April 2, 2007

Something grand about going small

From the National Post

 
Brian Hutchinson
National Post

CREDIT: Steve Bosch, CanWest News Service
A forest of condominium buildings in Vancouver. “View corridors” between towers are protected, giving most condo dwellers a glimpse of the sea or mountains.

Canadians are living in houses bigger than ever, even though our families are shrinking. In this, the second of a three-part series, the National Post examines the backlash against living large.
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Do not feel bad for Gordon Price. A former Vancouver councillor, he lives in what he calls “the smallest home” he has ever owned. It is in a 1950sera tower that borders Stanley Park, the city’s crown jewel.
The West End apartment he shares with his partner measures approximately 1,100 square feet, which makes it about half the size of the average Canadian home. One small bathroom, no garden, limited storage and parking.
Like many people living in his densely populated neighbourhood, Mr. Price has no children. This helps free up space in his small home.
His apartment is bright and airy, with large windows that overlook the tranquil Lost Lagoon. The simple, open design fools the eye and makes the place seem much larger than it really is.
“It’s not the size that counts,” says Mr. Price with a wink. “It’s what you make of it.”
Vancouverites are used to making do with less. Most have no choice; the city is sandwiched between water and mountains, and real estate here is astronomically priced, the highest in Canada. Traditional single-family homes — even small bungalows — cannot be had for less than $500,000, making them unattainable for even moderately high-income earners.
Figures released last week indicate that detached bungalows in Vancouver sell for an average of $758,000; in Toronto, they sell for an average of $387,744.
Other Canadians may wonder how people in Vancouver could possibly cope inside such small homes; Mr. Price’s apartment is actually a generous size, by West End standards. And his neighbourhood has one of the highest population densities in North America, with about 20,000 people per square kilometre. That is more than four times the density of Montreal, one of Canada’s oldest and most congested cities.

