mega region concept will change. Today, the continuous concentrations of light roughly correspond to continuous interconnected economic regions. In the future, there will be big balls of light and little ones more resembling a connect the dots puzzle.

Maybe — as a commenter suggested in my previous post – the empty space in between can be turned back into farmland to supply more food locally.

The end of the car-tropolis?

Will the car-tropolis come to an end?  Or will America’s suburban style of living survive peak oil.  A few weeks ago I suggested that current gasoline prices will not bring down American suburbia.  I still believe this.   At current prices in the US, people could buy more fuel efficient vehicles and continue the lifestyle — if they want to do so.

But, what happens if gasoline costs $10 a gallon by 2015?  And alternative fuels like electricity are no cheaper?

To be sure, people and cities will have to find ways to function without relying on one-person-one-vehicle automobile travel.   This will mean profound changes to typical urban ways of life.

On CBC’s The National Wednesday night a person interviewed (James Kunstler, I think) in Kelly Crowe’s second story suggested two important consequences for cities:

First.  That cities will become more compact.  Second, that many people will move to smaller cities.  I’ll extrapolate on the first issue here.  And the second in a subsequent post.

So, cities will become more compact, with residents living closer together.  Actually, this means that cities capable of offering higher density living will prosper and others will languish. 

Metropolitan areas with geographic constraints will likely fare well, as most already have a higher density of living and can offer a compact and low-gasoline-consumption life to their residents.

A century ago sprawl wasn’t practical so people lived closer together.  Cities with older origins and a decent sized compact residential core, even if lower density sprawl eventually prevailed, will have an opportunity to remake themselves.  Indeed the business and residents of many such cities are already doing this in such places as Detroit.

The existing residents and new comers in these cities will have to accept more apartment buildings and attached homes than currently exist.  There will be political battles.  There will also be new opportunities — without being in the automobile silo, people will potentially talk to each other more.  More people means more amenities close by from restaurants to all variety of shopping to recreational options.

The car-tropolis took decades to create and will take decades to dismantle if automobile fuel (of whatever variety) continues to rise in price.  It’s end will be more gradual than many doomsayers are predicting — in part because many people will feel trapped in their suburban homes by their mortgages being higher than house value.

The “Pocket book point”

Great editorial in the Philadelphia Inquirer regarding gradual changes happening in America as gasoline prices rise.  John Timpane notes that transit ridership is gradually increasing and attitudes are slowly changing away from exurban sprawl and toward “elegant density.”

So, no, we haven’t reached the tipping point – we’ve reached a pocketbook point. When things really tip, we’ll discover – gasp – we don’t have enough trains and buses for those who need them.

He but doesn’t place blame on the choices to build a national cultural around the automobile.  But laments the costs:

How, then, can I say that car culture doesn’t work? Because the cost to individual and communal life, and to the environment, has been too high. And the bill is just now coming due.

As I’ve suggested before, he believes a full scale change to American life may be a ways off because of the deep investments in infrastructure.  But he seems convinced that it is coming, however not without a critical transit shortage and crisis.

Floating semi-cities?

The Creativity Exchange ran a post this week about The Freedom Ship – a floating city complete with airport, university, office space, and residences priced from $180,000 to $44 million.   The Freedom Ship is supposed to circumnavigate the globe every 12 months, which seems a little challenging — those Atlantic and Pacific storms might be tough to endure.

However, the idea of a stationary floating urban space is intriguing.

Many prosperous world port cities face obstacles to economic and demographic growth from geographic constraint.  Being able to add space off shore could prove valuable.  Here are some ideas for floating urban spaces:

1. A regular suburb.  You would reach it by boat or air, with frequent regular shuttles connecting it to the main city.  The space could contain a park, playground, restaurants, a grocery store, and other amenities that would make it as workable as any bedroom community suburb.  The advantage of living here would be great views, fresh air, and perhaps a short commute to work downtown.  This wouldn’t need to be as big as the floating freedom city, so could fit offshore in many coastal metropolis.

