The newly launched Urbanarium society (this is the third go-round) began with a double splash last night – the first in its debate series and the opening of “Your Future Home: Creating the New Vancouver” at the Museum of Vancouver.
Here’s the first reaction we received to the debate – “Open all Neighbourhoods to Densification” – as an ‘Item from Ian’:

The notion of density described at last night’s debate was one in which it was simultaneously described as panacea and pariah, the evil promised-land of those young who can’t afford anything else, and those downsizing who don’t want to.
Density was described as something to do ‘over there’ because it’s just as good to live separate but equal lives, preserving single-family land in amber while those undeserving squeeze into boxy ghettos clinging to the sky.
It was described as the nightmare of political weakness – that it is impossible to impose it on to too many people lest they unleash their fangs in unison.  It’s an unwanted friend for fashionable political parties.  In this case it’s better to tiptoe into the suburban hereafter, and not ask for too much, not be too uppity. Unlike voting rights, or civil rights, housing is a right in which to be happy when a little group can have a lot, and a lot can have a little.
In nature, there are no monocultures; there are ecosystems. Anything appearing different in a monoculture might seem at superficial glance to be a weed, when it’s actually providing the needed genetic diversity to keep the whole population healthy. Vancouver has a plantation’s worth of single-family houses, and a corresponding number of plantation massa’s who increasingly know how to say NO.
Who will be the brave soul who realizes the inevitability of infrastructural evolution, and starts becoming open to saying YES to MORE?

A lot of PT readers were in the audience.  Add your comments below, and we’ll pull out those deserving extra attention as separate posts.


The next debate at UBC Robson Square will be on February 3 – “Build Fewer Towers”.  (Tickets available at the Urbanarium site beginning Thursday, January 21 at noon.)

Is Vancouver and its region too quick or too slow to build towers? Are they good or bad for livability and green aims? Are towers the future or past their prime?

Coincidentally, Ray Spaxman (appropriately the chap who conceived of the idea of the Urbanarium back in the 1980s) sends along a related link:

A friend sent this to me and the associated TED talk – an enormously stimulating talk by architect Ole Scheeren.
oLE 1
Some of you may remember the architectural survey we all voted on many months ago (Urbanarm, June 22, 2014).  One of Ole’s buildings was featured in that – and worried many of us. Yet, because it seems we will have to contemplate a number of alternative ways of accommodating ever-rising densities, we must engage with Ole’s arguments. His narrative is a wonderfully intellectual exercise that you will all “enjoy”.
It is a discussion that our community must have.
There is a proposed Scheeren building for 1500 West Georgia – the so-called ‘Jenga’ tower:

And here’s a Price Tags post of Ray Spaxman’s reaction to the building back in June: “Vitruvius on West Georgia” – with lots of comments, suggesting both that this tower will be part of the debate in February, accompanied by lots more reaction, only this time with a vote on the larger proposition.


  1. While Sam Sullivan won the debate by eloquently sharing with the audience the political damage that comes from taking on the NIMBYS, I give full marks to Brent Toderian for reminding Michael Goldberg that we shouldn’t be telling empty-nesters that they should move onto nearby arterials.
    They don’t want to live along arterials. This is why we should be rezoning single family properties behind the arterials, to create what I’ll call a transition zone, with ‘in-between’ housing forms. These include condominium and fee-simple townhouses, duplexes, triples, coach houses for sale, etc.
    How do we do that? I’ll tell you when I participate in the May Urbanarium debate on who should be planning our neighbourhoods! 🙂

    1. YES….rezoning appropriate single family areas for ‘flats’, perhaps three per lot, would go a long way to provide appropriate housing for seniors wishing to downsize AND stay in their ‘hoods. And be a welcome densification strategy……

      1. I agree with the idea, but I know 2 families who live one block off Cambie. They don’t want to move, and the idea of downsizing into their same neighbourhood does not appeal to them because once you tear everything down and everyone you know has moved, it’s not your neighbourhood anymore.
        I think we need increased densities, but I don’t think the way it’s happening where it’s all or nothing is appropriate.

  2. Michael – I’m hoping Cambie Corridor 2.0 will deliver some of what your are describing and what the Cedar Cottage and Norquay Village Plans already deliver. It is the next logical step and so much more “gentle” than, say, Marine Gateway. And it avoids the political pitfall of trying to impose wholesale densification on sfr ‘hoods, which are bound to hostilely react.

