July 10, 2020

Thin Streets: From Asphalt to Affordable Housing

By Christina DeMarco and Peter Ladner

Great ideas are as much about timing as content.

Remember the first attempt to block a car lane for bikes on the Burrard Bridge? If you weren’t around for that debacle, ask Gordon Price how it went. Years later, after more careful planning and community education, the lanes are in and thrive today.

Similarly, for decades, any attempt to expand the parts of the city where basement suites were legal was met with vicious opposition. Then one day in the early 2000s, city-wide legalization of suites was passed by council without a whisper of opposition.

Now, with the city more desperate than ever for new revenue and affordable housing, the monopoly of car use on so much city land being widely questioned, and gentle infill density on the rise, Thin Streets may finally have their breakthrough moment.

Is this a good use of valuable City land? The City of Vancouver has an abundance of road and lane space in their quiet residential areas.

Look at the street in the Streetview above. The equivalent of two city lots—worth, say, $1.5 million each—is being tied up to provide the luxury of a passing lane for two cars driving on that block at the same time. How often does that happen? Three, six, a dozen times a day? A two-way street isn’t even necessary. Many Vancouver streets work quite happily and safely with one lane of traffic: oncoming cars pause at the intersection until the lane is clear.

Looking at our future city through the “pandemic prism” has caused many of us to question the large amount of space unnecessarily dedicated to cars.

What if that “wasted” pavement could instead provide land at no cost for affordable housing, parks or other uses, simultaneously providing newfound revenues for a cash-strapped city, increasing pedestrian safety, and reducing traffic volumes, traffic speed, automobile collisions, asphalt maintenance costs, heat island effects, and rainwater runoff?

In Vancouver, dividing the typical little-used two-way 66 foot right-of-way in half produces two new 33-foot residential lots per block, and a narrower 33-foot right-of-way, with a 17-foot thin street, easily enough space for one-way travel, parking for cars, a sidewalk for pedestrians, and boulevards for street trees.

The two new lots are now available for a variety of uses such as affordable housing, park space, community gardens, and daycare centres.

A couple of years ago, the City of Vancouver made duplexes a permissible use in all RS zoning districts (single-detached housing areas).  This change allows two dwelling units plus two secondary suites/ lock-off units on a conventional building lot. Narrowing the north-south street for just one block can now create twice as many housing units by creating two lots with a 33 foot frontage. The land could be sold on a long-term lease to individual owners or the City could develop the lots themselves.

Not only that, but converting wasted asphalt into leased land for housing would immediately create a new revenue stream that has the potential of raising millions of dollars a year, forever.


Thin Streets is an idea that has been around since the 1990s, been the subject of city council resolutions, and otherwise in the “great planning ideas” pipeline for decades. In 2012, Ted Sebastian and Christina DeMarco (right), former City of Vancouver planners, teamed up with Charles Dobson, Professor Emeritus of Emily Carr University and submitted the idea to  the City’s  “Re-think Housing” competition to help increase the amount of affordable housing. It was one of the winning ideas.

Unfortunately, at that time, as with every time this idea has been proposed for some kind of pilot project, it has failed. The killer issue is making peace with the adjacent property owners and neighbours. Without their buy-in, political pushback has been vicious. Understandably.

Equally important as making sure a proposed block is suitable – e.g. no sewer lines would be covered up — is figuring out how to make this attractive for the neighbours.

Some possibilities:

  • The City could start by coming up with some exciting design ideas for this form of ground-oriented housing.
  • The City could buy adjacent lots and then lease them and the reclaimed asphalt to a developer or individual owners to build out affordable housing. No adjacent property owner would lose their street access.
  • The City could compensate adjacent property owners who lose some street access and sunlight by waiving their property taxes for some period or providing resident-only parking on the new street. Lost revenues would be more than covered by new property taxes on the new development.
  • The City could offer similar property tax relief compensation to any group of directly affected property owners who came forward and volunteered their street for narrowing. Maybe the thinner street could have one lot dedicated for development and another for a park or playground to make it more appealing to the neighbours.

There are all kinds of possibilities.

The Vancouver City-wide Plan now underway is looking for “Quick Start” ideas. Why not get this experiment started?


To read more, go here.


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  1. This proposal seems to just eat up green space and trees and sidewalk!! We are losing enough green open space these days and don’t need more loss by this ill conceived idea.

    1. 10 feet for one way road —-the rest for greenspace & sidewalk would fly _____ using public land for low rise housing or parking are both a waste of land

  2. They could just decommission an entire street from north to south (or east to west depending how the houses align) for the full length between major arterials.

