Sunday, June 30, 2019

Building new cities – Development for whom?

The Living City - Condos for the future

by Tarah Hodgkinson

Oakridge Centre is an area rezoned for a new development in Vancouver, Canada, the largest in the city’s history. It promises advances in urban design and affordability, with numerous public amenities.

It will be a transit-oriented development with futuristic apartments complete with advanced home technology and custom furniture. It will contain shared spaces in each tower that assure a combination of “private life and common life to be a true community.”

The Centre has been receiving kudos for advancements in design, its focus on transit, mobility and accessibility. Oakridge Centre boasts it will have a mix of market and affordable housing, with 25% of its new housing developments allotted for social and non-market housing.

For a city that has been suffering a housing crisis for several years, this should be a huge improvement.


Sounds great, doesn’t it? In a country where a quarter of all households spend more than 30% of their gross income on shelter and in a city where the average one-bedroom apartment requires a $84,000 yearly income, or about $2,100 a month - the current Vancouver median household income is $65,000 - obviously, there is a desperate need for affordable housing.

A planning development notice - Ever wonder what's behind them?

But what about affordability at Oakridge? How is it defined? The documents on Oakridge Centre do not offer a metric for “affordability.” They rarely offer any measure of cost or percentage of household income. However, to qualify for BC’s Housing Income Limits rates, household income can not exceed $41,500 for a bachelor suite, $48,000 for a one-bedroom, or $58,000 for a two bedroom.

As such, the competition for these units would be extraordinarily high and do little to address the current housing crisis in the city. For those who earn beyond the Housing Limit qualifiers, the market rates are untenable. Condo pricing starts at $800,000 and peaks at $5.5 million.


Assuming a 10% down-payment, the average person would need an income of $105,000 per year for the cheapest condo, over $30,000 more that the median household income in Vancouver in 2015. Considering figures like these, a review of the available material suggests that social housing is not integrated into the development at all.

Social integration is a large contributor to social capital and it helps the poor move out of poverty, but this example seems to pay little more than lip-service to affordable housing and diverse community-building. It caters to luxury clients while offering self-congratulations for exceeding city targets of 20%.

Condo housing and affordability

We have been writing about the housing and homelessness on this blog for several years. Cities and residents cannot continue to accept development that prides itself on offering a percentage of “affordable housing” while the other 75% is considered luxury and completely unaffordable to the average citizen. Affordability is more than just cheap rentals and social housing. It is a human right.

When the median household income is almost less than half of what is necessary to afford the cheapest unit in a new development, no amount of transit-oriented development, public amenities, or brilliant design will prevent financial desperation or homelessness. If Vancouver, and cities like it, want to build futuristic cities, they need to build cities for everyone.

Monday, June 17, 2019

To bench or not to bench?

Benches in public city parks offer refuge for city goers

by Mateja Mihinjac
The public bench has become an indispensable part of city life. It represents a primary seating option for taking a rest, conversing with a friend, having a coffee or a meeting, or simply observing the theatre of the street.

However, occasionally a bench is blamed for drug dealing, panhandling, loitering, vagrancy, or homelessness. This has led to calls for eradicating them or revamping them to reduce their attractiveness for prolonged occupation.


This knee-jerk reaction is not uncommon. We’ve written before about target-hardening approacheshostile architecture and even vilifying the trees for crime problems and safety issues.

Criminalizing loitering, especially when perceived as acts of lower social class, is a common example that diminishes use of public space.

Benches in unpeopled downtowns might attract undesirable uses

These simplistic decisions are often underthought, short-lived, and are notorious for
dehumanizing particular groups of people.

The question of removing benches extends beyond the presence street furniture. It is also about civility, ethics and inclusion. This sentiment comes from our New Zealand SafeGrowth Advocate, Sue Ramsay, who argues that the public debate around city planning should not only evolve around walkability but also sitability. Consider, for example, the needs of the elderly and less able groups in public space.

A public bench can provide opportunities for contemplation -
9/11 Tiles for America Memorial in New York City

In a bid to address undesirable uses cities should encourage positive uses of their downtowns if they don’t wish to surrender them to vilified groups. Installation of benches, in particular, is often part of downtown revitalization programs because they attract diverse users and communicate to them they are welcome to use public space.

Importantly, we should be aware that disorder and undesirable behaviors are a symptom of a social problem greater than design.

Revitalizing the street with temporary seating installation in Ottawa

Before vilifying the bench, how about clearly understanding what underlies the problem and targeting collaborative programs that help? How about work programs and skills programs for those with nowhere to go but benches? How about revitalizing downtowns through festivals, activities, local shops and cafes that focus on desirable activities?

A public bench is the epitome of public life. It allows one to both socialize and be alone, yet remain connected to the social world around them. It is the symbol of access to communal outdoor spaces.