Archive for diversity

The worst sports city in North America – it matters

ESPN recently ranked Toronto as the worst sports city in North America.  They calculated this based on a ratio of ticket prices to wins by the city’s teams.  Toronto’s sports fans loyally pay top dollar to see their favourite teams lose all too often.

I think this affects the psychology of the city, including the business community’s outlook. 

No matter how well things are going for Toronto, many of my friends, colleagues and network in Toronto refuse to believe in it.  They seem convinced they’ll soon be let down—that there is no more point in believing in Toronto’s solid economy than in a 3 game win streak by the Mapleleafs.

The sad state of the Maple Leafs, Raptors, Toronto FC and other teams is about more than sports.  The inability of these teams to win consistently and live up to expectations seems to create a pattern in peoples’ heads that they expect to be repeated elsewhere–such as in the city’s economic performance.  For nearly 3 years now I’ve been hearing it when I put evidence in front of people that Toronto will do (or is doing) fine in this era of global economic uncertainty.

For example, job growth in the knowledge sector has been strong over the past three years, right through the global economic turmoil.  Finance, professional services and information and culture sectors have together added tens of thousands of jobs since 2008. Despite this many in the commercial real estate sector have been convinced that office demand will fall (that this is a mirage of some sort).  Instead absorption has been strong, especially in 2011 as companies lease space in which to put these workers.

Since the global financial crisis began in 2008, Toronto has risen up the ranks of global business and financial centres, as well as the livability rankings.  Compared to most other world cities, and even Toronto’s own past, Toronto is thriving.

And it’s not all business.  Toronto’s international film fest, TIFF, has also risen in prestige and is now *the* place to showcase a new movie.  Bollywood even held its annual award gala in Toronto last year, illustrating the international nature of this city.  With over 50% of residents foreign born, and many from Asia, it’s as connected to Mumbai and Shanghai as to many US or European cities, whether economically or culturally.

Toronto is a city to believe in.  As hard as this is for a Vancouver Canucks fan to say, I hope the Maple Leafs start winning so more of my friends and colleagues in Toronto will start believing in their city too.  

The Next Generation Takes Over a City

Evidence is mounting that younger adults live in and experience cities differently than their parents, grandparents or even older brothers and sisters did at their ages.

And, in Calgary this week, youthful adults used their smartphones and their feet to mobilize the vote for one of their own, 38-year-oild Naheed Nenshi, the unexpected new mayor.  He went from 1% support in the polls to victory with the help of an army of inspired youthful citizens who spread his messages.

The Calgary-born, Harvard educated Nenshi campaigned on a platform that included ideas to improve the functioning and design of the city, including design guidelines that would ensure greater walkability in new subdivisions. One of his key messages that people were talking about on the streets this week was about de-emphasizing the automobile in a city that lives and dies by the oil industry.  Despite the mild contradiction, a lot of Calgarians seemed to like this idea.

Nenshi’s election shows how a new generation with ideas—and a candidate who can articulate them—can seize control of a city.

This was a revolution in Calgary, long stereotyped as a place of white, socially and fiscally conservative cowboys with minimal educations.  Indeed many observers would characterize some past mayors (such as Ralph Klein) in this light.

Nenshi’s election reflects a different Calgary that I see gaining strength in every visit I make to the city.  From beneath the above-mentioned stereotype, over the past couple decades, a young, well-educated, energetic, idea-drive, tolerant and highly diverse population has been remaking Calgary into a vibrant global city. 

This was the logical next step—seizing control of city hall.

 Note, although the media has given some press to Nenshi’s minority and muslim background, it shouldn’t be overplayed.  The genius and power of this youthful movement he lead happened precisely because those two things didn’t matter to the voters, of all ages, he inspired with his ideas and fresh approach.

 Watch for this collaborative, youthful revolution to shake other Canadian and North American cities within the next 5 years, including Toronto and Vancouver.

