Archive for planning policy

Time for micro-lots?

When they couldn’t sell their large lots for mansions in the 1910s, early real estate land developers in Vancouver’s Grandview “suburb” split them into smaller lots, and sold them to workers to build their own homes.  

Today, these lots are smaller than the legal norm in Vancouver of 33’ X 122’.  Many are 25 X 90.  Some are 30 X 60; there may even be some smaller ones.  Most have homes on them larger than what would be allowed today—they nearly fill the lot, offering only a tiny back yard or patio.  But over the decades these houses on small lots have allowed people who otherwise couldn’t afford a home in the area to enter the housing market (my husband and I included).   They also helped create the higher density of people per sq. mile that supports the vibrant retail and restaurant scene on nearby Commercial Drive.

You would have a hard time getting City Hall to approve sub-dividing properties into lots this small today (assuming you could assemble a few bigger ones, and then re-divide them). 

But maybe smaller lots are what we need, with houses that nearly fill them—and not just in Vancouver.  I suspect similar issues exist in the older neighbourhoods of other North American cities where there is growing demand to live there and prices are rising because it`s hard to increase supply.

Small homes on small lots also suit the lifestyle preferences of many people today, including the generation x and y urban “workforce” who are not that interested in keeping up a yard.  They’d love their own outdoor space, but maybe more of a patio that requires minimal maintenance. They might prefer to go to a larger park when they want grass. 

This attitude toward spending less time on home maintenance is partially what’s driving the condo-living boom.  But not everyone who doesn’t really enjoy yard work wants to live more than 1 storey off the ground; what options do they have if they cannot afford a detached single family home?  Even those in townhouses (or condo towers) sometimes find strata rules and councils frustrating and even intrusive.

Solution:  why not detached homes on very small lots?  For example, what about having 1000-1200 square feet of house, on a 33’ X 40 foot lot—likely in 2.5 storeys. There’d be enough outside space for small patio, or tiny garden or yard, whatever the home owner wanted.  Basically it would be a small townhouse, but “fee simple” –you own the land and the house–and you could get three such properties on corner lots where today currently one house stands.  This adds density, which is great for amenities, keeps in the low-rise character of an area, and adds housing that is more affordable than a single house or duplex on a lot.

In the 1910s, somehow lot owners were able to subdivide lots to create workforce housing.  Creativity came into play when the mansion-sized lots proved to be too expensive for ordinary folks.  Although there seem to be many willing to pay over $1,000,000 for a home in East Vancouver, this doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t look to what worked in the past to create less expensive housing that more people want and can afford.

So tell me, where do you know of where you can buy new homes on tiny lots with no strata council?

I’ve heard of one such project in Victoria, and that it has been very popular with the strata-fatigued, but would love to learn more about it and other examples.

Fuel prices and urban shifts

How much to gasoline prices need to rise–and for how long–for people to change their behavior?

The Economist blog has an intriguing piece this week on gasoline prices and demand in the US, looking at the long versus short term price elasticity of oil (gasoline).  The author argued that in the short term, people cannot really change their demand for gasoline when the price rises. For many people in many North American cities, their SUV is the only way to get to work. They might cut back on other expenses, but driving isn’t one of them.

In the long term, however, if prices remain high, then people do change their lifestyles.  The Economist blog entry suggests that in urban areas we can expect people to move closer to work or transit or select a more fuel efficient vehicle.

If we extrapolate to what this could mean for cities and urban areas then, the longer fuel prices stay high, the more people might be willing to support a shift away from public spending to support the automobile.  More people might push politicians to spend public funds expanding transit or bike routes rather than adding freeway lanes, for example.  The US interest in high speed rail is an example of this.

I don’t expect the private automobile to disappear in North America–too much infrastructure is built for it.  But I do think we’ll see more balanced options for getting around metro areas as a result of sustained high gasoline prices. Bring it on.

Deep Walkability Needed

How many urban residents can safely walk to work, and to school, and to entertainment?  It’s one thing for a neighbourhood to be walkable.  But being able to walk between neighbourhoods is “Deep Walkability” and not that many cities offer it.

Alex Steffan published a great piece on the value of Deep Walkability last week, that Twitter follower @nlamontagne  alerted me to and that I’ve been pondering for the last while.

For older cities that have compact neighbourhoods, good walkability is common.  This is where the walkscores in the 90-100 range are.  But even in these places walking between neighbourhoods isn’t always that pleasant (although it may be doable).  This is because even 100 or more years ago, and especially in the mid 20th century, cities tended to separate messy, polluting industrial areas from residential ones.

Today, industrial uses between residential areas tend to be more benign–self storage facilities, catering operations, etc.  But they often don’t contribute to deep walkability because these places feel isolated and empty, even in the middle of the day (or they’re used by prostitutes and drug dealers).

By contrast, walking down a dense residential street or along one with mixed retail and residential is filled with people and interesting things to look at.  It also feels safer than the industrial area described above.  As Jane Jacobs correctly observed about great urban neighbourhoods, there are lots of “eyes on the street.”

