Archive for sprawl

Pink Slime and Sprawl

I apologize for being late to the pink-slime-in-meat discussion, but unlike 99% of blog post ideas that fail to make it to cyberspace, this one keeps weighing on my mind.

I’ve been pondering the relationship between really poor quality food and an auto-centred lifestyle.  Here’s how I think the link works:

The mid-20th century suburban style of housing development separated houses from grocery stores, allowing for larger grocery stores.  It also required a car, which costs money, and time to drive everywhere including to ever-expanding supermarkets.

To keep costs down, supermarkets supported innovations in industrial food supply, including for meat.  This allowed shoppers to afford meat and cars and gasoline.

As Penelope Truck recently commented, meat (especially beef) should be a luxury good but it is not priced like one. She’s right.

I didn’t think that much about the broader role in society of the inexpensive cost of supermarket meat until an organic butcher shop opened 1 block from my house. All the meat comes from animals raised humanely on one ranch about 400 miles away.  It is at least 3X the price and at least 10X as tasty as the supermarket equivalent.

This new butcher shop has been successful in a Walkscore 100 neighbourhood.  I don’t think this is a coincidence.  One reason so many people in this economically diverse community can afford to buy their meat at this butcher shop is that they don’t drive much.


Urban Housing Prices Reveal Urban Shift


A new survey in the United States revealed that only 12% of future home buyers wanted to purchase a home in the suburban-fringe. A decade ago, it is quite possible that the number would have been reversed with over 80% wanting a large suburban home.  Certainly, house prices were more expensive on a per square foot basis than in mature urban markets.

We have more than survey evidence of what people say.  You can see it in the housing prices–what they are doing (where they are putting their money).

In the US, housing prices in higher density, older urban areas have begun to rise. From the New York Times

Today, the most expensive housing is in the high-density, pedestrian-friendly neighborhoods of the center city and inner suburbs. Some of the most expensive neighborhoods in their metropolitan areas are Capitol Hill in Seattle; Virginia Highland in Atlanta; German Village in Columbus, Ohio, and Logan Circle in Washington. Considered slums as recently as 30 years ago, they have been transformed

Meanwhile in some suburban fringe locations it is hard to give away a McMansion–or they are being used as low-cost (!) student housing.

In Canada, you could see the shift in urban vs suburban housing prices beginning in about 2003.  Urban prices began to rise more quickly than suburban ones.  What began as a trickle of people choosing a more urban lifestyle has become a flood, with various consequences and responses from residents, city halls and builders.

In Toronto there has been a massive push to add housing supply downtown–in the form of condominiums (there are more under construction in Toronto than anywhere else in the world).  This actually improved affordability for switching from rental to ownership in Toronto between 2006 and 2010.

In Vancouver city itself (the urban core)  the most significant evidence comes in the pricing of ground oriented housing.  In neighbourhoods with good transit, walkable and close to downtown prices have tripled (that is risen 200%) for detached homes in about 7 years.  Officially, the stats for East Vancouver say prices are up 41% in 5 years and on the west side 71% in 5 years.  Meanwhile in the suburbs, prices are up only 14% in 5 years.

In Calgary, a city that once sold itself on offering less-expensive, suburban-style housing than Vancouver or Toronto now promotes its urban-ness.  Condos are sprouting up on the fringe of downtown, particularly in the Beltline and areas immediately south.  And money is being pumped into museums and the arts (it is cowboy country no more).

The challenge going forward for all cities in North America will likely be to ensure enough amenities (parks and recreation) and services (including transit) are available to a much larger population than a given geography has ever held before.

Finding the right labels

  Cities and their hinterlands are changing, and have been for some time.  The black-white dichotomy of suburban-core is becoming ever more unhelpful in describing the different types of places in or related to cities where people can live and work. Some new definitions or labels may be in order.

Here are my thoughts on some definitions of metropolitan and related spaces.  I’d welcome your ideas, or links to existing work in this area by others.

Lets start with what we had maybe 20 years ago.

Twin Cities – Cities that were founded separately, for different reasons.  They have their own historic “downtown” centre of gravity.  During the 20th century, because of the automotive age, they became linked by a ribbon of freeways; they also likely came to share a major airport as well as some “suburbs” that grew to sprawl in between the historic poles.  Twin cities have distinct identities and even economies in the sense that not many people live in one twin and work in the other.  Dallas-Fort Worth, Minneapolis-St. Paul, and possibly Seattle-Tacoma  could be called Twin Cities.

