Vancouver Olympics a Living Laboratory for Urbanism!

Brent Toderian's picture

Among the countless stories being written on the successes and challenges of these 2010 Olympic Winter Games, not surprisingly the most interesting stories to me are those that speak to the challenges of great urbanism. As a host city, Vancouver has become a massive urban laboratory, with so many opportunities to learn, and we're soaking it all up.

As we are coming to the end of the final week, a few examples of big experiments and learnings come to mind.

A New Global Community-Building Model?

During the first week of the Games, we announced that our Olympic and Para-lympic Athletes Village has been recognized as only the second LEED-ND™ Platinum neighbourhood in the world – and given that the US Green Building Council awarded us the highest number of LEED ND points so far, 83 points, they proclaimed the community "the greenest in North America!" My past post gave many of the details of the planning and design of the Olympic Village. The debate has already started on whether this recognition means the community could be the "greenest in the world"- Given the incredibly impressive green communities in parts of the world that don't use the LEED system, many of which continue to raise the bar for us in areas where we're still behind, I think I'll leave that to the healthy debate of the global green community.

Green is obviously one big definition of success for the Athletes Village, but in a city that takes its livability very seriously (in a bit of great timing, the Economist announced this years rankings on the day of the opening ceremonies, again naming Vancouver the world's most livable city), the quality-of-life and livability in the Village is a key indicator of success as well. It will be some time before the Village is operating as a "normal" community for such observations, but so far the first residents – the athletes themselves – seem to be giving it high marks. The media has even picked up on the athletes tweeting, commenting about the Village;

"Ohno gushed: 'The Olympic Village here in (Vancouver) is beautiful. Awesome facilities and the hospitality is amazing. Vancity is an incredible place.' Another U.S. speed skater, Chad Hedrick, told his Twitter followers: 'The athlete village here in Vancouver is incredible! I have a two-bedroom condo overlooking the city and water. Good times!'"

Vancouver sees livability and sustainability as fundamentally linked, so we strove to build this new community to be models of both. Although the planning and construction challenges were huge, the global financing challenges even bigger, the resulting community has given a lot of people much to be proud of in the past few weeks. The Olympic Village has fundamentally changed "business-as-usual" for us in Vancouver, and we hope it will be a living laboratory for high-performance communities across the world. If only the public could see it better during the games! Alas though, the Olympics security has meant that only the athletes get that treat for the moment.

North America's Largest "Traffic Trial" Ever?

Cities like Copenhagen, and more recently New York, have embraced the value of traffic trials or pilots, in demonstrating effects of mode changes, dispelling myths, or just learning what really happens to traffic when you make a change, despite what the models say. Vancouver has used many such trials as well, including this summer's very successful closing of a lane of traffic over our Burrard Bridge (one of three bridges connecting the downtown peninsula to the rest of the city) to give it to cyclists.

But has there ever been as huge an urban traffic trial as this in North America? The transformation of an entire mobility system in a large city and complex downtown? We know that Vancouver is the largest and most urban setting thus far for the Winter Games, and that many Summer Games have been concentrated in one area, often on the outskirts of the built environment. The highly dispersed nature of our Games across municipalities and across highly urban settings, has made this trial rare if not unique. Massive pedestrianization of countless streets, a necessary 30% drop in car trips in a city that has already shifted significant percentages of trips to walking, cycling and transit in the past few decades, the running of a new streetcar pilot, the aspects go on and on.

All of this, we believe, gives us a special snapshot picture of a potential future for our city as we continue to move rapidly to more sustainable modes of travel. As we work toward an updated transportation plan for the downtown and broader city, the massive amounts of data, and the general change in perception and attitudes from this temporary transformation, may end up being the most powerful legacy from these Olympics. I strongly believe nothing will ever be the same in how we perceive traffic and movement in our city after this.

