Archive for downtowns

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.

Special civic advocates for walking? cycling?

Cities need to offer residents and businesses a variety of transportation options to maximize livability.  Only facilitating automobile travel makes for a polluted, congested, and concrete-freeway-based environment.  Only facilitating bikes or walking in 21st century life and you hamper citizens’ ability to go any distance or carry very much while doing it.   As recently discussed, some argue that a plurality of viable transport options are what make a neighbourhood and city more livable.

So, would city benefit from a special advocate for each type of transportation option?

A professor of Urban Studies at Simon Fraser University believes Vancouver needs a pedestrian advocate.  Along with some other dedicated walkers, he’s frustrated by the new bicycle-friendly policy to take over a one vehicle lane and one sidewalk on the Burrard Bridge between downtown and Kitsilano.

Portland Oregon apparently has one (according to the professor) — although in googling to learn more, I could only find out about a paid coordinator for the Willamette Pedestrian Advocacy Committee, which is a volunteer-based community organization to promote pedestrian-friendly policies in greater Portland.

In looking at the dramatic swing to bicycle friendly policy with the new Vancouver city administration (the new mayor is an avid cyclist, commuting by bike to many city events), I’m inclined to think that cities don’t need single-transportation-mode advocates.  Focusing on improving the situation for just one transportation option, can result in ignoring the implications for other users, as the SFU prof notes.

I’d like to see cities embracing a position for balancing citizens’ transportation options.  The holder would be someone knowledgeable and sympathetic to all forms of getting around a city — motor vehicle, bus, metro, street car, bicycle, walking, stroller, wheelchair, etc.  And their role would be to consider the implications of any proposed policies on all of these transportation options.

Cities themselves generate volunteer-based citizen lobby groups for cycling, walking, driving, transit use, etc.  This “transportation advocate” I’m envisioning would also be their liaison to city hall, helping to turn their ideas into workable civic policy proposals that will improve the livability of the region.

Maybe a multi-modal transportation advocate position would be something CEOs for Cities could consider in their efforts to re-envision America’s cities and come up with strategies to help them emerge from this recession or “reset” ready to support 21st century economic, social and ecological needs.

Condo units in the downturn: vertical sprawl

Well located, condominium units in Vancouver’s uber-chic Yaletown have become as challenging to sell these days as a generic single family home in the suburbs.  As the residential real estate market has softened, it has hit some homes harder than others.

The economic principle of “scarcity” has been evident.  Where there is “geographic constraint” or a limited potential future supply, prices are holding up and sales velocity, while slower, is still measurable.  For example, quality homes (especially those with heritage qualities) on their own lots in vibrant neighbourhoods of Vancouver city have held their values reasonably well — and continue to sell.   They are not making any more single family lots in Vancouver.  By contrast with thousands of new condominium units scheduled for completion over the next 12 to 24 months, and tens of thousands already in existence, potential buyers see no reason to jump in now.

I suggested a while back that condominium towers in Vancouver were starting to look like vertical sprawl — the same exterior architecture of glass towers combined with similar cookie-cutter interiors.  In the suburbs, the homes might be detached, or low-rise townhomes, but otherwise typically share the characteristics of “sameness.”  Again, a potential buyer of a suburban home has no particular urgency at the moment.  There will always be something available.  US studies seem to show a similar phenomenon of sprawl homes declining and unique, urban core homes in vibrant cities retaining value.

This turn in the real estate market somewhat confirms my earlier thoughts that urban condominiums may have more in common with the suburban sprawl than many of their proponents would like to admit.

A lesson for condo-lovers: buy something unique.  Don’t by the generic 2 bedroom with a view of the adjacent tower.  Try to find a way to buy a unique unit, with a special feature (view, deck, whatever), and in the long run you’ll be better off as it will retain its value.

This past week MacLeans Magazine had a revealing article about the challenge of selling a generic condo unit (which inspired this post).