Until walkable corridors are created between some neighbourhoods, many cities will struggle to offer deep walkability (and even cycle-ability).  I see this change happening over the next few decades.  Gradually, some industrial areas are becoming artist live-work spaces, or being filled with start-up companies whose employees will support any retail that can be carved out in the area.

Does your city offer deep walkability? if not, what are the obstacles? if so, have their been some changes recently as suggested here, changing over industrial space?

Will downsizing boomers change urban housing for the better?

As the baby boomers exit the single-family housing market in cities, what will happen to prices and neighbourhoods?

Journalist Gary Mason offers a few thoughts in today’s Globe and Mail:

In a 2008 paper co-written with Sung Ho Ryu, Prof. Dowell Myers said communities in the United States face a historic tipping point. The ratio of seniors to working-age residents is expected to grow by roughly 30 per cent in each of the next two decades, the pair calculated….

Those wanting to enter the market in the coming years may not have the money to buy single-family detached homes, either. Thus the dilemma: Who will boomers sell to when they’re ready to move into some swank condo downtown or on a golf course somewhere?

This could actually be good news for young people. An oversupply of homes generally means prices fall. But as home values decline, so will home equity, diminishing retirement savings in the process. Home equity is the single largest component of net wealth for most people.

Today, Prof. Myers [is] anticipating another recession in the latter half of this decade, and that’s when the crisis he’s predicting will reveal itself. “Recoveries are usually fuelled by people who postponed buying a home who are now surging into the market. I just don’t see there being enough buyers for all those selling. I think this is going to be bad for house prices, public finance and global treasuries.”

Tsur Somerville, [of UBC Sauder School of Business], isn’t as pessimistic as Prof. Myers.

“I know it’s one of those theories where the numbers add up and the underlying fundamentals are correct, but I think in Canada, at least, it’s too early to say how it’s going to play out. I think immigration is the key. … The places that need to worry are those cities with an aging profile that don’t have big net immigration numbers and are seeing their young move to other places,” said Prof. Somerville. “I think there are some centres that fit that description that maybe should be worried. But there’s lots of ways this could play out yet.”

I agree that some suburbs may see values fall as younger generations are less interested in–or able to afford–living in more isolated areas that require a long automotive commute to major employment centers.  This could really hit some US metro areas.

But in cities where boomers own much of the older single-family housing closer to employment centers, or along transit lines, a wave of selling combined with rezoning to higher density use might actually accelerate a shift toward more sustainable urban living.  For example, an older rancher could become two or more homes as it is replaced by a duplex or by two detached homes–or two duplexes–on a subdivided lot.

Such a shift would potentially keep housing prices in check for younger generations–four homes in the same space as one.  It would also increase density, which allows for more retail, service and even transit amenities.  And finally, such a shift might actually help maintain property values for the aging boomer since the land value would reflect a “higher and better use” on the site.

Your thoughts?

What changed our view of cities in 2010

Thinking back on 2010, there were at least three noteworthy phenomenon that have helped change the discussion about cities and how we live in them.  Here are my three.  Feel free to debate, or add your own in the comments section.

1. The discussion and debate surrounding Richard Florida’s publishing of The Great Reset.  In Canada, bloggers and the media focused more on his argument about urbanization supporting the knowledge economy and broader creativity–the new economic reality for the 21st century.   In the US the discussion was more about the role of home ownership in slowing the needed economic restructuring, tying people to places with dying economies.  But everywhere, it got many thinking about the relationship between how we live, where we live, and the economy.

2. Walkscore.com saw it’s popularity and use expand, and received the funds to expand its offerings, adding more heatmaps, a transit score, commute report and a commercial property score.  Taken in conjunction with discussion coming from The Great Reset, walkscore provides some quantiative data on amenity density and walkability that can be correlated to economic or job growth.  By mapping features and amenities of a city, it’s allowing for discussion of what makes an ideal home location.

3. Social media is playing a growing role in city politics and city life.   Key city policies are now arguably discussed and debated on blogs and websites more than in town-hall or council meetings.  Naheed Nenshi harnessed social media to offer a more walkable and urban vision for the city and seize the mayor’s chair in Calgary.  And twitter has more people sharing urban events with each other and the world.

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.

Should “Urban Studies” be a mandatory high school course?

More than half the world’s population lives in cities, and that percentage continues to grow.  Yet, how well do urban residents understand cities?  Do they know where housing comes from? what about food? or clothing?  How much does they average urban resident know about how cities are governed?  Or what legislation or bylaws affect their daily lives? (and how to get them changed?)

Too often lately I’ve been reading comments or quotes in the newspaper that suggest an otherwise intelligent, well-read person doesn’t fully understand how cities work.

Maybe, graduating from high school should require passing a course that includes (or is substantially) “urban studies.”

Here are some topics that I’ve learned about from life, work (or this blog), that many more people should understand.  And I certainly could have benefited learning about by age 18.  Feel free to add more suggestions in the comments.

