Real Estate Foundation survey shows most people in BC support intensifying neighbourhood uses

Vancouver Sun columnist Barbara Yaffe recently drew a false conclusion from a recent survey by the Real Estate Foundation of B.C., seizing upon a finding that suggested 44% of people in the Province (note: not the “Lower Mainland”)  believe “All or most future development should be single, detached homes”.


Cognitive Dissonance

This is classic cognitive dissonance because we don’t just buy “houses” do we? We buy into neighbourhoods and lifestyles when we decide where to live. For a proper read on this question, I would run a follow up question that pairs a $800,000 to $1,000,000 single detached house with the doubled commute time and quadrupled cost; transit stretched thin and inefficient; the health effects from literally years of driving to and from everywhere – a prison sentence served in small increments; heaving infrastructure and property tax implications; fatal air pollution, debilitating asthma for kids and the elderly; sprawling big box landscapes and loss of green space …. if somewhere near half the new households in the Lower Mainland lived that suburban dream in the future.

Then run the survey of higher density options again with half the commute, a fraction of the mobility cost, preserved green space, better air quality, walking and cycling fitness, more diverse local shops and services, lower property taxes and 30% lower housing prices. Choices need to be paired with consequences.

Language, Choices and Consequences Matter

The 2015 BC Real Estate Foundation survey “Public Views on Sustainability and the Built Environment” quite clearly concludes that MOST people in BC are in favour of intensifying land use to create compact communities with more amenity, choice and propinquity.

As planners and developers and advocates of smart growth and sustainable compact communities, the pieces of this survey to take away and read closely are the conclusions on language and clarity; the need to better communicate the benefits of compact cities; and the need to involve people in planning.

The authors note:

“It’s clear that we need to have a better conversation about density that includes infill, mid- and low-rise options. Most British Columbians indicate that they value the benefits of density over urban sprawl; for example: shorter commute times, better access to shopping and retail amenities and lower costs to municipal tax base. Moreover, they express support for low-rise commercial residential developments, as well as low and mixed income rental housing.”

What is particularly interesting is the difference in people’s responses when presented with questions on the same issue in a slightly different way, for example: Are you concerned about “Affordable Housing” vs the “Cost of Housing”? Some of the shifts in reported public opinion are quite remarkable. Bottom line: we need to communicate more clearly and directly about the costs and benefits of different development options.

language matters

A Bias Against Higher Intensity Development?

The REFBC’s Province-wide lens for the survey captured the views of people not living in particularly urban environments so an unsurprising conclusion was that “the majority [of respondents] appear extremely ambivalent to any mention of compact communities or density in planning conversations and many are opposed to highrise high density development.”  [my emphasis]

REFBC might begin with a review of their own language. For example, the double barrelled “high-rise high density” label for anything over 4 storeys might alone skew people’s responses. In fact, when we discuss higher intensity forms of development, we should also be communicating higher levels of amenity and connection as commensurate benefits. How would the responses have been different if the question cited “high-intensity high-amenity” development? The Real Estate Foundation might also want to review the oxymoron “Urban Sprawl”. It’s a pet peeve of mine because what we really should be describing is “Low Density Suburban Sprawl” as the true culprit.

Overall, the conclusions of the BC Real Estate Foundation’s study should be encouraging for people involved in city building in BC’s urban regions. We need to communicate better with neighbours and citizens in order to better involve them in the decisions and choices we collectively face on the future of our cities.

Michael Mortensen, MA MCIP, RPP – a Vancouver Developer & Planner ©2016

Pocket Development’s 2 Bed Apartment Competition: Lessons from London

by Michael Mortensen, MA MCIP, RPP – a Vancouver Developer & Planner ©2016

I thought Pocket’s Two Bedroom Competition would make a nice book-end to my earlier post “Making Apartments Work Harder: the 3rd Bedroom Challenge“.

We can learn a lot from London, and the innovative companies tackling the city’s housing affordability and supply challenges. For almost 3 years, I’ve been leading the design and development of mixed-use housing projects in the UK, and I’ve come to appreciate how deep and systemic the housing supply issue is here.

London Housing Challenges

  • 140,000 people moved to London last year but the industry produced less than 20,000 new housing units.
  • For the last 10 years, Greater London’s housing industry has under-supplied this world city by about 30,000 units annually.
  • Prices in London have surged and thousands of hard-working London households are left out of the housing market.

Pocket’s Response

Founded by Marc Vlessing, Pocket is focusing on the design and development of affordable apartments for “working Londoners” caught in the affordability and supply gap between Social Housing and Market housing. The firm aims to produce units at about 20% below the market rate with purchase mechanisms to keep them affordable over the long term. They’ve launched a partnership with the Greater London Authority to these ends, and they recently published the results of a very interesting Two Bedroom Design Competition that I’ll describe in a bit more detail below.

Pocket’s Two Bedroom Competition

Pocket is challenging housing design and size as a way to increase supply and affordability. They recently invited 19 London architecture firms to prepare design prototypes for liveable, space-efficient two-bedroom apartments. Their instructions were to design smarter and compact (but not micro) units that could comfortably accommodate a small family. And they also challenged the design teams to be innovative with plans that increase liveability, functionality, storage, privacy etc. The architects experimented with open concept plans that bend some of the London Design Guidelines that set out minimum apartment sizes amongst other criteria.


London Design Guideline Sizes

Some of the interesting plans generated include design features like:

  • Expandable / Flexible rooms;
  • Dual entries for sharers;
  • Innovative Storage Systems and ‘Storage Divider Walls’;
  • Study Nooks; and
  • Modular / Pod Concept Internal Finishings.

I’ve posted a couple examples below:

Take a look at more!

What is impressive, and fortunate for all of us, is that Pocket shared their results online. Take a look! It’s well worth your time!

Some of the open plan design approaches will not be unfamiliar to Vancouver architects, and the lessons of many of these case studies could be easily introduced into new Vancouver buildings. One thing I found interesting is how many of the UK architects who participated in this competition chose to use “single-aspect” designs – that is apartments with windows on only one side. “Dual aspect” design – with windows on two elevations – is a general requirement of the London Design Guidelines but in my experience it does not encourage compact building forms or efficient internal circulation routes.

This is perhaps where London can learn from Vancouver where we create very efficient buildings (Net floor area: Gross Floor Area) by designing units off of a central hallway and a shared lobby where you can create a bit more amenity. This approach does create some single-aspect units, but apartments on corners still benefit from windows on two different elevations. Light and ventilation are typically achieved through open plan designs and shallow unit depths.

It has been fun working and learning in another design culture and I really appreciate when other firms share their research so widely.

Kudos to Pocket for being such thought leaders.