Satellite Cities – Cities or smaller metro areas that are close enough to a major metropolitan area that citizens or business people might make easy day trips there and take advantage of specialized amenities, but are far enough to be distinct entities.  They don’t share suburbs or airports.  The Kitchener CMA (+ Guelph) would be a good example of a satellite (to Toronto). Tucson in some ways qualifies as a Satellite to Phoenix and San Diego and Los Angeles might also be considered a Satellite pair.

Bedroom Suburban District – Bedroom suburbs do not have the same economic centres of gravity as major metropolitan areas, satellites or twins.  Typically, many more people would leave them daily to go to work than there are jobs in that suburb. Plus many of the jobs there would be retail, restaurant or personal services, mostly serving the bedroom community population.

Industrial Suburban District – A suburb that contains a lot of low density industrial lands and business parks.  Manufacturing might have been there in the mid 20th century, while today it could be home to more warehouse-logistics space as well as suburban office parks and flex spaces.  Sometimes within the same municipality there might be an industrial suburban half and a bedroom suburban half, with little relation or interaction between the two other than they pay taxes to, and are served by, the same municipal government.

Urban Suburban Districts -  Places that are within a major metropolitan area, but seem more urban.  They have mid and even higher density, walkable residential areas often next to taller office towers and higher density employment lands.  They also have rapid transit links into the major metropolitan area’s downtown.  What they may lack is that “historic downtown” and they likely have regional branch offices of businesses rather than the metro area’s head office.

Today many suburban municipalities are shifting from all or mostly low density, separated bedroom and industrial districts into something more complex.  Mississauga (Toronto CMA) and Surrey (Vancouver CMA) are attempting to create new high density town centres from the shells of shopping centres. Office and residential spaces combined with new transit options are being created to reshape these places into urban suburban districts.  What shall we call these places — Urbanizing suburbs?

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.

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.

Time perfect to set up US suburbs for future

US Metros are in a unique position to take advantage of the housing market collapse in order to position suburbs for the future.  By contrast, Canada’s suburbs are less well positioned.

Why? because in Canada the vast majority of suburban homes are occupied by content owners who are making their mortgage payments. And in order to prepare for a more transit-oriented lifestyle in a high-fuel cost environment, some suburban houses will need to be destroyed to make room for a more walkable, grid-like street network (rather than meandering crescents ending in cul-de-sac’s) as well as neighbourhood shopping districts that can be reached by foot and serve as transit hubs.

Empty suburban homes provide an opportunity to do just that and more.  Planners could also re-zone the areas, allowing for smaller lots, or two homes on a single lot, which would eventually bring more people in as both renters and owners.  More people support more amenities, which in turn attract people.  Plus a variety of home sizes will in the future offer different price points for families of different means, thereby creating some economic diversity in a neighborhood, which is important for a community to function.  You need homes for the coffee shop worker as well as the restaurant owner and not just identi-kit houses designed for people of similar incomes.

So, is anyone noticing American suburbs being up to the challenge?  And what’s the solution for auto-centric suburbs that don’t have a housing crisis?

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.

Apartment living and women’s empowerment

Back when North American metropolitan areas were laid out, in suburbs connected by freeways, women typically stayed home to raise the 3.9 children that was typical for a woman to have in 1961.

The entire metro area design evolved interconnected with this dominant idea about womanhood as motherhood.  Suburbs detached from work areas; malls and shopping detached from home, such that it was a full time job to drive around to provision a home and get kids to and from activities.

Today, suburban living requires almost the same commitment — one parent must devote herself (or himself) to keeping up a suburban home, even if there are no longer 3.9 children there.  It is still, at minimum a significant part time or full time job.  Leaving one child in extended daycare or with a nanny in order to commute 1 hour each way and then work an 8.5 hour day is not most parents’ preferred option and thus suburban living creates stress for families where both parents enjoy their jobs and want to remain in the workforce.  Although working from home is sometimes possible with today’s technology, for many people it’s just not as satisfying as with face-to-face interaction.

Indeed the suburban style of metropolitan organization seems anachronistic and out of place with today’s realities, which creates a lot of stress on families.   61.9% of families with children have both parents working, in Canada.  Yet the housing stock and our housing assumptions — that we need to live in a house with a yard if we have children — evolved from a time when many fewer mothers and fathers both worked.

Moreover, today, a woman in Canada typically has only 1.6 children in her lifetime.  Having a house in the ‘burbs is hardly necessary as a “space” issue.  How much room does a family of 3 need?

Female labour force participation has grown steadily in recent years, and it’s no accident that so has apartment and condominium living in Canada’s larger cities.  Given women now earn the majority of university degrees, and the economy is increasingly knowledge based, I expect that urban living close to workplaces will grow in the coming decades.  Look for demand for apartments and condominiums to grow.

