Archive for urban history

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.

Time for lessons in urban mob temptations

If more North Americans are going to live in dense urban areas–and celebrate together–there are some good lessons and insights to take away from the Vancouver riots.  I’m not talking about lessons in policing (I’m sure those will come), but lessons about appropriate behavior in large crowds in the 21st century, and the dynamic of crowd-sourced evidence gathering.

Behavior in large crowds:

Clearly, a lot of young people were not prepared to make appropriate decisions when faced with the challenging situation of a large crowd, disappointment over the hockey game, and some determined trouble makers–as well as the temptation to stay and watch or even participate.

A lot of people with no prior criminal histories got caught up in the moment and others wouldn’t get out of the way, instead hanging around filming or just watching. As mentioned in a previous post, many of them were recent high school grads all primed for craziness because it was grad week.  They came downtown hearing there might be a repeat of the 1994 riot. They didn’t think of the consequences.Three lessons here:

1. This could have happened anywhere you had a large crowd suddenly swelled by a large number of 17-18 year olds (esp. teenaged men) hyped up with grad.

2. This isn’t some exceptional generation clash or a sign that today’s 17-20 year-olds are somehow more angry on alienated that teens of the past.  I don’t know too many people who can honestly say they never got caught up in something rebellious when they were 18 +/- (smoked, drank, graffiti, minor shop lifting, steeling a street sign, skipping school for a day, joined a protest, etc).  In Vancouver hundreds feeling rebellious all ended  up in the same place at the same time–when everyone was saying there was going to be a riot.

3. Most important: Everyone needs some education on mob behavior in the 21st century–both what not to do, and what to expect.

Throughout history “large crowds” have been able to act to bring down governments or express displeasure.  Or, groups of people have rioted simple to release some energy.  By being part of a crowd, there has traditionally been safety in numbers but also anonymity. There is nothing particularly exceptional that a crowd got out of hand in Vancouver on June 15. What was different was that it was all caught on about a thousand different cameras by participants and witnesses.  The police have over 1 million images of the rioters and looters.

As more people live in urban areas, and urban spaces are taken from cars and given to people for special events (as happened in Vancouver), all citizens will need to be educated on mob behavior 21st century style.

Think of it like drinking and driving education.  Friends who parent kids in their late-teens or early 20s are all impressed at how determined these kids are to not drink and drive. The message has been loud and clear.  And even for seasoned adults, people of all ages today typically plan ahead (to a much greater degree than in the past) and incidents of drinking and driving is way down. We’ve all been educated as to the consequences and to avoid the temptation.

Acceptable behavior in a large crowd needs to be taught.  One lesson for young people is that you may be tempted to join in anti-social or criminal behavior when others are doing it–but don’t.  The long term consequences are too great (as they are with drinking and driving).  You will be caught in photos and video, whether people’s iPhones or HD surveillance video.  You could be charged by police, but even if you avoid that, everyone will know what you did.  The young Vancouver rioters face having their name on a permanent list that will forever be on the internet of those who looted stores or burned cars.

Another lesson in being in large urban crowds is that when the police say “this is now an unlawful assembly; you must dispurse” – it means “go home now!”  The tear gas or pepper spray or rubber bullets are coming. Too many young people didn’t seem to understand that they needed to get out of the way and let the police do their job.  The riot kissers were an example–they were not rioting or looting, but they were blocking the way of the anti-riot police.

No one should ever forget how many peaceful parties with 50,000 to 100,000 or more Vancouver has hosted over the past decade–I can think of dozens in just the past 18 months.  Almost every other time all has gone well–fun family events.  But when things start to unravel, as they did on June 15, 2011, a better prepared crowd would have made a huge difference–a crowd trained to resist temptation and to recognize when to clear out.

Thoughts on Vancouver Riot (part I)

Working on a longer essay, but here are some thoughts….

I wish people would stop politicizing what happened in Vancouver last week — or calling it class warfare. A lot of those involved trashing cars looked awfully well dressed and groomed and those $300 Canucks jerseys are not the normal attire of the poor.