    Maybe pick a street named after a 19th century figure with politically incorrect activities.

  3. If on-street parking were banned from these streets it might work. That’s the biggest justification for local road width. Engineers will tolerate slow, negotiated two-way traffic as shown in the 10m-11m cross section of Carnarvon St you show. But that assumes parking on both sides of the street, taking up just about half of the total width. So long as you landscape or replace trees lost in the right of way, you can woonerf that mess and viola.

  4. Wonderful proposal and a wonderful use of street space. As articulated, we have way more street space in many residential neighbourhoods than is required. It could be done without a reduction in the number of street trees. One might even have more green space by eliminating some parking – corner and nearby residents don’t need all the potential parking provided by the side streets in any event.

    I’m not so certain that the thin streets would solve many of the housing issues.

  5. A nonsequitur proposal if ever there was one. It reveals a kind of madness in which the paper world of the planner is the only reality, a reality reinforced by the giving of awards to each other. A kind of madness that appears in the midst of a pandemic, as if contagion makes an unworkable idea now workable. If only the flanking street was a 33’row in the first place. If only planners had reviewed the initial survey, maybe called in an urban designer, a landscape architect in the first place they would not find themselves sitting in the middle of the road imagining the cross section that could have been. If only……. owners would support two story walls ten feet away facing their front doors where before there was a view through the street trees to the neighbours’ front door. If Only…………………………………

  6. Yes that could work as these streets are indeed far too wide. Often free parking too, which is like squatting. https://viewpointvancouver.ca/2016/03/07/free-parking-is-like-squatting/

    Cars parked on surface roads must be THE poorest land use there is. Anything else is better: parks, bushes, grass, restaurants, affordable housing, market housing etc

    City ought to do a few of those streets and test it out.

    Many residential streets indeed could be far narrower and/or one way, too !

  7. It appears that the demerits of this idea were not fully understood the first time around. Full disclosure. I own a small footprint apartment within a larger craftsman style house on a corner lot of a RS7 block of Kitsilano. It took over a quarter of a century for my wife and me, working full time, to pay off the mortgage. It was worth it to us as we have light in from the street and trees both front and side. We have been retired for nearly 10 years and we spend a lot of time at home. To have our view on the street, light, shade and loss of tree habitat for songbirds etc dozed for a dubious city benefit will, at this time in our life, will be cause for bitter recriminations on planning ideas without an understanding the unintended consequences. They are-in approx order of presentation by the proponents.

    1/The space created by a Thin Street will assist in housing affordability.. Does that mean the city will sell the lot created at below market value with a covenant written in for say 60 years to ensure that only below market or affordable housing will be permitted? Or does it mean the city, as land owner, will only permit affordable housing to be built? Even though we know that to bring the price of housing down to below market value an increase in FSR will be necessary. That means extra height above the adjacent housing. Is this gentle densification a wolf in sheep’s clothing?
    2/ Revenue stream. Not sure why ex councillor Peter Ladner didn’t advise on what is generally understood about city tax where the residential tax rate is artificially kept lower by small business, local retail and commercial tax subsidy’s . Every added residential unit added skews the tax ratio to the disadvantage of someone else. It’s a bit like every transit bus added requires more money from elsewhere in the transit budget despite the fares taken on boarding. I would add one potentially positive revenue stream that could be tapped. Street parking. No free parking on the street- like the west end. Let the market decide. May get rid of unwanted convenience parking and provide a positive cash flow instead of negative revenue.
    3/ Thin Streets slow traffic. Agreed and the unintended consequence is that over time the traffic diverts to the nearby parallel streets. Speed bumps, traffic circles and left in right out traffic diverges at collector road intersections are pretty effective in my hood. Volume reduced as well. I have lived here 27 years and witnessed the reduction in volume and elimination of MVAs at intersections with the introduction of traffic circles. Sidewalks on both sides of road protected by double sided vehicle parking and trees in both boulevards improves the walking environment . Sadly this will be kiboshed by a thin street arrangement.
    3/ Well the notion that a thin street will reduce the heat island effect is a surprising statement. Can the proponents, or anyone, cite or show evidence that removal of trees on both sides of the street to allow the construction of an “ affordable house” constructed with a roof covered in asphalt shingles will cool the street more than natural evapotranspiration from the existing boulevard trees?
    I am also confident that another residence added will not benefit the management of storm water. How did the proponents reach that conclusion?
    This self described “ great idea” is everything but good. Yes, the fight over this great idea will get vicious.

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