November 7, 2019

The Grand Bargain in Burnaby

This aerial over Burnaby was taken last Thursday, flying out of YVR.

From Collingwood Village to Royal Oak, from Gilmore to SFU, this is how Burnaby stung its apartment districts along Skytrain.

It’s a half century of shaping development according to the Grand Bargain.

Back in the 1950s and 60s, planners and councils struck a compact with their citizens – the blue-collar workers who had achieved the Canadian Dream: a single-family house in a subdivision.  The deal: City Hall won’t rezone a blade of grass in your single-family zones.  But we will pile the density up in highrises, lots of them, clustered around where we expect rapid transit to come.

This is what that looks like. A Cordillera of Highsrises and a prairie of low-scale suburbia. Little in between.  Massive change for one, almost none for the other, and spot rezonings thereafter.

More here in The Grand Bargain, Illustrated.

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  1. This will be FASCINATING to follow from year to year! 🙂 It’s SO different from how Europe does it. There are trade-offs, for sure. Most people probably assume that Europe does it best. Their large cities are INCREDIBLY walkable and fun (when not completely overrun by tourists). And their density is impressive! And the transit coverage is phenomenal. And are areas where you can pass by TEN produce markets in a 100-meter stretch of super vibrant streetscape!!

    But some of these cities have a VERY dark side, too: super cheaply built suburban high-rise slums, incredibly racist policies (such as in Zurich) that forbid non-pure-Swiss from buying property (at least from what I’ve been told–this might be incorrect), etc.

    Vienna seems to have the best housing model out there. And you’re SO right about how *little* the vast majority of our cities change from one decade to another. It’s annoying to see nearly all of Portland, Seattle, Austin, Denver, Vancouver, etc. totally unchanged (single-family housing, increasingly wealthy, increasingly NIMBY-acting, increasingly fearful of change…).

    But to me, Vancouver is doing WAY better at providing incredibly robust TOD. Taking SkyTrain out to Metropolis is literally life-changing. 🙂 Wait for *seconds* for a train, and you’re whisked unbelievably quickly out to an incredibly densely populated suburban area surrounding tons of shopping. And yet they’re still going to *massively* overhaul Metrotown.

    All these projects: Metrotown, Lougheed, Oakridge, Broadway corridor… They’re all SO fascinating to follow! They make all non-NYC cities in the U.S. feel SOOO boring and empty! 🙂


    1. Also, I MUCH prefer tall, thin buildings to mid-rise, blocky buildings that look like cinder blocks or cereal boxes. That’s ALL we build in downtown Portland, and they’re AWFUL! They block TEN TIMES the views that much taller, thinner buildings do. And I’d MUCH rather look at a thin 50-story building than a squat 15-story cinder block. 🙂

      1. Funny, I really like how Portland is doing density and would love to see more of that here. Maybe an architect/developer exchange program?

  2. OK BUT

    It is worth now contemplating that the participants of the GRAND BARGAIN no longer represent the significant cohort of people it was intended for.

    So we need to move forward, albeit gently, to a new bargain.

    The deal: City Hall will rezone but it will be modest.
    But this change needs to create a scenario where most families can have an attainable ground-oriented home that sits below the tree line in vibrant neighbourhoods.

    1. Survey after survey shows people would rather own a house than a unit in a multifamily development. Maybe we should be subdividing large SFH lots in Southeast Vancouver into smaller SFH lots. Why not give people what they want?

      1. Survey after survey shows people want a lot of things they can never afford. Owning a SFH in a large and growing city has never been affordable for most people. A lot of people grew up with them here because Vancouver was a small and growing city. Most people want to have what they know, so the transition from small town to bigger city isn’t always easy.

        Still, young people seem less inclined to desire a SFH and are more comfortable in walkable neighbourhoods closer to the city.

          1. Burnaby’s total population grew by 9,537 between 2011 and 2016.

            The number of Millennials (born between 1981 and 2001) in Burnaby increased by 9,235.

            Not a lot of fleeing going on from Burnaby, it would seem.

          2. From your article Ron:
            ..”You’ll have the 20-somethings who’ll be excited to come to what is, in many respects, a vibrant city, lots of cool things to do here, and they’ll be willing to make a go of it in a bachelor pad or a basement suite. And they do that in part by adapting starting their own homes and starting their families,” he said.

            “And then, they start running into their biological clocks.”..

            So the city doesn’t attract families because they want their own houses. We’re back to why not build smaller houses on prewar sized lots out of the suburban-sized lots in South East Vancouver?

      2. “Maybe we should be subdividing large SFH lots in Southeast Vancouver into smaller SFH lots.”

