Livable streets, walkable neighbourhoods, affordable regions

Princess Street, Strathcona

If we are to draw a single conclusion from our the Vancouver Historic Quartiers working process, it would be that urbanism is a phenomenon of our own creation built across several scales of place and spanning centuries of time. Our findings are consistent with the work of others. The quality of the street environment—its “livability”—became our litmus test for measuring urban functioning at the local or district scale; we used the level of “walkability and social mixing” as the measure of urban functioning at the scale of the neighbourhood or quartier; and we used the “affordability of housing” as the measure for urban functioning at the scale of the region as a whole. By establishing different measures for urban functioning at different scales we were finally able to make sense of the urban whole. In the Vancouver’s Historic Quartiers we discovered the finest single piece of urbanism in our region.

The public realm

Existing conditions in the Historic Quartiers drew our focus to the quality of the public realm. More to the point, we focused on the environmental condition of the urban arterials. After all, street air is increasingly the daily regimen for all Canadians.

The measurement for the “livability” of the street is traffic volume. Most of our arterials carry between 40,000 and 60,000 trips per day. Above 16,000 vehicles per day studies show “livability” falls away (Appleyard, 1980). Of particular significance is the result that the congested arterials not only pose a threat to health (pollution) and life (pedestrian accidents), but they fail to support social functioning.

Looked at from the point of view of City Hall there may be economic consequences as well. Redevelopment on Vancouver’s arterial streets is not happening. When it does take place, it imposes a scale and character that is out of keeping with the surroundings. Why? Could it be that the toxicity of high traffic volume is finally extracting its price?

The alternative is complex, but well within our grasp. While hi-density can be built without hi-rise, hi-density requires the implementation of transit in order to deliver “livability” and avoid congestion in neighbourhood streets. The charrette tested the option of rebuilding the arterials as urban spines; using transit implementation to double trip capacity while physically removing automobiles from the street; planting continuous rows of closely spaced trees to calm traffic, green the street, and bolster the carbon sink.

We tested the option of re-developing single family lots fronting arterials at densities 6x higher—and many times healthier—than we find today. However, we discovered that in order to see these results, we had to measure at the scale of the neighbourhood, the quartier and the local district. On a case by case basis, the tower always wins out.

The Quartier

We tested breaking down the scale of the neighbourhood as a whole into districts and quartiers. We discovered that we could use districts to measure local character, and quartiers to measure urban functioning. In the quartier walkability is the measure of sustainable urbanism. In the old paradigm we drive everywhere we go because—in the suburbs—places are just too far appart and the densities are too low to support fast and efficient transit. Walking the quartiers we soon realized they are still places where most of the daily needs and wants can be found at short distances. In the new paradigm we seek to shed the family ‘tank’, and send in the infantry. However, our ‘soldiers’ won’t march into the ground zero scenario of our congested arterials. Something has to give.

The footprint of the walkable place, or quartier, overlays the same area of land as the transit stop catchment. Locating one transit stop per quartier spaces transit stops at the optimum distance of 800m or 0.5 miles apart. It puts one stop within easy walking distance of every front door in the quartier. Looking at it the other way around, clustering the a  transit stop near homes, a ring of neighbourhood services, and an urban room transforms the transit experience. Coming and going on transit becomes an opportunity for social mixing, a chance to pick up something for dinner, or just a moment in which to experience a joyful change of pace, or a different place. Finally, our ability to cluster two or three districts in each quartier is the game changer. Centered on an urban room, and near a transit stop, urban districts provide physical space for cultural, community and place identity.

Yet, the most remarkable finding that we measured at the scale of a quartier is that urban houses return equivalent density to the condo tower. This is because a row of urban houses are essentially the equivalent of a tower laid on its side. The defining characteristic of the urban house—the ability to achieve high density with human-scale product—is a perfect fit in neighbourhoods arranged around districts and quartiers. The urban houses lend definition and a sense of safety to the street, while the streets return livability to the fronting doors and windows.

Today, redevelopment proposals on arterials ask for an exorbitant bump in scale. A scale that may be appropriate downtown gets built instead in places where it threatens the social fabric of the neighbourhoods. A hermetically sealed, and vertically extended built form puts as much distance as possible between the private condo above, and the (dirty) public street below. If we embrace a Manhattan-model of re-development for our neighbourhoods, then we best be prepared to accept the New York City-style urbanism of private luxury, and public squalor.

When measured at the scale of the walkable neighbourhood, or quartier the concept articulated by Council in 2008 that “additional density” necessitates “corresponding height” is a fallacy. We have termed it The Density Fallacy. Measured at the scale of the quartier as a whole, towers and 3.5 storey urban houses achieve equivalent density. This is because the urban houses benefit from building in close proximity, while the towers demand to be set apart at great distances. The result is clear: we don’t need hi-rise to achieve hi-density.