Creative destruction from Wal-mart’s arrival

Long-time readers of this blog will know that while I’m personally not a fan of Wal-Mart, nor ever shop there, I do support their right to exist.  If they provide what consumers want, it seems somewhat futile to try to stop them.

But here’s some new research from the University of Alberta: Wal-Mart can bring about the creative destruction necessary to generate the revival of locally owned businesses nearby.  From the Globe and Mail, October 24 2008:

Liz Westman had reason to be anxious when Wal-Mart set up shop in Okotoks, Alta., in late 2002. Within a year of the giant discounter opening at the other end of town, sales at her home decor store dipped almost 10 per cent. It was the classic so-called Wal-Mart effect: Business began to shift to the newcomer and away from the town’s main street, where her store is located. Ms. Westman, however, responded swiftly.

She ditched products in her store that were also carried at Wal-Mart, such as picture frames and candles. Instead, she returned to her shop’s higher end roots of custom window coverings and one-of-a-kind sofas and chairs. Sales at Homeworks Custom Interiors recovered, and have since doubled to about $1-million a year, she says.

the entry of Wal-Mart into a market pinches less than 10 per cent of local stores’ business, says Paul McElhone, associate director of the retailing school at the University of Alberta’s School of Business.

“As bad as it is [when businesses fail], these are often marginal businesses anyway,” Prof. McElhone says. “When Wal-Mart comes to town, it makes other businesses better.”

The article goes on to describe how a Wal-Mart on the outskirts can actually bring more people into the historic downtown — assuming the community and business owners make an effort to keep it vibrant and relevant to present day consumer wants. Having the only Wal-Mart in a large trade area means people will come to your town.  Having other interesting places to go shop, eat, browse, etc. makes the town a regional destination.  This happened in Okotoks:

 Local merchants’ concerns about the new competitor’s impact prompted the town to draft a downtown renewal plan. It poured $6-million into planting trees, widening sidewalks and creating a central plaza around an old clock as a gathering place.

Many downtown shops went through their own rejuvenations. A picture frame store is being converted to an art gallery. Upscale restaurants, antique shops and home decor boutiques have sprung up. People from outside of Okotoks flood into town to shop.

Okotoks is not alone.  A comprehensive study revealed the value a Wal-Mart can have.  According to the Centre for the Study of Commercial Activity at Ryerson University, “retailers’ sales rose faster in districts with Wal-Mart stores – an average of 27.2 per cent – compared with areas without the discounter, where sales grew 18.6 per cent.”

I may have to rethink my view of Wal-Mart as a destroyer, and also start to see it as a source of inspiration or, as one Okotoks resident put it ” a kick in the pants” to local business owners to stop being complacent and start being creative.

Two lessons from a massive CBD power outage

Last week in downtown Vancouver a main electrical cable underground caught fire.  At approximately 10 AM, Monday morning, half of the CBD lost power including the building where I work.   BC Hydro could not fully restore the power for several days, although some buildings were back on the grid within about 6 hours.

In perspective, this event was an inconvenience.  No one died.  No real catastrophe happened.  But it did offer some valuable lessons, here are two.

Lesson #1: office towers require a lot of energy to remain comfortable.  While on the one hand I knew this, I’d never experienced life in an office building with no power.   Within 45 minutes of the power going off, my office was becoming uncomfortably hot and the air tasted stale.  And this was in a north-facing office in Vancouver on a mild summer day with highs only expected to hit 23 degrees c, or about 75 F.   I can’t imagine what it would be like in an office tower in places like Dallas or Phoenix or Atlanta on a hot summer day with no power — 5 minutes to get out before you slowly start to cook?

Clearly, it takes a lot of energy to keep that building comfortable.

The broader lesson: As energy becomes more expensive, office buildings in hot climates are going to become very costly to operate.  I’m not sure I’d be as bullish as Forbes last week on places like Phoenix.  If you can’t build up because of energy costs, and can’t build sprawl because of high gasoline costs, where are people going to work.