It also had nothing to do with what politicians did or did not do.  Unless you think that closing roads and supporting street parties is a bad thing, in which case you could blame all of them since no one spoke out against it.

A group of organized anarchists planned to take advantage of the large crowds to create mayhem. T

In the large crowds were a larger number of young males.  In fact, probably more than over the previous weeks because high school just finished.  It’s “Grad party time.”

Young men are well known for being reasonably pre-disposed to joining in to violent movements.  In much of human history, they have been the soldiers or the warriors.  The people you send into battle.  They can be convinced to follow anyone and do things that they have been raised not to.

Young men have energy, feel immortal, and can be swayed.  That’s why they make great soldiers.

But put thousands of them, full of emotion from 8 weeks of playoff build up, into a crowd.  Add disappointment (or the failure of rising expectations for that cup), and then add a catalyst like cars being trashed and looting starting, and you get what happened in Vancouver.

Hundreds joined in as a way to shed emotional energy.  (Others dealt with disappointment by playing hockey, going for ice cream, or just for a walk or home).

It is a tribute to the city and its citizens–and how so many of the young people were raised–that only a few hundred out of thousands joined in the riot.  Most resisted any temptation to join.

Many more young people, including many young men, showed up instead the next day to help clean up.  To them I say good job. I’m proud to live in the same city as you, and look for more great things from you in the future.

Industrial Space and Great Downtowns

Vancouver BC and Portland Oregon are known for their beautiful and livable downtown districts where people live, work and play.  But are these downtowns so great because they are so important economically? or, is it because they are less important to the region economically, they have become urban playgrounds with office space?

Intriguingly enough, both the Portland and Vancouver metropolitan areas (cities and suburbs combined) share a high ratio of industrial space to office space (over 4 square feet of industrial to each 1 square foot of office, using CBRE statistics).  Most of this industrial space is not downtown, but in more suburban areas.

In the case of Vancouver (and likely Portland, but I’m not an expert on the Portland economy), this industrial space supports a crucial import-export and logistics sector. Trade between Asia and North America comes through these west coast ports and it drives a substantial part of the Vancouver economy, directly and indirectly.

With so much of the economy dependent upon industrial lands, did this allow–or even force–more people to live and play in higher density urban areas?

By contrast, places like Seattle and Calgary have traditionally been less known for their downtowns, although this is changing, and both have a much lower ratio of industrial to office space (approximately 2)–or put in reverse, a higher ratio of office to industrial than Vancouver and Portland.  Could it be that office space is–or has been–so important for the economies of these cities that perhaps it crowded out residential, retail and other uses?

Thoughts welcome!

             

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?

What’s driving bike lanes and the anger?

Over the past 12-24 months bike lanes have been popping up in cities across North America, in some cases displacing a lane for cars.  In other cases, it’s just lines on the road, but ones that suggest motor vehicle drivers now must share the space with the bikes.  And both before and after the added bike lanes, increasing numbers of people are taking to cycling on roads built for cars and buses.

Some prominent drivers have decided to push back, and the rhetoric has reached hyperbolic levels.   New Toronto Mayor Rob Ford ran in part on a platform to “end the war on the car.“   War?

A driving lover in New York even referred to bike lanes as causing more destruction than the terrorist attacks of 9-11. Facilitating cycling is the same as mass murder? Get a grip.

Here are some thoughts on what’s driving this conflict and extreme reaction from some drivers.

First, there has been an urban shift over the past few years.  (See my previous post on this topic.) Enough people have shifted their lifestyles and embraced living closer to work that it is increasing non-automotive commute methods, including cycling.

These newer urban dwelling cyclists, I suspect, are more often home owners than people who lived in these neighbourhoods in the past (at least in Toronto and Vancouver I’m fairly certain this is the case).  Paying that ever-increasing property tax bill, they expect the city to provide some infrastructure to suit them and their needs and not just those of auto-commuters, often from the suburbs who don’t pay taxes in their jurisdiction. There is also some evidence that bike-friendliness helps cities attract and retain talent (and therefore employers of that talent).