Solving the rental housing shortage and price challenge

Many dynamic cities throughout North America have a housing challenge.  Prices are high, whether people wish to rent or own.  In some neighbourhoods escalating prices may be pushing out people who have lived in the community for years, even helped to build it into a great place that is now desirable. Many communities may also be becoming less economically diverse as the minimum income needed to move in may be well above the regional average.

While some suggest trying to forbid any redevelopment or even substantial renovations to homes and buildings (that is, stopping gentrification), I don’t think this is a solution.  Communities are like organic entities. They grow, evolve and change constantly.  Trying to hold them back would be like magically making your cute 3 year old stay in her cute state forever–very quickly she would stop growing and developing, which is actually the very thing that makes her interesting and cute at any one stage.

What can help keep neighbourhoods more economically diverse, with housing for everyone, is greater density and greater flexibility of housing types in those communities where prices are escalating fast (that is, where demand to live there exceeds supply).

In the Vancouver metro area, and in many cities across Canada (and the world) people are starting to increase the value they place on: short commutes, walkable communities, transit-oriented communities, and living a more sustainable lifestyle (less auto use, for example).  If you want a healthier planet and environment, this is a good thing.  But it has the consequence of higher housing prices.

 In my view, the challenge in all of these cities is and will be two fold:

First, get people in existing walkable,’hoods with great transit to accept greater density: more neighbours. This can be what I’ve called “stealth” density (homes you don’t really see from the street) like laneway houses, basement suites, front-back duplexes, etc. It can, of course, also be apartment towers which are appropriate in certain places, or condos/apts over storefronts on busy streets.  If the supply of housing can increase, it will help prevent prices from rising further and maybe help them come down in a few places. And the city will also have to welcome proposals to provide more housing through a variety of creative approaches including reducing parking requirements for new homes in walkable, transit-oriented places.

 Second, steps need to happen to convert suburban areas that are currently more auto-centered into more walkable areas with amenities nearby.  This will also mean existing residents in these places accepting more density and even some new commercial uses in their areas.  You don’t get the customers for successful organic grocers, coffee bars, clothing stores, etc. without a lot of people living nearby, but increasingly you don’t get people wanting to live nearby without the grocers and cafes.  

 And housing of any type is helpful in making rental accommodations more affordable to those of modest means.  We need more purpose-built rental, more owner-occupied homes, more co-ops, more co-housing projects, more subsidized housing plans, and anything creative in between.  This will help push down prices, or at least stop their escalation in places with growing populations or growing demands.

Sometimes I hear renters’ rights groups protesting a city planning department giving a concession to a luxury rental project, claiming it doesn’t help the poor and middle income.  It does.  Any new housing that can pull people with high incomes out of existing lower-cost rental will help make room in a lower priced building for someone else who can’t afford the luxury options.

If we want lower cost housing, or at least housing prices to stop escalating, we need more of it–where people want to live.

Think small: A non-market housing supply solution?

Planners and politicians in many cities — especially those with high housing costs — face a dilemma when it comes to providing non-market housing (sometimes called social housing).  The most cost effective solutions in terms of dollars per unit can be to build a big apartment block in a struggling area of the city where land is cheaper.

Unfortunately, this can tend to reinforce a poor ghetto’s status, which can make it harder for individuals and families to make those broader connections in a wider community that help break the cycle of poverty, especially for kids.

Better for many people is to be mixed into market-housing neighbourhoods.  In a recent interview, a child who grew up in a smaller Vancouver social housing project located in a generally wealthier area of the city noted how she and her cohorts in the social housing townhouses went to school with the children of successful business people and university professors.  As a result, she argued, the high school performance and university graduation rate of these children from the social housing complex was quite high.  She was very grateful for having had the opportunity to be a part of this high performing peer group as it allowed her to break a cycle of poverty in her family.

Her experience was from the 1970s.  Today, it would can be hard to get a medium-sized non-market housing project approved in an existing neighbourhood.  So what if those seeking to provide non-market housing thought much smaller.

In many cities across North America there is a movement to increase the density of existing and sometimes older areas by allowing duplexes, secondary suites, and laneway houses be added to existing properties.

What if social housing organizations went around existing, and maybe gentrifying, neighbourhoods and bought up suitable existing houses that could be converted into 2 or 3 units.