Here are a few of the mobility successes so far:

  • Halfway through the 2010 Winter Games, every day Vancouver is continuing to see record numbers of people walking, cycling and taking transit. We are consistently meeting or exceeding our 30% target reduction in car trips.
  • More than 20,000 pedestrians a day walked across the Burrard and Cambie Bridges to and from Downtown Vancouver.
  • With the good weather in the past few days, cyclist volumes across the Burrard and Cambie Bridges are at high summertime levels with an average of 5,000 cyclists riding to and from Downtown Vancouver every day. The City of Vancouver is providing safe and convenient bike parking spaces near Olympic and Para-lympic venues, LiveCity celebration sites and at the Olympic Village station of the Olympic Line streetcar. Free bike valet services are also available at these locations to encourage cycling.
  • The new Canada Line subway line reached a peak of over 250,000 riders on Thursday February 18, far exceeding the expected numbers of around 100,000 and the SeaBus had 50,000 boardings on the same day, well over twice the normal numbers. The system is handling these numbers well.
  • The Olympic Line - Vancouver's 2010 Streetcar pilot - reached a milestone a few days ago of 300,000 trips since starting on January 21, 2010, and is now averaging 20,000-25,000 boardings each day, making it busier than Seattle and Portland's streetcar networks, even though it has only two stations.

This media report sums things up nicely:

"It helps, too, that Vancouver's excellent transit system is zipping people so efficiently from place to place. The star of the games is the new $2.1-billion Canada Line, which stretches from the airport through the length of the downtown. With 20 trains running at two to three minute intervals, the Canada Line is carrying 200,000 to 250,000 passengers a day -- more than double its usual ridership. (The two older Skytrain lines, the Expo and Millenium, running every 108 seconds, are together carrying about 320,000 a day, an increase of some 33 per cent, while bus ridership has gone from 750,000 a day to 900,000). Local commuters say they're actually finding it easier and faster to get to work than usual."

This remarkable achievement is a triumph for the Olympic Transportation Plan, and it's to the huge credit of our very clever transportation planners at the City, working with VANOC (The Vancouver Organizing Committee who work with the International Olympic Committee, the various host cities, etc), who have done a fantastic job!

Urbanism At Its Best - A Transformed Public Realm

Perhaps the best example of great urbanism on display is the way the streets, squares and former parking lots have all been transformed into LiveCity sites, international houses, and constant street celebrations! Everywhere you look the crowds are massive, among street buskers and bands, impromptu street hockey games, in-street network installations (CTV who has Canada's rights to the Games have been broadcasting since the start from the middle of Robson Street in front of huge crowds), and even foreign invaders set to "defeat the world" (as Stephen Colbert has been proclaiming to the delight of massive crowds during his taping from the middle of Creekside Park, between Sochi House and Canada Hockey Place).

I've heard our streets compared with "17 new years eves in a row in New York", or "the most European-like use of our squares and streets we've ever seen – beyond European!". Canadians and international visitors have come together to create a fantastically friendly and passionate street scene that never seems to stop. Olympic officials are saying that perhaps only the Sydney Summer Olympics is comparable in terms of the energizing of the city's public, and public realm. It is absolutely thrilling to see and experience and may very well permanently transform our mind-set as a city and citizenry about our streets and public spaces – another huge legacy of these Games. Already it has re-ignited the discussions on pedestrianizing our Granville Street and many others, sparked discussions on a much bigger sidewalk patio culture , and on and on.

Here are some quotes pulled from the media on this phenomenon:

"SHINING CITY IN THE SUN: The glorious warm weather is a curse in some ways, but an even bigger blessing in others. The city itself is bathed in sparkling sunlight, creating spectacular TV images and a sublime street party. Vancouver is the largest and most culturally diverse city ever to hold a Winter Olympics. It's increasingly being hailed as the most beautiful, too."

"The streets here in Vancouver are teeming with people. Think of what 161st Street and River Avenue looks like before a Yankees playoff game, and you'll have an idea. But it's 24/7. And everywhere. The SkyTrain here is packed like the A train at rush hour all hours of the day."

"Team Vancouver" includes thousands of residents of this scenic city.
Rarely have I seen a host city so passionate and so ready to embrace the Games."

"Everywhere I wander in the city, people are in the streets. They're draped in Canadian flags, children have Canadian flag tattoos on their cheeks, people proudly wearing their "Canada" hoodies and their red mittens – the must-have item of 2010 (2.6 million pairs sold to date!) and spontaneous choruses of "O Canada" are breaking out whenever their national heroes win a medal."

"Most of the partiers don't seem to be foreign tourists, but rather locals who have flooded out of their homes and onto the streets, thousands of Vancouverites -- and suburbanites -- enthusiastically rediscovering their own downtown."

"The reason that downtown Vancouver has come to such vibrant life isn't because of the Olympics per se. It's because thousands of local residents have reclaimed their city centre as public social space."