1. Housing and housing costs.  Why are houses or apartments or condos in some cities and locations more expensive than in others?   Although there are complicated nuances worth elaborating on in a course, in essence it comes down to supply and demand.  If there are not enough homes where people want to live, then prices tend to go up (whether rents or purchase prices).

Too often lately I’ve read comments that suggest people don’t understand this basic issue.  High housing prices are not caused by greedy developers or landlords.  They charge what people are willing to pay (and most people try to find the best deal).  When the market is flooded with homes (look at many places in the US), prices go down.  When the government stops individuals from building or renting homes for profit, they don’t do it.  And the homes that remain become more expensive.

2. Container shipping by boat, rail or truck is how the food and clothes and other things we need and use in cities get to us.   Trying to stop container terminals, logistics facilities, and trucking routes, for example, without figuring out an alternative ways to nourish and clothe the people in cities, is pointless.  Sure, one location may not be appropriate and citizens can speak out, but they need to suggest alternatives that make more sense and show they grasp the consequences.  Preventing a logistics facility in one area might result in more truck traffic (and pollution) if goods have to be transported further. Similarly, stopping truck traffic on one main street diverts it, and may result in longer routes, more pollution, and higher prices.

3. Congestion.  Although on the surface building more roads seems like a solution, all the evidence points to the opposite.  The more roads, the more vehicle traffic.

These are three topics worth covering in a mandatory course.  Yes, they can be controversial and have multiple political sides–but so do most topics covered in history classes.  A student emerging from high school understanding both sides of the issue (or all three or four sides, in some cases) is far more prepared to be a productive, helpful person making our cities function better than someone who has no idea there even is a side or an issue–than someone who has no clue how the apple in her lunch or jeans on her legs got there.

Stealth density vs high rise density

Living in walkable, urban neighbourhoods is becoming trendy.  And communities are defined as “walkable” when virtually everything you could need from groceries to clothes to plumbing supplies can be acquired on foot.

But to support those businesses, you need a dependable large supply of consumers.  Walkable places therefore tend to have higher housing density than less-walkable nodes.

Most cities and many urban residents believe that the only way to increase density in an area is to add high rise buildings.  Although perhaps a quick and efficient way to add people, high rises and even mid-rise structures often stand in stark contrast in an existing community of ground-oriented dwellings.

City planning departments and civic governments could do more to promote what I call stealth density.  That is, density that you can’t really see from the street–it flies under the radar, so to speak.   In Vancouver some older neighbourhoods evolved their stealth density quite by accident.  Big 1910 era houses in the 1970s and 1980s were converted into multi-suite houses with the garage often becoming a “coach house.”  Having a number of small units allowed more households to move in as well as created a variety of housing price-points to suit an economically diverse community.   Even as some gentrification has come, many of these homes retain multiple suites as the owners need “mortgage helpers” to cover Vancouver’s $million+ home prices.  San Francisco appears to have similar neighbourhoods of multi-household homes.

The result are communities with a high density of people supporting local businesses.  Ground-oriented neighbourhoods can have walkscores near 100 (my home is a 98).

To their credit, the city of Vancouver planning department is now encouraging multi-suite properties, particularly the installation of “Laneway housing” in some districts.  And in Seattle “Backyard Cottages” are being tried in some districts.

But, there is a lack of awareness about how much density this can actually bring.  If each city lot housed 2-3 households instead of one, you wouldn’t need to build as many high rises to achieve similar goals.  And there is something very community-oriented about having everyone having a front door near the ground (even if the suite stretches up 2-3 storeys).

Maybe a solution for the future in many communities lies in looking at spontaneous stealth density in the recent past.

Do a Jane’s Walk!

 Jane Jacobs was an urban thinker ahead of her time.  When the great thinkers of the day were promoting freeways and auto-centric suburban development, she spotted what was being lost.  To her, the best cities and neighbourhoods were organic, constantly evolving communities, or networks of relationships.  People knew each other and looked out for each other.  Walkability was a key component in her vision of what made a city livable.

One of her famous lines was that to know a city, or to know a neighbourhood, you needed to walk it.

She died just a few years ago, in her adopted home of Toronto.  To honour her, friends in Toronto began the tradition of prompting people to host walks through their neighbourhoods, pointed out what they like, or what Jane might have liked.

In a recent interview that discussed neighbourhoods and Jane Jacobs, Richard Florida offers some reasons why we might love our home area:

So in essence a neighborhood is not just a set of individuals, but a set of relationships. I think that’s right. And the relationships are fluid. Some are longstanding and some you can plug into and play. And the places that enable those relationships to form are the places that do better.

Every time we come back to these neighborhoods that are exciting, that are great, there’s a long history behind them. 

A Jane’s Walk is a chance to learn more of the local history and relationships that made local history.

I’ve attended walks the past two years.  The experience of learning dozens of new things about your own city, and how cities work at the ground level is amazing.  This year I’ll also try the experience of hosting, and sharing some recent history of my own neighbourhood.

Find one in your city, or offer to host one… Click here for Canada or global cities. In the US try this direct link.  They will happen simultaneously across North America and around the world on May 1 and 2, 2010.

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