Those who would benefit from the homes could be invited or required to provide some labor during the renovation. This would keep costs down along with using the existing home’s “solid old bones” as a base.

Buying the occasional fixer-upper house that comes up for sale anywhere in the city would eliminate the social housing ghettos.   The city could even mandate there not be more than one house on any given block.

Surely this has been tried somewhere.  Does it work?  Can it work?

Given the amazing cost overruns at a Vancouver social housing project (I think the units will cost tax payers over $700,000 each), buying up existing houses just seems easier.

Note: by social housing I’m not talking about homeless shelters, but homes for those with jobs, or students with children, for example, who just cannot afford the escalating costs of housing in some of North America’s more dynamic cities.

Gentrification and diversity

The challenge as many North American metro areas urbanize — evolve into higher density, urban playgrounds — is maintaining diversity in these new and renovated neighbourhoods.

An article by Aaron Renn of the Dallas Morning News is circulating among the urban bloggers that notes how “White” some of the cities often considered models for future urban development are or have become (Portland, in particular).  While many of the statements in the article ignore some historical context, this paragraph hits a challenge of our times:

Many of the policies of Portland are not that dissimilar from those of upscale suburbs in their effects. Urban growth boundaries raise land prices and render housing less affordable exactly the same as large lot zoning and building codes that mandate brick and other expensive materials do. They both contribute to reducing housing affordability for historically disadvantaged communities. Just like the most exclusive suburbs. 

This paragraph holds true if the city’s urban planners and voters don’t also push for different forms of housing — a diversity of housing options to maintain a fertile environment for a more diverse population, if you like.

Gentrifying urban spaces need: small and larger rental options, of varying age, quality and price;  home ownership options of all variety from high rise condo to ground-oriented row house — and some single family homes nearby.

Sure the latter might only be affordable by the highest income cohort group, but this group is as important to the diversity of a neighbourhood as artists, coffee baristas, and junior software programers.

Problems arise in an urban space when one group — whether poor, rich, or in the middle dominates to the point of shutting out all others. And lets face it, mono-cultural life is not what people want when they choose urban spaces over suburban ones.

Rio 2016

Being chosen to host the Olympic Games is a complicated process.  Without delving into that issue too much, here’s a take on what becoming an Olympic City typically signifies — that a city somewhere in the world has passed a threshold and become a “world city”  at least in the eyes of the voting delegates.  With so many Olympic delegate votes coming from outside North America and Europe, cities that win tend to have connections to these other (non-western if you like) places and people.

  • London (like Vancouver for the winter games) played the multi-cultural, city-of-immigrants-from-everywhere card in it’s successful bid.
  • Beijing is the capital city of one of the most influential and powerful countries on earth.
  • Sydney’s chance to host concluded a multi-decade process in Australia of placing the country within the Asia-Pacific region, as part of Asia, moving away from the isolationist “White Australia” policy of the mid 20th century.

Rio de Janeiro’s opportunity — somewhat like that of Beijing — recognizes how far Brazil has come politically and economically since the end of military dictatorship in the mid 1980s.  The faces of Rio are also the faces of the world.  Anyone and everyone can blend in (and with the skimpy bikini culture offering somewhat of a leveling mechanism).

To be sure, Rio has poverty and crime problems — but its hard to find a big world city with the resources to host the Summer Olympics that doesn’t have some detracting issue.  Such is the nature of dynamic cities – growth brings tension; tension breeds creative solutions as well as strife.  Hosting the Games in a Ghost Town isn’t an option.

Plus, the Games tend to bring investment, jobs, and opportunities — a chance for individuals, businesses and a city to move forward.  Although economic activity is never equally distributed in a city, everyone benefits from there being more economic activity and more jobs rather than fewer.

So congratulations (bom trabalho) to everyone in Brazil who worked hard on the bid books.

Should be a great world party.

Gung “Haggis” Fat Choy (belated)

After the firecrackers chased away the evil spirits, a Scottish Bag Pipe Band helped lead off yesterday’s Chinese New Year Parade through the streets of Vancouver’s Chinatown.