"I walked out on to my friend's balcony in Yaletown Tuesday after Canada [defeated Norway] and yelled out, 'Go, Canada, go!'" said Brian MacNeil, "and the streets just erupted with cheers back. It's so much fun."

"We'll also point out the greatest event of the games might have occurred last Tuesday night when a ball-hockey game broke out on Granville (street) with about a thousand people watching. The video is actually up on Youtube where you can see the game, the fans and, if you look closely, a group of Canadian media types criticizing the line combinations and another fighting over who's going to do the sidebar on the winning goalie."

"It is, without putting too fine a point on it, freaking insane. It's also unprecedented in Olympic history and the evidence of this feel-good story smacks you in the face virtually every time you turn around."

When I have more time, I'll write more about the observations and effects on the urban realm, the way public art and "urban happenings" have been igniting the city, and other big learning – as it stands, I'm still taking it all in, day by day. I'll also find the time to download the thousands of pictures I've been taking and include some of the best in a next post. One item I'll likely write about are my own observations on the early controversy around VANOC's decision to put the fence around the Olympic cauldron, and why it particularly felt wrong in a city that takes its public realm design, and public access to public space, so seriously. The design improvements put in place around the cauldron since, though, have gone a long way in turning a negative into a positive.

Not everything has gone perfectly thus far with these Olympics, despite the incredible hard work of the countless organizers and volunteers. We've had challenges, and we've had tragedy. But I would like to thank and congratulate VANOC for their remarkable work, not because of the absence of problems, but because of how they've addressed them. I'd like to thank and congratulate the thousands of blue-coated volunteers who have been the biggest heroes of these Games. And I'd especially like to thank the people who made this the best celebration the City, the Country, and perhaps the Olympic movement has ever seen – if we end up being held up as one of the best Olympic experiences, it will be because of the public who made it so every minute.

From the host city's perspective though, and from my city-planner's perspective, we've already had remarkable successes and learning's in city-building. Like Expo 86, the City will never be the same again, because of this amazing laboratory of urbanism. To sum up, I'll steal some words from the Canadian "slam poet" Shane Koyczan who stole the show at the Opening Ceremonies – "we're an experiment going right for a change."

Brent Toderian is an international consultant on advanced urbanism with TODERIAN UrbanWORKS, Vancouver’s former Director of City Planning, and the President of the Council for Canadian Urbanism. Follow him on Twitter @BrentToderian




Ricardo, what do you see as solutions to the high cost of housing?

May I take a stab at that question?

I don't think housing costs in the US right now, as a whole, are high relative to income. I think there are select places in the US that are "unaffordable" relative to income and there are numerous reasons for that. I do think in many places it is land use regulation that contributes to unaffordability (defined as house prices totally out of whack with regional incomes). Natural barriers and supply limitations are also a function. Perhaps the better question is that why don't wages rise in lockstep with prices in some of these areas. My personal belief is that it is a) poor pricing policies which subsidize "excess commuting" and b) personal preference (people would be priced out of the housing market based on their income generating ability but choose to stay and live smaller).

A Couple...

Well, ideally, I'd toss out all land use regulations but building codes. Use/nuisnance problems could be settled via the courts (I'm a very big on property rights, which include the right to not have your property harmed by others...).

However, this solution would only really deal with "micro-issues"... there are other macro issues that, when acting through any particular market framework, also affect housing affordability. In, CA, one large one is Proposition 13, which limits property tax increases. It needs to go, as it artificially increases the cost of housing (low property taxes increase the ability of purchasers to borrow, and since credit is money, the more credit, the more one can pay, thus driving up housing costs...). Same with the GSE's (Fannie, Freddie) and the mortgage interest tax deduction on the national scale (all of which favor the wealthy and are paid for by everybody). Limiting sprawl can be done by stopping the subsidization of our highway system.

The other larger overriding issue is US monetary policy, which has been debt driven and inflation-based since the 70s. I won't go too much into this now, other than to point out that I am currently struggling in my thoughts as to what really has a greater effect on housing prices/unaffordability - overall US monetary policy or the local housing/land market regulations. My struggle with this stems from Japan, which went (and is still going) through the popping of a credit bubble and asset deflation (and I believe we are currently beginning the same thing now). Property prices in Tokyo have fallen something along the lines of 60% since the late 80s. I don't know the true extent of Tokyo's land use regualtions, but I'm sure they're strict, and yet property prices keep falling... very interesting stuff in my opinion to see how everything interelates and how hard it is to just identify one variable when it comes to housing prices.