  3. I wish there was a forum like the Urbanarium in North Vancouver. The extensive single-family areas are turning into a second West Vancouver. In the older neighbourhoods almost every house sold is torn down and replaced with a $2-3 million new house. And yet the local governments don’t dare even thinking about allowing somewhat more affordable housing forms in single-family neighbourhoods. Only ‘shoddy’ neighbourhoods are rezoned, even light industrial land, to create condo town centres.
    No figures are published, but I wonder if the condo dwellers will support with their municipal taxes the streets, bridges, water and sewers to North Vancouver’s prized and pricey single-family neighbourhoods.

  4. I thought Sam Sullivan’s position was interesting. He supported adding “a lot of density in a little” so that we don’t poison the well and turn the greater population against density in general. He suggested we can get more mileage from political capital by using it to build a big condo tower in more urban, lower-middle class, transit node areas, such as East Van and Burnaby than by spending it all fruitlessly to try to build a rowhouse in rich, super low density Dunbar.
    The problem though is the inequity of it, we have poorer neighbourhoods taking on all of the density so that rich neighbourhoods can remain at the status quo frozen in time. It’s not reasonable.
    In addition what Sullivan proposes doesn’t address the missing middle problem. Sullivan’s solution is a one dimensional massing of huge amounts of density in tower form in order to protect multi million dollar single family houses. This fails to address the possibility that some people might actually hate living in towers and his solution offers no good housing option to this group. I question whether this approach in some ways actually increases sprawl. Consider that if a person has a new family, dislikes living in towers, and cannot possibly afford a house they’re essentially forced to move to the valley, as townhouses or other forms being built Vancouver are frustratingly rare. If we were phasing out single family houses and densifying vast swaths of residential Vancouver into rowhouses, then there would be less pressure to turn forests in Surrey into rowhouse developments.
    In his closing statements Sullivan said that he talks to people all the time in his home neighbourhood of Yaletown that love towers, but this is self selection bias. Of course they love towers, they’ve chosen to live in them in downtown Vancouver. People who hate the path that Vancouver has gone down have left for Surrey and Langley, which as the moderator mentioned at the beginning of the event, are the areas of the region that are growing remarkably faster than Vancouver.

    1. Are (Surrey/Langley/etc) growing out of preference, or necessity? If the growth is happening because people can’t afford elsewhere, its not evidence of a preference of that lifestyle … there’s no evidence that people have ‘left’ Vancouver.
      The only thing that the growth of Surrey and Langley are proof of is that they are growing … without evidence that people are choosing to leave the former for some specific quality in the latter, its not evidence either way in the argument.

      1. Sure there is no evidence, but I felt like throwing the idea out there for discussion, as limiting the amount of viable lifestyle options seemed to me like a potential result of Sullivan’s vision, and I am speculating about what the implications of limiting lifestyle options in a city could be.
        Preference for a lifestyle goes hand in hand with changing cities for affordability reasons. If the desired lifestyle and housing type is in limited supply, those housing types that are available will have their price increase if they’re in demand. If people can’t afford it they’ll have to look around for the nearest place where they can.

        1. I agree with all of this … my only exception was to point out that what people do isn’t necessarily the same thing as what they want. Too often evidence of the former is taken as meaning that the latter must be true, just as there are times where what they say they want is not actually what they would like to do.
          There’s an interesting project in the UK, where ‘everyone’ thinks they want a little bungalow because thats all thats been experienced … one of the stated goals of Alain de Button’s project is to allow people to experience ‘modern’ and therefor have something to compare to whether or not they continue to want to live in that bungalow.
          And as much as I find it squishy mentioning Malcolm Gladwell, his piece on spaghetti sauce is interesting – that there are times when people ‘want’ something more because they don’t know there is an alternative, than because they actually want the first thing.
          I think these are both tremendously applicable to housing – to what extent do people want/not want to live in a condo, or a house, because they don’t have a frame of reference that allows them to comprehend an alternative?
          I just want to be careful in the conflating with ‘do’s’ and ‘wants’ … there’s be demons in those assuming waters.

          1. Lots of places have smiling faces … I’ve seen photos of war zones with at least some people having ‘happy smiling faces’ … how does this prove a preference? That they are happy where they are does not prove that they would not be happier elsewhere. That they think they live in the place that is the most suitable/happy for them does not necessarily make it so. That they are a conquering army getting their happy rocks off shooting people does not make it a good thing to emulate.
            You might be right, that happy naivete is all we need, where can we all get some of that? (maybe we can just listen to Sarah Palin and wait as any knowledge of the real world gets slowly dissolved)

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