In Vancouver, blending the Scottish Robbie Burns Day festivities with Chinese New Year has become a tradition. Haggis meets Gung Hay Fat Choy (Happy New Year in Mandarin). Thus, the Chinese New Year Parade has become increasingly multi-cultural.

One thing that makes cities fascinating and fun are the unexpected results of mixing people and their traditions.

Yesterday we walked down to the Chinese New Year Parade in Vancouver’s Chinatown. After the Pipe band and a brass band came the Dragon dance, performed by people from a variety of ethnic backgrounds. The Olympic Mascots joined in along with veterans, marshal arts groups, the girl guides, and groups of performers displaying everything from lion dances to tai chi.

Officials from the Chinese Consulate walked the route handing out traditional little red bags, which Chinese children receive for new year, only containing candy instead of money.

Then the Premier of BC (like the Governor) came by dressed in a blue Chinese festive shirt, giving out red envelopes containing chocolate loonie coins. Not to be outdone, the Prime Minister’s office offered chocolate twonies, although the Prime Minister himself did not attend.

Little red envelopes were soon thick on the ground. A variety of other politicians and their staff also offered little red envelopes with candy or chocolate coins. The Vancouver Police Department offered fortune cookies. Everyone had the same fortune “use an anti-theft device on your vehicle.”

Brazen Careerist blogger Penelope Trunk recently commented on what makes writing and people interesting:

The interesting part of writing is not the part of the piece where you know exactly where it’s going. The interesting part is when you get to an unplanned moment . . .when you have to look inside yourself to keep going, and pull out something you didn’t know you had before.

Indeed, cities become their most interesting when they allow their citizens to create something previously unseen — Gung Haggis Fat Choy

Insights into San Francisco (and cities) from Allende’s “Daughter of Fortune”

With the holidays approaching, many readers of this blog might look to curl up by the fireplace with a novel instead of non-fiction books about the economy or planning theory.  A good choice would be Isabel Allende’s book, Daughter of Fortune. 

This spellbinding work of historical fiction details the experiences of a well educated young woman, Eliza, from Chile and a doctor-come-ships cook, Tao Chien, from China.  The two come together when Eliza pays Tao to smuggle her onto a ship bound for San Francisco to search for her lover who had previously ventured to California following the discovery of gold in 1849.  Allende describes how the two of them navigate life in the early years of San Francisco and through these characters eyes are some wonderful descriptions of life in early San Francisco that in many ways reflect the modern city.  The reasons why so many came to San Francisco, and how they fared, also offers insights into urban life and cities generally.  Here are three reasons urbanistas should enjoy this book.

 1.  The descriptions of early life in San Francisco.  Allende’s words can transport you back to the Bay in 1849-1853 with abandoned ships in the harbor (the crews deserting to search for gold), the different ethnic enclaves, and the early coming together of people from around the world.

[They] came from distant shores: Europeans fleeing wars, plagues and tyrannies; Americans, ambitious and short-tempered; blacks pursuing freedom; Oregonians and Russians dressed in deerskin like Indians; Mexicans, Chileans, and Peruvians; Australian bandits; starving Chinese peasants who were risking their necks by violating the imperial order against leaving their country.  All races flowed together in the muddy alleyways of San Francisco.

 2. Everyday descriptions of how cities make new things possible.  Initially no government official paid any attention to the identities of those arriving.  You could become anyone in San Francisco.

In Allende’s San Francisco women run successful businesses from brothels to restaurants and import-export emporiums.  Women endured hardships to reach San Francisco but many found a new level of respect as they “competed tirelessly and tenaciously with the hardiest men … they worked in jobs forbidden to them elsewhere:” cow girls, mule drivers, bounty hunters, prospectors.  (Given how thorough Allende researches all her historical fiction, it’s reasonable to assume the general historical accuracy of her descriptions.)

Sick white people occasionally venture to Tao’s medical practice in search of a cure, receiving a blend of eastern and western medicine.  And, perhaps most symbolic, over time two people from different continents change how they view each other:

[early on] loving someone from a different race seemed impossible; they believed there was no place for a couple like them anywhere in the world.