Living and working in close proximity saves time, allowing time for work and for children, particularly if an employer is somewhat flexible (an increasing pattern as well) — or if the woman or parents create their own businesses.  High density areas close to business districts offer lots of potential customers.

Your comments welcome .. are you seeing apartment living as a force that is supporting women in professional careers?  does it support you?

What about in the USA where the fertility rate is 2.1 children per woman (much higher than Canada) — is this a cause or an effect of continued suburban lifestyles?

Can America be America without sprawl?

Spreading out into the suburbs allowed Americans to continue a number of long-standing cultural threads taught to them about their nation’s past.  Many Americans may therefore not easily change and relocate to communities of higher density living.

Europeans came to the United States in the 17th through 19th centuries for several reasons.  These included wanting to escape government (state) persecution of their beliefs as well as having a chance to own land and be more independent.

The new US constitution written in 1789 assumed that Americans would be small independent farmers.  The idea of the rugged, self-reliant individual as citizen emerged.  The first amendment guaranteed citizens right to keep arms, to prevent the state (the government) from removing their liberties (keeping in mind citizens were only white men who owned property at this time).

Living in a prosperous city — then as now — requires a different mindset.   The agents of the state — police, laws, bylaws, — uphold property rights and social safety, in return for being paid in the form of taxes.  Being a city resident requires trusting others to look after aspects of your life.  Taking the law into your own hands theoretically results in becoming an outlaw yourself, and criminal prosecution. Being in a more densely populated area also means getting along with people who are not necessarily like you — America’s mythical founders, the pilgrims,  went to the new world to establish a community that included only themselves.  Others since moved West with the same goal.

As the United States spread west, conquering nature it also forged the notion that everyone (well everyone who was white and male, anyway) should have the option to have a farm.  And as new states were created, they were all roughly the same size.  This idea of equality in land size emerged.

In modern times, automobiles allowed for people who no longer worked on farms — instead in city factories or office buildings or other edifices — to all have the dream of the same house with a yard.  The suburbs sprawled out from cities just as America sprawled out from the East Coast decades and centuries before.

One reason for the push west — and the push to the suburbs — has been a desire to be different from Europeans.  Immigrants often deliberately left behind the constraints of the old world.  America was founded on not being Europe.

More recently, Europeans have been portrayed as those who live in cities, speak multiple languages, spend their time philosophizing, and don’t believe in guns or SUVs.    Americans are frequently taught to think of themselves as the opposite.

With this historical foundation, it could take a while for many to believe that it is as American to live in a condo by the river in Portland as to have a suburban home in Plano Texas or to ride a bike to work in 20 minutes rather than drive the SUV for 45.

If a Great Reset is to happen, the hope is probably in younger and future generations rejecting some of the historical narrative of what it is to be American.  The more Hispanic, black, Asian and other immigrant (or children of immigrant) voices that can be heard, the more the traditional myth can be challenged and be exposed for what it is — a narrow, exclusionary view of America that doesn’t account for the experience of the majority of it’s citizens in the 21st century.

Only then might being an educated, creative, tolerant urban dweller be an image more connected with the narrative of America’s history.   Until it ceases to fit with how many Americans view themselves and their country, suburbia will remain a dominant force in the American economy — to its detriment, most likely.

Stimulus and Suburbia

A number of urbanista bloggers have expressed disappointment with President Obama’s stimulus package and its focus on road infrastructure over transit (and tax cuts over transit).

As vehicle miles are declining and dense urban areas gentrifying, advocating for better transit certainly makes sense from a long-term planning perspective.

However, I think there is a good argument to be made that focusing on stimulating suburbia will be more likely to give the economy the boost it needs right now.

First, if road infrastructure improves, driving will be easier (at least temporarily, but that’s the only concern right now).  While gas is cheap, the combination of better roads and cheap fuel might encourage automobile sales — even sales of big motor vehicles still sitting around in dealer inventories .  And the last thing the Treasury and the Politicians and taxpayers who support the Big Three auto bail out would want is for those companies to go down anyway because no one bought the cars.

Second, if road infrastructure improves, then the unsold housing in suburbia might be more attractive.  Most of the unsold housing in outlying suburbs is low density, so wouldn’t support transit well.

Third, White House encouragement of better fuel efficiency standards and investment in greener automotive technology could help prolong the era of the individual automobile, and therefore suburbia.   At least, I see this as a hope in the policy — that the American car-centred way of life can continue but in a more sustainable way.

If I’m right, the stimulus package is partially designed to support the suburban way of life.  The question will be whether this can turn into something sustainable, or is just postponing the inevitable collapse of this economic and social way of life.

Another concern: if gasoline prices roar back to mid 2008 levels quickly, this could undermine the whole stimulus plan.

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