The push to increase density by living small is catching on, not just in other Vancouver neighbourhoods but also in cities across Canada. It is gaining allure in expensive centres such as Calgary and Toronto, where empty land for traditional, detached subdivisions is running out, or is found so far from urban centres as to make it remote and, for many, unappealing.
But can Vancouver’s success be duplicated in other Canadian cities, where the setting might not be quite as agreeable? In Vancouver, after all, “view corridors” between towers are identified and protected, giving most condo dwellers an opportunity to gaze past their neighbours, and out to the sea or mountains. Perhaps more than anything, it is Vancouver’s location, its physical beauty and climate, that has made small living grand.
Brent Toderian has seen firsthand how densification can work in other cities. He took the top planning job in Vancouver last year after stints in Kitchener and Calgary, places that are associated more with ugly urban sprawl and McMansions than density and small living.
“I was an urbanist in suburban environments,” he says. “When I moved to Calgary a few years ago, there was not a lot of call for densification. But that quickly changed. Now, you can’t swing a stick without hitting a densification proposal.”
The city’s Beltline district south of downtown, he says, will see its population rise from 17,000 people to 40,000.
The government of Ontario has already committed to the concept. Last year, it announced its Growth Plan for the Greater Horseshoe Area, which describes a phased approach for “increasing intensification” in cities and communities in the already populous region from Niagara Falls to Toronto.
According to the plan, “by the year 2015 (and every year after), all regions, counties and single-tier municipalities will accommodate a minimum of 40% of each year’s new residential units within their already built-up urban areas.”
Mr. Price insists that Vancouver’s success can be replicated. “High-rise districts are obviously not exclusive to Vancouver. But I think we have demonstrated how they can best be done. Build them in blue zones [next to water] and green zones [next to parks].”
He points to efforts at New Urbanism, where old planning principles are applied to new subdivisions, to create pleasant, high-density environments. Markham, near Toronto, has incorporated New Urbanist design elements in some new developments with positive results, Mr. Price says.
It is time for everyone to think about the possibility — and the advantages — of living closer together, he says. During a 16-year run as city councillor, he helped implement a “Living First” strategy, a set of urban densification policies that resulted in what some hail as the Vancouver miracle: a massive addition to residential capacity in an already tightly packed downtown core.
A more apt name might be Living Smaller. Since 1986, when the Living First policy was applied, forests of gleaming new condominium towers have appeared in central areas near the West End, which was already fully developed by the late 1960s.
This is author Douglas Coupland’s “City of Glass” — former industrial areas along False Creek and Burrard Inlet and in the shadow of the central business district. They have been transformed from shabby, unproductive areas to highly valued residential tracts.
Homebuyers demonstrated an eagerness to sacrifice living space — and private yards found in suburban communities — for spectacular waterfront views and proximity to beaches, to Stanley Park and to downtown offices, where 120,000 workers arrive each day.
In 20 years, downtown Vancouver’s residential population has doubled, to 80,000. The city’s new planning director, Mr. Toderian, says there is room for another 40,000; the population will peak by 2030. There are 47 condominium towers under construction downtown.
Living First was so successful, Mr. Toderian says, that the city now needs to shift densification efforts away from the core and into surrounding neighbourhoods. “It’s no longer Living First,” he says. “It’s balance.”
That required a new scheme. Hence “EcoDensity,” announced with great fanfare by Vancouver Mayor Sam Sullivan last autumn, calls for more housing and greater population density in areas that have traditionally been the domain of single families, living in larger, detached homes.
Still in planning stages, Eco- Density will encourage developers to build high-density housing above shops, beside parks, even in laneways. The initiative comes by its name honestly, Mr. Toderian says, because it will result in less automobile traffic, more environmentally friendly building design and a better, healthier quality of life for residents.
It won’t be limited to specific areas of the city; rather, Mr. Toderian says, 100% of Vancouver’s land mass will be in play.
Not everyone is thrilled with the concept. A proposed 16-unit townhouse development in the city’s leafy, affluent west side (not to be confused with the apartment-oriented West End) has raised hackles with some local residents, even though it fits within the EcoDensity framework. Opponents don’t like the fact the townhouses are to be built along a quiet residential avenue, which features detached, single-family homes; some would rather the development front a busy commercial street instead.
“We’re not just a bunch of NIMBYs,” local opponent Brian Roche told The Vancouver Sun last week. “People are generally OK with row housing [on the nearest high street]. It’s the creep down the street that’s the problem.”
People often confuse higher population densities with overcrowding, counters Mr. Price. It may be counterintuitive, but more density opens space. “The dozens of new apartment towers that you see in the downtown area has actually led to an uncrowding,” he argues.
That is only if they are planned correctly, of course. Vancouver’s Living First strategy forced condominium developers to provide amenities such as parks and retail spaces beside their new, tall towers; these attracted buyers from both ends of the wealth scale. The city also stopped permitting the construction of wide, horizontal slab towers that dominate certain areas of the West End; they block their neighbours’ views.
How planners in Southern Ontario will manage the small movement remains to be seen. But there are already glimpses in Toronto, where areas between the lakefront and the downtown business centre have recently been filled in with new condominium developments.
While Mr. Toderian appreciates the effort, he’s not ecstatic with the results. It’s ironic, because the 44-acre, 5,000-condominium CityPlace development was built by the same company that helped transform Vancouver’s downtown.
“Are there enough amenities outside? I am not sure people are left with a positive walking experience. Some of the new towers are very high density, but they seem too tall and thick. I find the massings to be extreme.”
In other words: It’s too big. And yet CityPlace is not complete; another five towers are planned. What the project demonstrates, Mr. Toderian says, is that while adding density to cities is simple — and living with less space inevitable –making it all work is not.
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  1. So basically Vancouver and other cities in North America are doing what Japan and other high population, low real estate cities have been doing for ages – not exactly what I’d call inspired genius. Maybe following that lead we can get our outrageous rates of energy use down somewhere near Asian or European levels, and possibly even consider the possibility that decent public transport on rails is around the corner at these density rates. That is, if we think ahead enough to keep some land for the tracks rather than towers. Get with it North America.

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