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Growing cities

The City of Victoria has had a revision of its Downtown Plan in the works for the past …oh, two?, four? six? years (I know that I attended workshops and other public participation exercises on same around four years ago). The plan is finally out (it was pre-released to the media on Monday, 5/17), and for some inexplicable reason it will now be subjected to another six weeks or so of “public participation” before being put to the vote.

One of the city’s media outlets put the whole 183-page document on, which is a blessing. See Downtown Core Area Plan Draft. The original is in PDF, but on Scribd you can, among other things, see a “tiled” version, which lets you hone in on the pages that you think might be relevant – without having to scroll tediously through the PDF itself. (Hooray!)

On the same day that Victoria’s proposed Downtown Plan (which has one or two things to say about density and building heights) was released to the media, I came across two articles on cities, densities, and building heights, which piqued my interest.



One is from Ed Glaeser, an economist who writes about urban economics and development: Taller Buildings, Cheaper Homes (New York Times, 5/4/10). The other is from the Globe & Mail newspaper and presents a snap-shot of Toronto, Vancouver, and Calgary. It’s called How cities grow – up is in.

In the former article, Glaeser argues that Jane Jacobs’s aversion to high-rises was misplaced, and that taller buildings can make a city both more diverse and more affordable. Jacobs believed that lack of diversity and unaffordability went hand-in-hand – which isn’t hard to argue with. Presumably she saw high-rises as luxury (unaffordable) dwellings, which automatically means that they exclude diversity (only a specific class can afford them). Glaeser, on the other hand, argues that high-rises contribute to affordability. I think the key word may be “rental.” Glaeser writes of growing up in a 25-story rental building – and he also describes units that, at 1600 square feet, can accommodate families.

I wish that I could say that I know of tall rental buildings with family-sized units, either already built or under construction. But when I look at what’s going up in Victoria (or in Vancouver – or, I’d wager, in most western downtowns), it’s not rental units (unless the condo owners choose to rent their units out), and it’s not family-sized units either. If anything, the trend is toward small (really small) units that appeal to singles or the retired demographic. That’s not to say that I prefer the alternative (underutilized land, no new buildings), but I don’t see “affordable” and “family-sized” (that is, able to accommodate parents and two kids of opposite sex, which means 3 bedrooms) used in the same sentence when we describe what we’re building in our cities at present. This is a problem.

How can cities attract construction that meets rental demands and is friendly to families?

Glaeser notes:

Restricting supply led to higher prices and a city with space only for the rich. In the 1950s and 1960s, middle-income people, like Jane Jacobs and my parents, could afford Manhattan.  Equivalent families today can’t afford the city, and that’s a pity. By contrast, Chicago, with its longstanding pro-construction ethos, remains far more affordable even in prime locations.

I’d love some pointers to Chicago’s successes, and, if applicable, hints as to how they might transfer. Does the “pro-construction ethos” have to be really longstanding (as in decades), or is this something cities can adopt quickly? Vancouver has been fairly pro-construction lately, but it’s very unaffordable. So what’s the secret?

In his article, Glaeser brings the question back to density, which is surely a big sticking point for many people whose experience(s) with density to date were either negative or shaped by cultural myths and prejudices. Aversion to density is cultural, but that’s not to say that people should learn to accept actual intolerable conditions. Far from it – for if the mix of amenities is right, density is experienced as a convenience and as a good thing. If density is experienced as an intolerable constraint, it means the amenities are missing. Properly designed, density is an affordance, too: proximity to shops, recreation, parks, entertainment, clubs, friends. Shoddy buildings, on the other hand, make density intolerable: if you can hear your neighbor’s every evacuation or sneeze, something’s wrong. But cheaply-built buildings are, well, cheaper to build – which in turn gets back to economics and affordability.

In the Globe & Mail article, the comments board gives readers an indication of how far white, suburban-raised North Americans are from seeing density as an affordance. In most people’s views, it’s strictly a negative constraint, one that mostly affects their individual freedom.

Some commenters go up a level, from the individual to the societal, and focus on waste management. They conjure visions of cities choking on their own trash; or on water supply, warning of depletion of drinking water.

Several invoke Malthusian principles, arguing that we simply can’t grow any more. (Note: I get a bit impatient around this line of thinking – it seems to me that population regulates itself when prosperity rises and women gain equality. At some point thereafter, population settles at replacement levels or drops significantly below that.)

Clearly, the “pull up the drawbridge, we’re full” attitude is very common not just in my city, but elsewhere, too. It’s not exactly possible, legally, to tell citizens they can’t move to a city within their country, so unless we learn to manage growth well (affordance, not constraint), we’ll just get even more sprawl (which is already happening anyway, but why encourage it?).

So, Mr. Glaeser: back to you. We know that Jacobs’s vision of a somewhat quaint Greenwich Village in no way precludes an exclusive (and therefore anti-diversity) gentrification that’s unaffordable for mere mortals. In other words, quaint does not mean affordable or diverse or even friendly. And how, given the realities of economics, do we address another point she raised: the influx of “catastrophic money” (major urban renewal projects or very large civic projects that chew up entire city blocks, creating a kind of branded corporate-land that’s the antithesis of a neighborhood)? Finally, how can municipal governments and planning departments promote high-rise developments that are also affordable and family-friendly, while being amenity-rich and designed to make density an affordance, not a negative constraint?


  1. Here prices keep going up and up, not due to any lack of construction, but because some people apparently have bottomless pockets. I can’t help feeling that it’s a bubble that must burst at some stage – but when? As in the pic of Hong Kong, the rising prices also affect the supposedly “affordable” outer suburban fringe, due to restrictions on land release for further sprawl. Developers have generally got the idea that high-medium density is the way to go – so the big back yard is a thing of the past anyway – but since they need to maximise profits they build without the sort of facilities that won’t earn them any money (libraries, sports fields, for example). If you want those, you have to drive, so the highrise becomes a desert too.

    Comment by melanieb — May 21, 2010 #

  2. You’re describing a situation that’s very familiar here, too, Melanie. Part of me understands it, and another part sees the absurdity (taking into account long-range goals). Not sure what the fix is (or if there is one).
    PS: I didn’t have time/ energy to respond to your previous comments about women in leadership positions, but… FWIW, the stats you quoted line up perfectly with my impressions of the recent Google I/O conference. It was wall-to-wall male presenters, and according to one of my friends at the event, the attendance by women wasn’t much better either. Blaaaa…

    Comment by Yule — May 23, 2010 #

  3. If it’s any comfort, I think feminism comes in long waves. We’re in a trough at the moment, but – the sea level is rising (at the speed of climate change!)

    Comment by melanieb — May 27, 2010 #

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