Archive for resident attitudes

Kids Books and the Absence of Walking to School

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

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

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

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

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

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


Step 1: Define Affordability

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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.  

Keeping people honest

Jane Jacobs once commented that “eyes on the street” was an effective deterrent against crime.  And it is.  But it’s how it works that’s important.  Lots of eyes tend to keep those marginal criminals honest.  Committing a crime without getting caught is too difficult, so they’ll go elsewhere.

The advent of video surveillance and now “crowd-sourced” policing or evidence gathering (as happened in Vancouver during the riots) is another layer of “eyes on the street.”   Now even if there are only a few witnesses, they might be photographing or video taping you.

Professional or determined rioters will not be deterred by this, of course.  They show up at crowded events in gas masks, obscuring their identity.

Unlike the editorial in the Harvard Business Review, I am not alarmed by citizen evidence gathering.  It’s how people who don’t feel strong enough to confront a criminal directly can fight back and it could well serve as a big preventative tool for the future.

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?

Four Lessons on Emergency Preparedness in Cities

The twin tremor-induced disasters in Christchurch and Sendai, taken in contrast to hurricane Katrina and other disasters, provide at least four lessons for cities and urban residents.

First, in a real city-wide disaster, however much preparation is done, it won’t be enough.  People will still die, others will struggle to find food, water and shelter, and many will get sick or injured either from the quake or the effects of it.  There was no way for Sendai to be ready for a 9.0 quake and a 30′ (10 metre) tsunami minutes later.  But…

Second, it will be far worse if a city and its residents are unprepared.  Look at New Orleans during and after Katrina–and that disaster could be seen coming for days and yet neither the city nor the country were ready to rescue, feed, clothe and house people in the days and weeks that followed.  Or look at Port-au-Prince and other cities in Haiti where sheer poverty of the nation, the city and most people prevented much in the way of adequate preparedness.

Contrast this to Christchurch where local and national emergency crews were on the scene right away.  Still…

Three, everyone in any city–earthquake zone or not–needs to be ready to look after themselves and their family for at least 72 hours (3 days) if not a full week.  As well documented in Christchurch, the city’s water system, sewage system and electrical network were severely damaged.  Neither clean water nor electricity was available for many people for days.  And just being ready yourself isn’t really good enough…

Four, as the Japanese have been brilliant at, you need to be ready to help others too, and the city has to have supplies stockpiled in places people can reach it.  In Sendai incredible stories have emerged of how people pooled and shared the clean water and food that they had.  Because the Japanese are prepared for earthquakes, many places likely had decent amounts of supplies stockpiled.

After a disaster it is probably easy to share something you have enough of.  I worry what might happen in North American cities if many residents are not ready and have nothing to eat, drink or use as shelter in the hours and days following.  Will the disaster bring out the best in people as happened in Japan, or show an ugly side as happened in New Orleans with looting and violence.

Seems that being prepared–as cities and as people–might make all the difference.

What else can we learn from these disasters? Do you feel your city is ready? are you?

Cities, mobilized human energy, and housing

 In thinking about the recent revolutions and unrest in North Africa, Richard Florida tweeted March 4 2011 that:

Great cities mobilize human energy. That energy = innovation & creativity in free & open city.

In the middle east right now, human energy is motivated toward bringing political change.  But what’s been happening back in North America?  How has this mobilized human energy been shaping metro area housing?

As others have previously observed, revolutions tend to emerge from cities. Following success in urban and higher-density Cuba, Che Guevara had no luck convincing Bolivian peasants to rise up. It’s easier to mobilize urban people.

This got me thinking about life, mobilization and protests in dense, transit-oriented and walkable city areas versus auto-centred suburbs.  More spaced out, and car-centred suburban living seems to prevent people from getting together to protest something.  I rarely hear of protest marches in the suburbs, for example.  Meanwhile downtown and in the denser urban neighbourhoods I can observe one almost every day (just go to the ritual protest spots).

I’ve also observed how much harder it is to build new housing, office space, or even community spaces in dense urban areas compared to the suburbs.  It’s hard to change people’s communities. People living there all see something happening, they walk and take transit so have time to chat about it with the neighbours and friends, and then they often fight the proposed change.  This is often good as it provides a democratic check on various initiatives that might not be a good idea in the long run (but might be politically expedient today). Vancouver’s oldest neighbourhoods would have been torn down to put in a freeway in the 1970s if people hadn’t fought it, for example.