Amidst considerable ethnic violence, in the narrow streets of San Francisco people from different backgrounds come to see each other as individuals, rather than “the other.”

3. Some insights into urban poverty.  Thousands flocked to San Francisco with almost nothing, or with a debt to repay.  Others arrived with resources, but squandered them in gambling halls or on failed gold mining ventures (or on women in brothels or booze).  Many scrounged a living however they could.  It was a place of opportunity, but also with no safety net.  Help only came from the generosity of others and from relationship and network building as most immigrants had left their families far behind.

Such is the case in many modern cities: people without a family safety net, who face bad luck or make some unfortunately decisions, end up in poverty. Is that part of the nature of cities?

Comparing cities through surnames

The last names of individuals in a metro area or a country can be surprising. Until today I never knew the most common last name in Canada is Li. Not Smith, as it is in the USA. Smith is number two in Canada.

The USA-Canada contrast is interesting: Looking down the top ten list of Canadian surnames, two are usually of Chinese origin (Li and Lam – #1 and #3 incidentally), three are English, three are French, and two are more ambiguous — Martin is both a French and English last name, and Lee can be English or Chinese or Korean. The USA’s top ten list are all English names — however in some individual states such as Florida and New Mexico hispanic names are frequent in the top ten list, as would be expected from the history of settlement in what is now the USA. The multi-lingual Canadian surnames arguably reflects a more multi-lingual and multi-cultural heritage in Canada. But Canada today is a very urban nation, and each major city is quite different in its heritage.

Taking a look at cities across Canada, there are some contrasts.

The top ten names in Metro Vancouver, according to the Vancouver Sun, are primarily Chinese and Asian:

  1. LEE
  2. WONG
  3. SMITH
  4. CHAN
  5. BROWN
  6. KIM
  7. CHEN
  10. GILL

Given Vancouver’s Pacific Rim location, this is not surprising. I should add, that in Metro Vancouver people of European descent still outnumber people of Chinese origin (the latter representing about 17% of the population), however there are fewer dominant European last names, perhaps reflecting origins among many non-English European countries as well as the frequency in China and Korea of certain surnames. Looking at last names is just one lens through which to view a city and it doesn’t reveal everything, we should note. Yet contrasting this list with other cities does reflect differences.

Here are Toronto’s top ten surnames, taken from a different source:

  1. Lee
  2. Smith
  3. Wong
  4. Chan
  5. Brown
  6. Patel
  7. Li
  8. Chen
  9. Kim
  10. Williams

Toronto’s list is similar to Vancouver’s. Gill (which is common in India and #10 in Metro Vancouver) doesn’t appear, but Patel, another Indian name does on the Toronto list. Otherwise, the two are quite similar.

For a contrast, look at Calgary:

  1. Smith
  2. Brown
  3. Lee
  4. Anderson
  5. Johnson
  6. Wong
  7. Wilson
  8. Jones
  9. Taylor
  10. Miller

The only non-anglo name here, Wong, doesn’t show up until the sixth position (edit to add that the name Lee in third place likely contains people of both European and Asian decentthanks MA for spotting this). From this list one could (correctly) conclude that Calgary’s heritage is less international and more anglo-Canadian.

For the United States I searched via Google for the common surnames in a variety of cities, but could not find similar lists. They do exist at the state level if you follow the instructions here.

What would be really interesting, would be to see the same lists 10, 20, and 50 years ago, but I couldn’t find any. Some cities have changed a lot. Indeed in the United States, a survey of the surnames of home buyers in various states changed dramatically between 2000 and 2005.

In California, New York, New Jersey, and Florida, 20 percent of home buyers last year were new to this country. The top five surnames of home buyers in 2000 were: Smith, Johnson, Brown, Williams, and Miller. Five years later, Smith, Johnson, and Williams were still in the top five, joined by Garcia and Rodriguez. In California, in 2005, the top five surnames among home buyers were all Latino….In Nebraska, the fourth most common surname of home buyers is Nguyen.

