March 30, 2021

Michael Gordon: Towards the ‘Missing Middle’

By Michael Gordon

The City of Vancouver’s housing stock stands out as having the lowest proportion of single-detached dwellings (one house/one household) of its housing stock of major cities in Canada*.  In the City of Vancouver, according to the 2016 Census, single-detached dwellings with only one household living in it make up 19 percent of the dwelling units in the City’s housing stock.(For Metro Vancouver CMA: 29 percent.)

The trend in Vancouver has been downward, with single-detached dwellings emerging as a more modest part of the housing stock since 1981.  Most dwelling starts now in the City and Region are in multiple dwellings or townhouse developments.

Many of the houses in the City have two dwellings and are counted as duplexes by Statistics Canada.  Houses with more than two dwellings could be counted as an apartment or a flat in a duplex.

I’ve seen the data from BC Assessment which would appear to indicate most floor space built in the City of Vancouver is for ‘single-family’ houses. My choice in looking at this is from the perspective of choices in homes, noticing that increasingly apartments in multiple dwellings are the largest part of our housing stock.

In any case, in our housing stock we have lots of houses but there has been an increase in the number of separate households with their own kitchen in them.

Referring to our RS zones as single-family zones is a misnomer, given the prevalence of so many houses with two or more dwellings (two or more households living within them) and now with infill houses on the lane. From a built form perspective, they really are ‘house’ districts.

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The Urbanarium event on September 20 – Planning West Coast Cities – may be remembered more for the complexion of its panel than the significance of the announcement made by Vancouver Planning Director Gil Kelley, subtly integrated into his presentation.  Too subtly, apparently.  While it didn’t get the attention it deserved, it may well mark the beginning of a new era in city planning.

Vancouver, in his opinion, should have a city-wide plan, and the work should start soon after the election of a new council.  It could take two to three years to achieve, but given it’s ambition, so is the timeframe.

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From The Sun op-ed page:

New planning team, big projects chance for new city vision, writes Gordon Harris.

It’s been nearly 25 years since Vancouver launched CityPlan, engaging thousands of residents in a process that offered everyone in the city a chance to air their views, express their concerns and, ultimately, be real players in the creation of a vision for Vancouver. And while the resulting plan had its critics, it’s hard to challenge its legitimacy.
After a century during which planning was often executed in the corridors of City Hall, with input only from those directly affected by an individual project or development application, we had an overarching plan based on input from almost 20,000 citizens.
That early 1990s’ vision — crafted for a city of 500,000 — is now dated. More than 150,000 people have since joined the population, a 30 per cent increase. For that and so many other reasons, it’s time — perhaps past time — that we had another look. Certainly, the stars seem aligned.
For starters, Vancouver has just restructured the planning department and named its new senior planning team, including Gil Kelley from San Francisco and Kaye Matheny from New York. These are both seasoned professionals, and they face a host of large-scale projects that could transform the city, but are, at this point, poorly coordinated.
Think about, for instance :
• The renewal of St. Paul’s Hospital;
• The removal of the Georgia/Dunsmuir viaducts;

• The search for a home (and the money) for a new Vancouver Art Gallery;
• A SkyTrain station to serve the new Emily Carr University campus at Great Northern Way;
• The redevelopment of the Oakridge Transit Centre.
Imagine how much better it would be for Vancouver and its citizens if these projects were all being planned and developed within a comprehensive and strategic approach to real city-building.
Vancouver has grown and changed in many important ways since the early 1990s. The citywide plan we need today — and the process to achieve it — will be quite different than CityPlan. Ours is a much more diverse population, and we have built one of the most vibrant and livable downtowns in the country since CityPlan was completed. In the process, we have won worldwide attention for what is now known as “Vancouverism” — which, though sometimes misunderstood as an architectural style (point towers on mixed-use podiums), is actually an innovative planning process — born of CityPlan, and studied by planners, politicians, and community leaders from the world over. It is time for Vancouver to reinvigorate our leadership in city-building.
By failing to inspire Vancouverites through a 21st century version of CityPlan, we leave too much to chance — and too much power in the hands of the self-interested individuals and the small groups of people who always resist change and improvement. We need to look at the issues and opportunities together. We need to rise above the neighbourhood-by-neighbourhood battles to think about where people live, where they work, and how we can best provide the transit and transportation linkages that make the city, and region, function at its best. We need to reconsider, for example, whether to revise the CityPlan policy to preserve 70 per cent of the city’s residential areas for low-density housing — especially if we are serious about wanting our children to be able to afford to live here.
With the arrival of new planning leadership at City Hall, now is the time to step back and look at how we preserve the best of our city while tackling the challenges we and future generations face. Anything less than a citywide comprehensive visioning and planning process that once again involves tens of thousands of Vancouverites leaves our city at risk of being less livable, less affordable, and less sustainable.

PT: I have argued that undertaking a city-wide plan- except for the most general policy purposes – is futile: too ambitious, too expensive, easily frustrated – especially if it is actually meant to provide specific zoning changes for every neighbourhood, with the intent to make spot rezonings, and hence CACs, unnecessary.  
However, this is one city-wide debate that Gordon touches on that is necessary:

… whether to revise the CityPlan policy to preserve 70 per cent of the city’s residential areas for low-density housing

Let’s start there: an agreed-upon statement that there will be a substantial change of scale and hence character to many if not most of the neighbourhoods in this city.

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