Archive for urban lifestyles

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?

 

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.

 

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?

Housing affordability sensationalism–enough already!

It has come to this. Every time some bank or other organization releases a new study about housing affordability in various cities I want to scream. Usually, the press release and all media stories have some sensational headline like “Vancouver 2nd most unaffordable city in the world.” As if. Those of you living in San Francisco, New York or London feel free to post in the comments.

What virtually all of these studies do is look at median or average prices of detached bungalows (moderate houses on their own lots) compared to the median or average income. This metric worked okay in the 20th century in most cities when bungalows on modest lots were the first homes of young families.  It is becoming increasingly meaningless in the 21st century. Here’s why.

1. Average and median home prices are being driven up by the larger, mature demographic (think those over 50) who have equity and are now trading homes. Some are buying a nicer location, some are downsizing to a penthouse condo. Everyone has their own reason. Regardless, they are not taking out a $1 million mortgage on their $80,000 salary.

Average prices are also being driven up in some cities, like Vancouver, by an increase in “Luxury Market” sales.  Over 700 homes priced at over $3 Million sold in Vancouver in 2011, nearly doubling the previous record of 375.

This luxury product is not about homes for younger families. Therefore, we should stop including it in analysis of housing market affordability for young families. Bob Rennie argued this in a talk last year. With help from Urban Futures, he noted that if you removed the top 20% of sales from analysis, pricing and affordability had not changed much in Metro Vancouver in recent years.  Suburban developers tell me pricing has been quite flat for some time.

2. With number one said, we can still see that demand today is strong and growing in walkable, mature cities and neighbourhoods; the detached houses are often in highest demand (even when more modest price strata-homes exist).  Because you can’t make more detached homes on lots in these mature areas, demand exceeds supply for this type of product.  This drives up the average and median price of even fixer-uper, non-luxury product; increasingly only those trading an existing home or coming in with cash can purchase them.  Families are buying in these neighbourhoods, but they are typically not first-time buyers; they have above average incomes and often equity from a condo or suburban home.

3. Points one and two above illustrate that detached bungalows are no longer typical first-time buyer product. When individuals, couples or families buy their first home in larger Canadian cities (and many cities around the world), increasingly it is more likely to be a townhouse or a condo. According to Realnet, In the Greater Toronto Area, 62% of homes sold in 2011 were high rise condos. And from watching House Hunters on HGTV this is also happening in many US cities as well.

Therefore a statement like “Vancouver 2nd most unaffordable city” is not that helpful if we are concerned about the “affordability” of buying a decent home for young families. Measuring something that is not first time buyer product against the incomes of first time buyers is comparing apples to Yugos.

If we are truly interested in understanding the ability of individuals with average incomes to buy a home in the higher priced, metro areas, then at minimum look at strata-titled attached homes (rowhouses and condos) instead of detached homes. Ideally you also remove the product coveted by the multi-millionaire club from the analysis.  Suddenly the income needed to get into the market looks more familiar to most of us — $50,000 for Metro Vancouver, $38,000 in Greater Toronto according to this study.

Flashy headlines about Vancouver and other cities being unaffordable get the publisher of the reports and newspaper articles attention–this is why they publish them.  Also it’s much easier to calculate median price and median income, and harder to do real housing market analysis.

What worries me is that politicians, policy makers and lobby groups are using this mis-information.  I fear for the results.  So banks and others, please move your thinking into the 21st century!

 

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.

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?

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. 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.

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 walkscore.com 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?)

Women’s decisions shape cities

The choices and experiences of women are shaping 21st century cities–in fact, they also did so in the past, an often-overlooked phenomenon.

First, consider the choice to have fewer children.  In 1959 women in the US and Canada had on average 3.7 to 3.9 children in their lifetimes.  To look after this larger household, one person needed to make this their full-time job and the family needed the space offered in the suburbs.  The division of labour in the household and separation of residential from industrial and commercial spaces fit society.

Today, women in Canada have 1.6 children in their lifetime, on average.  In the US, although the national average fertility rate is 2.1, among college-educated women the number is closer to that of Canada.

This allows for a different urban development pattern, motivated in part by the choices of working women.  You can raise one or two kids in an apartment, condo, or urban townhouse much easier than four of them. Moreover, fewer children allows for the potential for more women to maintain careers while also being dedicated mothers.

Second, the expanding knowledge economy requires clusters of educated, innovative people.  Women earn 55% of bachelor’s and master’s degrees in the US and Canada. Knowledge-based companies (which could be anything from engineering firms to accounting, computer programing, or advertising) need to attract and retain talent.  They need women, as well as men, in order to keep their positions filled.

These big, structural changes in society and the economy require changes in the urban environment to accommodate them.

One change that is happening is a shift toward higher-density living closer to employment nodes such as downtowns and town centers.  Living in condominiums or (luxury) apartment rentals, are two more visible housing choices that many individuals and families are making in order to balance career and family or in the absence of children other lifestyle choices. There is also stealth density happening in the formerly-single-family neighbourhoods whereby duplexes, triplexes, and extra suites in houses are adding homes closer to employment nodes.

In larger metros (think Toronto, Chicago, etc.), where much of the housing is in the suburbs, and a long commute to downtown, we may see companies specifically locating satellite offices in the suburbs in order to hire the hidden talent pool of educated women who are available while their kids are in school.  Rather than being motivated by less expensive real estate prices in certain suburban business parks (as they were in the past), one Toronto-based commercial real estate broker told me that attracting the “9 to 3 labour pool” is motivating some of his clients’ decisions.

If women won’t or can’t come to them downtown, they’ll go to where the women are.  Not all women like (or will be able to afford) high-density urban living, but they’re still educated and talented.

What I expect to change in the suburbs, in response, is the type of office space in demand.  Isolated business parks may not be as attractive as office space in closer proximity to residential areas, perhaps attached to the community shopping centre or in a suburban “town center.”

Certainly, the types of jobs and careers available to the woman who chooses close-to-downtown, or downtown living for her family may be different than those in the suburbs.  The suburbs have traditionally offered more service-oriented “back office” type positions that are frequently lower paying.  However, this could change.

To some extent these isolated examples (so far) of moves to where the women are go against other urban workplace trends I’m seeing.  In particular, some major Canadian corporations have been or are in the process of consolidating their operations into a single downtown location (rather than have offices scattered throughout the metro areas).  Or maybe the motivator is the same: going where the people you want to hire live.

The location of job space is perhaps at a cross roads.  But it will be women’s choices that shape where new office space will be, as it always has been.

What do you see happening?

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