Our analysis returns sufficient build out with urban houses fronting arterials to double the neighbourhood population building at just 3.5 storey height with fee-simple product. Further, the houses deliver what the towers cannot: urban houses create human scale in the urban environment. When the results are tested in real case studies, the human scale spaces win out because they can be seen supporting social mixing.

The Region

We made housing affordability the baseline measure for urban functioning at the regional scale. Admitting that there may be local pressures that might distort prices in unpredictable ways, we settled on the region as our final frontier for housing affordability. If a working family cannot afford to own a home in the region they call their own, then clearly something has gone completely wrong in the local economy.

The regional scale for affordability rests on a principle of land economics: price varies with the distance from the center or core. Quartiers situated in the regional periphery are poised to return affordable housing in a manner that centrally located quartiers may not. The urban footprint maps as a core-and-periphery pattern. As we move from the edge to the centre density—and the competition for land—increases values. The price of land and housing goes up as the length of the commuting trip decreases.

However, with congestion factored in, the length of the automobile commute can be many times greater than the commute on rail transit. The best strategy may be to pit one against the other. A highway system chocking with cars, versus a regional transit system with lane and signal priority. If the regional transportation network is in place, then the commute time on transit will trump the commute time in the private automobile every time.

The great promise of the private automobile was that we would no longer be prisoners to our location. The car would give us freedom to roam, to look for opportunity in every direction. However, we did not heed the warnings of those who cautioned that—taken in great numbers—the problems of the great metropolises of the past would return to haunt us in the modernist future. Horse drawn traffic was at a stand still in Imperial Rome because it had reached a population density of one million inhabitants. Every city and region to reach that population in the modern age has come face to face with the same problem: the necessity to manage pollution, and congestion. The same metric applies to us today. At a certain population threshold, grid-lock sets in.

At the scale of the region, the critical issue is to service density with mass transit, or face the dilemma of traffic congetion choked to a stand still. At the regional scale, the quartier presents as the cellular unit of the sustainable urbanism. We will build sustainable regions one walkable neighbourhood, or quartier at a time.

It is left to the regional transit networks to provide the fast and efficient—i.e.  congestion free—link to the centre. In the region, the first priority for urban functioning is the connection of one quartier to the next, and of each quartier with the urban core. The key consideration is whether or not the outlying quartiers are hard-wired to the urban core.

We have also to take into account any distorting factors in the market place. The City of Vancouver relies on the principle that re-zoning drives up land values as the reason to keep Industrial zoning in place in Mount Pleasant and the False Creek Flats. However, in economics the same principle that applies in one place will also apply in another—economics is blind to local customs. Thus, the rezoning of commercial property to ‘luxury’ condominiums must bring about the same unwanted speculation driving up land values in just the same way the planner claim in the industrial lands. Therefore, the promise that towers can deliver social outcomes should be ruled out. Hiking the value of land by granting hyper density will only play into the pockets of the few, and the well positioned. The general well-being will be negatively impacted even us our democratic process is undermined by having too much influence fall into too few hands.

All else being equal, fast and efficient transportation can deliver affordable housing at the regional scale. While it is true that there will be a variation in prices within each neighbourhood or location, all else being equal, the greatest variation in price will be measured across the region as a whole. However, as we have just seen all else is not equal. Re-zoning to tower densities is fuelling speculation in the housing markets and inflating prices to artificially high levels. If we are interested in providing affordable housing, then the best way to level the playing field is to extend the footprint for housing construction rather than rezone to higher densities. Current levels of zoning already have sufficient capacity to build high-density, human scale housing.

For every mile we we move away from the centre, we increase the land area by a factor is 3x the square of the distance. The old planning paradigm relied on this mathematical law to build suburban sprawl. In the new paradigm we can exploit the same principle to build a sustainable network of quartiers serviced by fast and efficient transit. Thus, in the final analysis, a regional transit system providing fast and efficient service may be our best hope to rebalance land economics and tame the automobile.

20,000 people can live within a 5 minute walking distance from of a regional transit stop. 3.5-storey apartments and fee-simple, urban house can achieve that density and build walkable neighbourhoods at the same time. Innovations in housing found along the new, fast and efficient transit networks can play in both the core and on the periphery.

A 10-mile radius built out at the human-scale density would be home to a population of 33.5 million. Thus, what we are facing is not so much a crisis in land, or space, or density, but a gap in our understanding. Good urbanism can be had at a 20-minute transit distance from the urban core, but only if we shift the planning paradigm.

Transit generates spreadable density region wide. It may well put sufficient product on the market to dampen the fires of land speculation, and keep housing prices in check. Certainly, it is going to help restore market normalcy if re-zoning for towers is stopped outside the Central Business District. Human-scale urbanism also has something to contribute in stabilizing the heated up market place.

* * *

Our challenge today is to imagine how to re-build our urban footprint—as a stop to suburban sprawl, and as a way to unlock the creative and cultural potential that only comes from urban communities—without erecting something entirely foreign in its place.

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