Lesson #2: I’m not ready for a major disaster (are you?)  What if this had been an earthquake knocking out power?  I had no comfortable walking shoes nor appropriate clothing for urban survival after a disaster, not to mention no water bottle.

I intend to remedy this in the next week.

Costing out urban vs suburban living

A few years ago when a real estate marketing company was promoting a downtown Vancouver condo project, they argued that a couple who could forgo automobile ownership would save the equivalent per year in expenses that would allow for an additional $100,000 worth of a mortgage. That is, skip auto ownership and you could afford to spend say $400,000 on your home instead of $300,000, which would by you more space or amenities downtown. Cars cost that much to household budgets.

Going unspoken were the intangible benefits of being close to places of work and play, saving time and allowing a richer life.

Now NPR’s Marketplace (via Planetizen) is now reporting that a tight economy may push more people to recognize the benefits of living closer to work and other urban amenities. Reporter Stacey Vanek-Smith summarizes some findings of a recent report by The Environmental and Energy Study Institute and the Urban Land Institute:

In compact cities like Portland, Ore., people spend about 10 percent of their discretionary incomes on transportation. In sprawling metropolises like L.A. and Atlanta, it’s more like 35 percent and climbing thanks to rising gas prices. Policy Analyst Jan Mueller says that could make city living look a lot more affordable.

It would be interesting if individuals, couples and families trying to decide where to live could fully cost their choices in any given metro area, and suburb or inner city of that place. In addition to the objective monetary costs of once choice versus another other factors could be given a value. For example, having more (or less) time to spend with family could be given a score — subject to the values and preferences of the individual and taking into account happiness studies and other measures. Similarly, having free time along with the opportunity to pursue other passions or hang out with friends, or attend concerts would also be given a value.

In tough times when everyone is looking to obtain more with less, if such a calculus existed (and maybe it does) perhaps more people would consider having a smaller home but more disposable income and time.

Addendum: Gordon Price penned an article on the subject of commute costs and real estate prices at the same time as I wrote this one.  His much more eloquent discussion can be found here.

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?

San Diego – city or sprawling cool beach towns

 Christmas Day on Pacific Beach in San Diego was warm.  Surfers caught waves; children splashed in the ocean; families had their annual portraits taken.  A few beach stalls, coffee bars, and stores were open and we enjoyed a beer or two (legally!) on the sand at sunset.   That was our first day in San Diego and we could only think “wow,” how nice.   We casually explored the city over the next week.  Here are some impressions.

Many of the beach-based communities (especially Pacific, Mission, Ocean) seemed like something from yester-year.  Art deco 1930s styles butted against some 1950s facades in the commercial areas, clashing with a few more modern supermarkets or a Taco Bell.  But the big national and global chains were generally absent from the neighborhoods — smaller, family run businesses seemed to dominate in districts of small stores.

Surfers clad in wet suits walked to their Volkswagen vans parked on nearby streets.  They then casually wrapped a towel around their waist and changed clothes.  Down to earth.   Older, small cottages crowded up near the sea shore.  However, many now rent for hundreds of dollars per night, or are available for sale for nearly $1 Million (non ocean front but steps from the ocean) for about 800 square feet on a tiny lot.

These beach communities reminded me of the sea side towns along highway 101 in Northern California and Oregon — except the latter are isolated.  These cool San Diego beach communities are attached to a substantial urban area. And yet somehow seem unspoiled, like time had passed them by.

Some streets (particularly in Ocean Beach) reminded me of Tucson, near the University of Arizona where I went to grad school.  Smaller 1930s single-level homes, with palm trees and desert plants.  Traces of Spanish and Mexican heritage can be found if you look for it.

Downtown was an odd mish mash of architecture.  There were some hispanic style buildings as well as a couple grand art deco styled edifices.  There was some less pleasing-to-the-eye modernist architecture.  And, there were some condo towers that looked straight out of Vancouver (and they are being done by some of the big Vancouver developers — in fact, they looked so similar that I wonder if architectural drawings were re-used!).  But it did look like downtown was coming to life — it seemed a little quiet, but it was only 55 degrees (13 celcius) the day we were there, cold for the locals.