        I can certainly agree with that, but make it a blanket east-west policy that does not protect Cremeland as an exclusive enclave. Half lots are 1/3 cheaper on average than nearby full lots, and sell more quickly, even at today’s prices. South Vancouver and more than half of Burnaby’s residential land consists of detached homes surrounded by open space preserved like it was Prairie wheatfields. Some lots are 50 m long. Mountain Math came up with the ~80% of residential land is consumed by ~30% of all housing ratio. Constraining supply increases prices: Econ 101. And we are not making any more land.

        Subdividing large lots into smaller ones for detached housing is not a complete solution either. As an urbanist with an interest in these things it’s clear that we need to adopt some of the ground-accessed housing models used in other nations with far more experience, then graduate to low-rise in between arterials. In that respect, ATTACHED single-family, fee simple homes will probably revitalize Vancouver like nothing else.

        Non-strata “attached” homes will be 10-15% more expensive than the equivalent in townhouses because they will have independent load-bearing walls and a fire / sound-attentuation gap between them. One developer in San Diego got around strata by separating the independent walls by 50 mm with fire-rated and sound-proofing materials. Even with that additional 10-15%, they will be far, far less expensive than detached homes because they use very little land which is where the real cost rests. Moreover, the operating costs will be much less onerous because they have less surface area exposed to the outdoors. And you will never have to pay for the leaking roof or mould-remediation in a neighbour’s house as you do with strata. What’s more, a strata council can’t rule over you; a simple contract with the neighbours should be enough.

        There is a plethora of design ideas that can be unleashed by creative architects once councils get their minds around what they really need to do to address affordability and sustainability. It needs to progress to addressing the poor efficacy of our land use in the region.

  3. Well, with Preserving Neighbourhood Character being the Pavlovian dinner dell that it is, it’s no surprise this bargain continues to keep our area shrink-wrapped. Every time some rocket scientist asserts moral domain over development with, “gold-plated infrastructure first, then housing”, or “more appropriate over there”, or “there’s density allowance elsewhere”, they’re just using what’s always worked to forestall change.

    So long as nonsense like that continues to hold power over so many of us, this situation will also continue. It’s ultimately our own doing for being such saps.

  4. Wait ’til you see the 80+ storey towers arising at Lougheed Town Centre. They will be a stone’s throw from the humongous lots on Government Road.

    As an urbanist I do have big issues with the 55-storey plunge to one-storey just across the lane at Brentwood. What this scenario tells us is that the future is high-rise condos and who gives a crap about pumping up the cost of housing by preserving open back yards for another century. Not a peep about the Missing Middle because that will entail violating a cardinal political principle: Thou Shalt Not Offend Voters Who Live In Detached Homes.

    In terms of land use, affordability and building complete walkable neighbourhoods based on a human scale, detached homes on large (or even “standard” lots) are obsolete. And skycrapers are relatively inhuman if the streetscape “living rooms” are pounded by traffic like Lougheed Hwy and Kingsway.

  5. We can say that it is annoying that the city is what it is, we can say that property which is not ours should be ours to do with as we wish, we can say that families should live in small houses, we can say that a home on a lot is obsolete. We can try to claim authority with the ‘urbanist’ label, but really what good is any of this?

    The Grand Bargain seems to be something about displacing nature in various ways with concrete and asphalt paving so that humans can live and work as comfortably as possible without regard for the biosphere itself. The Grand Bargain is a land use plan on a white sheet of paper arrived at through countless and countless discussions by various “stake holders” whoever they might be.

    Perhaps the real truth is found in the lyrics of a Canadian songwriter and not in the punditry of armchair planners:

    “Don’t it always seem to go
    That you don’t know what you’ve got til its gone
    They paved paradise
    And put up a parking lot”

    1. If you’re looking for pavement and parking lots you need to look at sprawling suburbia – not the densification that comes with the grand bargain. You seem to have this odd idea that dense urban spaces increase the loss of the biosphere when they actually decreases the loss. You see sprawling suburbia as less harmful to wildlife when it is the first to encroach into more habitat and degrade it. You seem to imagine that dense urbanization is a magnet for increased population instead of a response to it.

      If you transition from a small town where you can get away with sprawl to a big city, the last thing you want is to keep building bigger and bigger roads and parking lots to support the car. The amount of asphalt per person living downtown is a tiny fraction of that in the suburbs. But you’d rather more asphalt per person.

      It makes no sense. Joni would probably agree.

  6. My analysis is at the large scale; it does distinguish features in the language of planners. What is important is the boundary location with raw nature. Within the boundary area as can be seen in the air photo, the rainforest has been bulldozed, re-contoured, trenched, excavated, and paved with an assortment of materials according to the specifications of engineers and landscape architects. Burnaby Central Park clearly stands out as testimony of a lost landscape. What we have in its place is a manufactured environment from which rise the vapours of destruction now being absorbed into the oceans, now filling the atmosphere. It is not the size of the population that matters within the occupation zone. It is the way in which lives are lived in that place that matters. The question is can these lives be lived in balance with raw nature? The answer so far from the scientific community is that it does not seem so.

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