While this doesn’t tell us about cities, per se, it does show the way examining surnames can offer an intriguing snap shot of what is happening in a region, or even an activity like home buying within it.

Dubai – a microcosm of globalization?

What does globalization really mean? It’s a loaded term with many meanings. Perhaps one way to understand what the shrinking distances between people, economies, cities and countries really means is to look at life in one city that exists in its current form because of global trade and travel – Dubai.

Dubai is a city in the United Arab Emirites that has long historic routes as a regional trading centre, but only recently has become well known internationally. The government has undertaken a bold scheme to use the income from the limited oil reserves of this emirite to build a global financial center as well as international shopping and tourist destination.

Most work is done by foreigners, imported for their particular skills. This is where Dubai seems to encapsulate a darker side of the global economy — the stratification of jobs, and incomes, sometimes along national lines. Creative, professional and management type jobs tend to go to North Americans and Europeans. Skilled and semi-skilled labor is typically done by people from the Indian sub-continent but also Africa and other parts of the world. Tourists are typically caucasion, and usually from Europe — or UN workers and non-profit development staff stationed in places like Afganinstan taking a break. The class/race stratification is shocking. The few who are true emirate citizens are either managers or live off the income from oil and investments.

I’m trying to decide if Dubai and its social stratification is a microcosm of the world, or just a unique place.
This week south-Asian workers staged a strike. According to CBC news, construction workers were protesting poor working conditions and wages.

Dubai is currently home to the world’s tallest building, the Burj Dubai expected to be completed in 2008 and home of the world’s first Armani luxury hotel, and authorities report an annual average growth rate of 12 per cent over the past decade, largely driven by construction.

The boom has been possible due to plentiful investment from oil rich neighbours and armies of non-unionized South Asian workers whose fear of deportation, until recently, kept them from voicing discontent over low wages.

“The cost of living here has increased so much in the past two years that I cannot survive with my salary,” said Rajesh Kumar, a 24-year-old worker from the south Indian state of Andhra Pradesh, earning $150 a month.

This weekend the workers ignored the threat of deportation and refused to go to work, staging protests at a labour camp in Dubai’s Jebel Ali Industrial Zone and on a construction site in Al Qusais residential neighbourhoodThey demanded pay increases, improved housing and better transportation services to construction sites. On Saturday workers threw stones at riot police and damaged their cars.

The government is threatening deportation for some (foreigners have few rights in Dubai), however the construction managers and business community are generally against this as there is a labor shortage. Indeed, because of good economic times in India, cheap labor is becoming harder to come by in Dubai, generating challenges for the ambitious construction schedule.

There is another question here for cities like Dubai: Can a city survive on imported, rather than home grown labor and talent? What if not only the poorly-paid construction workers left, but also what if the highly-paid foreign real estate development managers and financial market gurus left for home as well?

And yet, I hope that the contrast of rich and poor, of highly paid talent from North America and Europe set against poorly paid labor from South Asia, is not really a microcosm of the world.


Final, personal note: I did see the social stratification contrasted against ridiculous extravagance first hand three years ago. During a 24 hour layover in Dubai en route from Islamabad to London, my husband and I stashed our luggage at the giant glitzy airport and hopped on the bus to reach the old part of town. We were the only Caucasians using the spotless, brand new public transit system. The other passengers appeared to represent the multi-ethnic planet earth. The Indian-looking driver piloted the vehicle through major thoroughfares and onto narrower streets lined with industrial looking apartments, each with a balcony crammed with clotheslines displaying colourful laundry. They instantly reminded me of apartment blocks in working class neighborhoods of Latin America or Eastern Europe. On the roads, women in jewel encrusted black burka’s drove luxury automobiles (how they see to drive remains a mystery to me) while white men and women preferred SUVs, often white in colour. The modern shopping malls were more glitzy and grand than any I’d ever seen. A friend working there (managing a major development project) also took us on a tour. The strangest stop was a small high-rise neighborhood that looked — deliberately, by design — exactly like part of Yaletown in Vancouver.

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