San Diego also has the naval and military presence, and out in the sprawling eastern suburbs numerous leading technology firms.

What seemed a little odd to me was how spread out everything was.   Somehow, given the great climate and setting, I would have expected higher density housing and business infrastructure to have happened by now (something more like Vancouver or Portland and less like Dallas).   And public transportation? pretty limited because of the low density communities spread out over such a wide area.

Yet, San Diego strikes me as a city to watch over the next decades.  It will be interesting to see what planning policy choices happen.

  • Will they go for higher density near beaches to keep living in the vicinity affordable to more people?  or stick with the current lower density approach, which will soon make even a small shack a multi-million dollar home.
  • Will San Diego be able to attract younger knowledge workers?  living in the eastern suburbs did not seem nearly as appealing as dwelling near the beach, and if the latter becomes unaffordable I could see this being a challenge.
  • Will downtown living really take off? or will the Boza towers become giant white out-of-place elephants?

These are the impressions of me as a vacationing tourist.  I’d be curious what those of you who know the city far better have to say…

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

Density, family business and “mompreneurs”

In the dense neighborhoods and suburbs of Mexico City (such as Ciudad Neza or Coacalcos) I’ve often been intrigued by the variety of home based businesses that families — often the mother — operate. Some make paletas — ice creams and popsicles — to sell on the street or from a door in front of their house. Others roast chickens or grill hot dogs. Some sell school supplies, or sodas, or cel phone usage, or baby clothes.

Their entrepreneurial imagination is almost limitless. The large numbers of people living nearby creates a steady market. This is often the primary income for a family, or a reliable second income.

In US and Canadian cities and suburbs, opportunities for home based businesses have generally been fewer. Try opening an ice cream stall in your suburban home — there is not enough of a market. Selling Tupperware or Avon products exists, but generally requires the entrepreneur to visit houses.

The internet age has opened new employment opportunities for suburbanites, city dwellers, and rural residents alike. For parents — particularly women — wanting to spend more time with the kids while also earning some income and maintaining a professional identity, it has been a revolution in many ways.

However, there are limits to internet-based employment. Only certain types of work lend themselves to being done by one person in relative isolation. Some freelance writing and web site design, for example, can work from home. Contracted out data entry or information processing offers other options and many women sell hand-made products on e-Bay. But many of these businesses would benefit from face-to-face meetings with clients as well.

And what if these are not your areas of expertise?

The combination of higher density living and the internet results in much broader opportunities for home based businesses. And the internet can be valuable as a supportive medium. Here are some examples.

  • The fit4two pre- and post-natal fitness company’s founder, Melanie Osmack, started the business offering fitness classes for moms to be, new moms (and new parents) in downtown Vancouver where 100,000 people live in close proximity. Word of the classes helped to generate demand throughout the metro area and Melanie soon franchised to other moms with fitness instructor designations in other neighborhoods. She was a recent runner up in a contest for Mompreneur of the year. Fit4two uses the internet to promote their programs, but is based on access to lots of people living in close proximity.
  • Children’s clothing stores and family-oriented cafes are retail style businesses that some women have opened just blocks from their homes. Being the boss at these retail business allows a parent to set their own hours and in some cases it works to have a young child in the store with you while you work.
  • The makers of the Baby Buddha wraps and Milk Factory quick wick clothing and blankets initially sold their first products locally, through word of mouth and at “baby fairs” and swap meets. They now sell nationwide and internationally using the internet.

A great way to have access to a large number of customers or people with whom to do business is to live in a higher density area. You can always use the internet as well. But people like to do business with others whom they know.

Women in the US and Canada are starting businesses in large numbers (as Penelope Trunk often tells us), often to bring flexibility to their lives. Whether the intend to use the internet or not, those living in higher density areas with a supportive community will often have an advantage in making their venture a success.

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