Second, most metro areas are getting bigger, with more new housing in suburban locations than close-in communities.  This is resulting in more drivers and therefore more congestion.  To a long-time automotive commuter, this ever-slowing commute would get frustrating.

Third, to further grate at the long-time automotive commuter, gas prices are rising.  They feel like they’re paying more for the commute, and may be blaming taxes, but the reality is that tens of thousands of new drivers start up their cars around the world every day.  Supply of petroleum cannot keep up with demand.

Items two and three are not a conspiracy or “war on drivers” they are the reality of too many drivers and not enough supply of roads and fuel. If there hadn’t been the urban shift–allowing thousands to commute by pedal, foot and transit–the situation would be far worse.  And I suspect the new bike lanes will help it get better.

Four, there hasn’t been enough time for all urban dwellers to adjust to the bike lanes.   Some automotive commuters who live close in, will switch to cycling once they see dedicated bike lanes and they have a secure place to park their bike and then shower and change when they get to work.  The combination of more bike lanes and a push to facilitate lower-carbon living is pushing office building owners to add these facilities.

Others, facing congestion, will switch when the can to walking and/or transit or a combination.  All of these behavioral changes will get some drivers off the roads, making room for those who want or must drive.

In conclusion, bike lanes are part of a needed structural shift in how we live.  Everyone cannot live in low-density suburbs. If tens of thousands are choosing urban neighbourhoods, the infrastructure originally built for suburban commuters has to work for them too.  The good news for suburban commuter-drivers is that over time more urban dwellers will get out of the car lanes for their commute, leaving more room for them.

(full disclosure: I’m not a bike commuter, but might give it a try now there there is a dedicated lane and route connecting my house to the office building–and where new showers and change facilities are opening next month). 

The delicate art of parking provisioning

(with apologies to Trent Carlson)

How people live in cities is changing, faster in some places than others.  In general, people are driving less.  But car ownership is still quite prevalent and it remains a key means for people to get themselves, their families, and their stuff from A to B and C and D around the city.  Even though urban travel by bike, transit and foot is on the rise, cars are not likely to disappear.  They are too handy in certain circumstances.

So what to do with cars when we’re not using them?  That is a key challenge for cities these days.  Here’s what I mean.

First, lets talk about surface parking lots and above-grade parking structures.  These are ugly and suck the life out of the streetscape.  Nothing interesting (or at least good and interesting) is ever going on there (drug deals and break ins are interesting, but not in a good way).  So, the answers are either street parking or underground parking, or typically both.  But….

Starting with underground parkades, these are expensive to build.  They therefore can make it uneconomical to build many apartment, office and retail structures unless the highest rents (or condo sale prices) can be achieved.  Some cities are experimenting with reducing parking requirements for apartments in core areas where most residents will walk or take transit, in part to keep the costs down so new rental can be built.  But this isn’t practical in most neighbourhoods, even walkable ones, as a typical couple or family will have a car.  This is an unresolved dilemma in cities–adding residents to average communities still requires room to park a car.

Next, street parking. This works well if there is enough room on the streets for residents and visitors to a neighbourhood.  In detached, single-family neighbourhoods this is the case.  But in slightly more dense areas, there isn’t always enough.  Especially if a prominent shopping street is nearby.

In a trendy walkable neighbourhood, many people will drive to the area, park, and shop. The retailers rely on these non-neighbour customers, so need there to be parking.  But if the number of people living in the area increases, without more parking places, suddenly none are available for retailers unless we either add underground parking (too expensive), surface parking (too ugly), go to parking meters to keep people moving.

Parking meters.  It seems that some city halls have figured out a science of parking meters.  Charge enough so that there is usually an empty spot every couple of blocks, and then people don’t circle around looking for parking.  I was shocked to read New York City still has lots of free parking.  We’re also starting to see variable rate meters that adjust the costs with the time of day and congestion.  I like this approach.  I’d rather pay more and have a spot available when I need one, than have to drive all over looking for free parking (I put a value on my time, and it’s more than $2 for 15 minutes!)

