Tuesday, February 4, 2014

Building villages and the shifting demographics in Canada

One of the things that I’ve been thinking about lately is what makes a walkable community that people love. The simple answer is to put where people live within walking distance of shops, services, recreations, and employment opportunities; and tie all these walkable areas together with streets that give priority to transit, cycling, and walking, so people get more access to places they want and need to go. What does that look like?

In Metro Vancouver, visions of Downtown Vancouver and Metrotown come to mind when talking about walkability. This is not the only way to build a walkable community. In fact, the “Vancouverism” style of development is rare.

I’ve explored many regions in North America, and I’m starting to understand that it is really about creating villages. Villages come in difference shapes and sizes, but they share some common attributes. Villages are centred around ground-level, street-front retail on a “main street”. The “main street” retail stores may have more shops, offices, apartments, or nothing above the main floor. Just off the “main street” will be higher density housing like rowhouses, low-rise, or mid-rise apartments. There will also be single-family housing further away from the “main street”, but still within walking distance. To get the benefit of living in a large urban areas, all these walkable villages are linked together with transit.

Of course there are also parks, high-rise apartments, larger-format retail, schools, and other amenities that will impact the looks and scale of these villages, but the basic build blocks are the same. For example, Fort Langley and White Rock are both examples of a village. The Broadway corridor is a linear village. Even Downtown Vancouver is a series of villages.

When looking at places like San Francisco, Boston, Philadelphia, and even New York, many of the most walkable areas don’t have any high-rise apartments. What I did notices was a lot of row houses and walk-up, low-rise apartments. This is something we should take note of in the South of Fraser.

The following two graphs are from the CMHC Canadian Housing Observer 2013.

Share of each household type (%) Canada, 1971 and 2011. Select graph to enlarge.

Structure type by household type, Canada, 2011. Select graph to enlarge.

There are way less couples with children, and way more one-person households. This is a trend that the CMHC believes will continue. The majority of one-person households live in low-rise apartments.

Our population is aging, so people will need to live in walkable communities to have fulfilling lives as many will no longer be able to drive. The younger generation also wants to live in walkable areas for different reasons. All put together, there is a shift away from peopling wanting to live in the typical auto-oriented suburb.

In the South of Fraser, we have done a good job of creating a variety of housing choice, but we have failed at creating villages. We have failed because we have not created “main streets”. In fact, we are still building auto-oriented strip malls. It is not too late though, there are still development opportunities in the South of Fraser to create villages. I believe we must shift how we are developing the South of Fraser, so we can provide the quality of life that people want and deserve.

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