2.  A floating business park, or single occupancy company campus.  Companies like Google, Microsoft, Cisco, Electronic Arts are well known for their university-like campuses containing hundreds of thousands or even millions of square feet of office and amenity space.   As they expand, it becomes harder to find contiguous space.  Moreover, to attract and retain talented people, many of these types of companies face the issue that their employees want to live downtown or in a cool dense, urban area rather than an outlying suburb (ie San Francisco not Mountain View, Vancouver not Burnaby or Surrey).  Perhaps a solution is a floating company campus near to downtown with regular shuttles from major transit hubs and/or urban population centers.  A floating campus could offer great views, lots of natural light and air, and that special funky edge that might appeal to many workers.

3.  A floating “lifestyle centre-  A high end shopping mall and casual entertainment space such as cafes, restaurants, etc.  along with a limited number of residential units.  Served regularly by small ferries, the merchants would also offer free shipping to a pick up point at a parkade back at the mainland.  So you could shop, then have your parcels sent ashore while you enjoyed a light lunch.

4. A floating university campus.  The new trend is for universities to integrate themselves more into the downtown and broader urban scene.   But, downtowns and urban areas are often by definition full, leaving limited space to add classrooms.  Here’s a solution.

I haven’t looked at costs or feasability.  This is pie in the sky, but intriguing none the less.

Any other ideas?

Downtown living as the new frontier

Following up on my last post, here’s a new perspective on downtown living — it’s the “new frontier.”

In the late 20th century, many downtowns became somewhat lawless states of nature.  Homelessness, crime, gangs and / or other urban ills often prevailed.  But rents were cheap.

The first group in — the artsy, alternative, bohemian and sometimes gay culture — sought inspiration and freedom in this space between civilization and the state of nature.    Young people forging careers in the knowledge economies have often followed — just as in American history it was young people who ventured out to the frontier.   And now, in some cities a fully “civilized” community has emerged in these formerly lawless spaces.  Rents have increased and upper income families are increasingly colonizing the spaces.

To push the analogy further, a few are arguing today that many of these downtown and dense inner city spaces have begun to resemble suburbia somewhat — generic global chains like starbucks and McDonalds have taken over many of the retail spaces.  The condo towers all look alike, inside and out.

So will certain suburbs become the new frontiers in their respective metropolitan areas?

New suburban dream

It’s the New Year, coming up and a time to think ahead, so here are my thoughts on Suburbs!

 The suburbs, for the most part, are toast. They have three possible outcomes in the twenty-first century: as slums, salvage yards, or ruins.

- Howard Kunstler in the Freakonomics Quorum on Cities

I actually disagree with this statement. The suburban life as we know it, “is toast,” I agree. However, suburbs will always be a part of metropolitan design. Everyone can’t live downtown and in inner urban neighborhoods as cities grow. But the suburbs will have to change.  A recent essay at the Where blog got me thinking:

Suburbs are not the problem so much as the typical style of suburban residential life. People live separated from their places of work, shopping, school, and “hanging out.” This isolates them and results in a need for individual transportation.  Suburbs tend to be highly automobile centric (hence metropolitan areas being a “car-tropolis” – place for moving cars around, rather than for people to live.)  Roads combined with spaced out single family homes on large lots absorb a lot of geography without housing many people nor offering amenities – again they isolate.  Consider: kids play in their own backyard, and not with each other at the park, for example, while their parents chat with others at that same park.

A series of new thinking will push for a new suburbia:

  • Scarce and pricey oil
  • planetary health concerns
  • human health issues related to pollution
  • popular lifestyle considerations such as work-life balance and connecting with one’s community

Suburbs in many North American metropolitan areas will evolve into more multifaceted places as a result.  Town centres will contain higher density housing, likely high rises right in “the center” and townhomes, duplexes, and single family on smaller lots radiating out.  More people living in closer quarters will support amenities such as cafes, restaurants, shops, etc.   Effective transit, particularly rapid transit, will connect these town centers to other parts of the metropolitan area such as “the downtown core” as well as other town centers.

You can already see this model in Toronto or Vancouver as well as Boston and, in a way, New York City.  Older European cities have seen suburbs evolve into this pattern to be absorbed into the metropolitan whole.


That’s it from me in 2007 (in all likelihood) as I’m off on vacation with the family for a week.  Thanks for reading and your messages. 

If you’re curious, my New Year’s thoughts from last year were:

On elections

Trend toward shrinking homes

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