But this tendency for people to fight change is also at least partially responsible for the rising costs of housing in urban cores.  Just try to double the density on one site in an established neighbourhood (as opposed to a new, greenfield one), it’s a tough battle. Adding a new subdivision in a suburb is often quite easy by comparison.

When I see protests about high housing costs in Vancouver, I sometimes wonder if these are the same people that protested against the building of new market rental housing in their neighbourhood (housing which the planning department recommended).

Ed Glaeser in his new book (which I have yet to secure a copy of) has apparently critiqued city planners for not allowing for more height in core areas, which has had the result of limiting housing supply and pushing prices up, thereby forcing millions across North America into the suburbs.  Maybe it’s not the planners’ fault? maybe the citizens and politicians have been the ones resisting the change.  And today Angie Schmidt of Streetsblog wondered if it is the boomers and war-time generations specifically (although I’m unsure about this).

Cities are full of contradictions and ironies.  Cities are also full of ideas, different tribes of people, and different ways of looking at problems.  People in cities talk, and seeing that they are not one lone person, they feel empowered, whether in Tunisia or Toronto or San Francisco or Vancouver.  This makes cities vibrant places.

But if we want to critique the reasons for sprawl and high cost urban housing, perhaps we need to look in the collective mirror and not blame only the planners.

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. 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.

Can you have too much walkability?

There is undeniable evidence of housing preferences shifting from auto-centred suburban locations to more walkable, higher-density urban spaces.

But does everyone want perfect walkability?  Do they want to have all amenities they’ll ever need in close proximity–given that often comes with higher car, foot and bike traffic as well as noise.

The web application is a fantastic tool that measures how walkable a location is, based on proximity to amenities.  A score is derived from the variety of amenities and number of choices in each category. 100 is a perfect score, and a handful of North American locations achieve that.  Walkscore has changed the way many people search for homes.

Does everyone who wants “walkability” actually want a walkscore of 95-100?  I love my walkscore-98 home’s location, just one block from a wide variety of independent stores and restaurants but it comes trade offs.

Here are three aspects of my particular location that may not appeal to everyone.

  • There’s no visitor parking on nice afternoons and lots of shoppers heading for the nearby retail-restaurant-commercial street seeking parking circling the block (constant albeit slow-moving traffic).
  • When the bars and restaurants close down at 2 AM, it’s noisy as people wander home or to their cars (!).
  • There’s not much privacy–and this isn’t a high rise neighbourhood, it’s all ground-oriented.  There are people around all the time (which is good for deterring crime, however).

To some people, this might be too much, too close–that is, too much walkability.

What about some 85 scoring homes?

If I run a walkscore 2-3 blocks east of my home, further away from the main shopping-urban space, the score drops to 85.   But 2-3 blocks away feels like another world.  The streets are quieter in terms of cars and people.  There are not shoppers from outside the neighbourhood seeking parking.

Yet are these 85-walkscore homes really that much “less walkable” than the 98 scoring ones?  Do two blocks make that much difference? To some people yes, but to many others, not really.

Alternatively, if I run a walkscore in another neighbourhood with a different population profile (slightly older), in what I would consider a walkable location, same 1-block distance from the main shopping strip as my home, that same 85 comes up.

There are no pubs nearby, and a slightly lower quantity of stores in each category which accounts for the lower score. If you’re usually in bed by 10 PM, and are content with two pharmacies rather than four, is this locale “less walkable” to you than the 98?  Probably not, since you don’t use the nearby amenities that achieved a 98.

A couple decades ago, few people wanted walkability–they wanted quiet, or the perceived security of auto-centred life.  Today, many want the opposite.  But maybe we’ve gone too far in thinking everybody should have everything close by?  Perhaps even more people would embrace an urban life with an 85 walkscore?

Or, maybe soon they’ll be a “custom” walkscore ap, where you can prioritize what amenities matter to you, and the distance which you consider walkable.

Cities are great in this way–something for everyone.

What’s your ideal walkscore?  (and your current one?)

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.

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