But parking meters work at destinations, not at home.  So we’re back to the challenge of urban development right now: the delicate art of balancing enough room for cars while also improving the livability and walkability of communities, and keeping costs of new housing down so that homes can be built for the non-super-rich.

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How is the parking dilemma affecting your community?

What examples are you seeing of the delicate art of balancing parking needs with other urban requirements and challenges?

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 drove the shift toward urban living?

In Canada’s cities, prices in the older urban areas as well as the suburbs generally stagnated for over a decade between the early 1990s and early 2000s.  Not coincidentally, during this time an abundance of new housing opened in suburbs like Milton and Markham (Toronto area) as well as Coquitlam and Surrey (Vancouver area).  Calgary annexed more land, and suburban style homes proliferated. Metro area residents did not seem to show much of a preference for urban vs suburban living.

Starting in around 2002 prices everywhere began to rise, but over time the urbanized areas experienced more rapid increases.  I know of homes in walkable East Vancouver communities that tripled in value over just 6-7 years.

From talking to friends and realtors, it seems that today, the housing market is hot in walkable urban areas, and a softer in the suburbs.  Evidence of continued strong demand for urban living.

As pointed out by the Economist this week in a cleaver parable about Gotham vs Pleasantville, rising house prices rising faster in in urban areas vs the suburbs are a clear indicator of accelerating demand for these urban homes.   Many urban areas have limited or no room to increase supply, so if demand rises so do prices as those with the most money are able to secure the most walkable, transit oriented homes.

So what changed in or around 2002?

What has led an increasing number of home buyers to have a preference for urban living?

Here’s my partial list.  Please add to it!

  • Maturation of the knowledge economy, reliant on the internet, that has benefited from a very urban workforce constantly looking for inspiration
  • De-industrialization in many metro areas as manufacturing declined either outright or as a percentage of employment (while service and knowledge jobs grew)
  • Generations X and Y started to make their ideas and culture felt in cities, as they embraced an experience economy over a consumer goods and large-home-and-car based one.
  • Women’s higher rate of degree attainment resulted in career women selecting short commutes and urban living (with the trade offs) over suburban homes
  • The fertility rate edged up slightly, likely as younger boomer and older gen x women who had postponed children had 1 or 2, but didn’t give up urban living or urban careers and wanted short commutes.
  • Millennials defining freedom as their “first iPhone” rather than first car, and driving less.
  • More recently in 2008 and now in 2011, high gas prices are encouraging more people rethink auto-motive lifestyles

Agree? Disagree? What else has changed?

America’s proud urban history

Ed Glaeser’s right,  it’s time to re-conceptualize the American past to include its proud urban heritage.

Frequently, the American story is told as one of conquering frontiers or conquering nature (while somehow also embracing its wildness). People who lived in cities have often been characterized as not real Americans, not tough enough to be real Americans.

The much-spoken-about Chrysler Super-bowl commercial felt so radical to me because it placed a car in a rugged city–Detroit–with an edgy, tough driver (Eminem) at the wheel.  Car ads usually involve less urban spaces: trucks going off road, Mazdas zooming on closed wiggly highways. It also celebrates Detroit, and what it has given America–not just cars, but the mo-town sound too.

Arguably America’s cities have been as important to forging an American tradition as the countryside.  Places like New York, San Francisco and New Orleans and many more welcomed people from around the world at different important times in the country’s past.  They were places that mixed cultures, languages and ideas from around the world, with the result being great music, art or business ideas–in short, creativity.

These cities and others also exported what America had to offer (agriculture products initially, but later the fruits of that creativity) to the world. They helped make America the financial and cultural world power that it has been for nearly a century. America’s cities were the birthplace of: the automobile, the movie industry, the personal computer, the internet industry, and much more!

What other contributions and innovations have come from America’s cities?  What else makes them a part of a proud history?  For what other reasons have they been ignored?

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