Nevertheless, I think there are several examples in the US currently that point to what a city/region/state can do in spite of the larger macro issues. Houston (and Texas in general) is a good example of the type of land use regulations that can create affordability in an economically thriving city. The "land use market" is not perfectly free there, and you can see the effects of highway subsidization in how much it sprawls, yet the City is economically vibrant, diverse, and one of the last really large "cities" in Amercia that is truly affordable to the middle class.

Monetary Policy and solutions

I stayed away from this one as it opens up a whole other debate which we have discussed before. But, I agree with you. The Fed and central banking in general is far too expansionary which leads to inflation of all goods. The Fed really expands the "demand" side of the equation. But, it doesn't really explain why some areas with growing populations experience smaller house price gains than other areas with similar or even slower growth. That's where the supply limitations really come into play. Artifically-created demand with lack of supply and a psychology that a house is an investment was a recipe for disaster.

As for what to do about it: why not let prices fall to their market levels instead of trying to subsidze loan mods or give people money to buy homes via the tax credit. Also, get rid of the GSEs. Perhaps we could also minimize impact fees when its clear that buyers of new homes are subsidizing infrastructure for existing homeowners. And, should a small subset of the population really be subsidizing home ownership for some people via "affordable housing" laws? If we are trying to help people, why not expand the EITC?

Property Taxes

I agree re not subsidizing the highway system.

Re property taxes, don't you think they need to be controlled?

In rural areas and rural suburbia outside of major cities here, high property taxes are one of the major drivers of farm owners and other long time residents in selling their land- they claim they are becoming too burdensome, sell their house and/ or house/farm, and move somewhere with lower property taxes, like rural North Carolina.

There are state officials proposing to eliminate property taxes.

There's also the split rate tax if anyone has heard of it.

Farming and Land Use


What is the point in treating farming favourably for land tax and exclusive zoning, when 1) Its return in income and jobs created per hectare is far lower than its use in urbanisation 2) We have sizable surpluses of produce and are mostly "price takers" on world markets
3)Farming is a more environmentally damaging activity than most other potential uses of land.

If there is any activity that we should be pleased to "let go" to third world countries, it is farming, not our industries. We have this exactly back to front. It makes no sense to make industry and its workers pay prices of 20 to 30 times as much for their land, because of zoning, as farmers have to. Land tax has minor impacts compared to this.

The USA would be losing even more industry if it wasn't for the fact that some of it moves from California to Texas rather than from California to Asia.

Property Tax Thoughts

In my ideal world, no , property taxes would not need to be controlled... (yes, I know my ideal will likely never exist, but I can hope/work for good enough). However, again, nothing exists in a vacuum, and right now we live in an inflationary world that purposely hurts those without, or with few, assets. Compounding issues here, is that CA's state government is especially predatory in its ever-incrweasing costs and handing out tax dollars anything "big" that will help get someone elected (even while in purposely gerrymandered districts). Additionally, with property prices reaching stratospheric heights (even after the crash things are still expensive) partially based on land use regualtions that drive up the cost of property, one could argue that the government is just trying to give itself a windfall with by continually forcing ever increasing property tax valuations (a stretch yes).

For me, it's actually pretty hard to advocate lifting property tax caps in isolation in CA. However, again ideally, if improvements actually create true economic value, then property taxes should rise to encourage the highest and best use of the property...

Monetary policy

You are right onto it, Ricardo.

Loose monetary policy used to have a "boom" effect on housing; there was demand and then oversupply which led to a bust. But prices used to cycle up to a median multiple of 3.5 maximum because there was so much low cost land available. Property cycles went between 2.5 and 3.5.

The total sums of money wiped out in those busts was inconsequential compared to the supply-restricted bubbles of today, where the peak of the bubble might be median multiples of 7, 8, and 9. That is the difference between a "boom" and a "bubble", which surprisingly few experts have clear even yet. A "boom" is a boom in supply. A "bubble" involves "something for nothing" price increases.

California is very important

That is probably sufficient explanation, thanks Ricardo. Many people explain the difference between California and Texas etc, as purely a question of attractiveness of climate, landscape, etc. Yet over the ranges from the Pacific is not an attractive place to live, and it is testimony to the power of urban limits to drive up prices, that desert-edge lots went to $300,000 and more. Had they stayed at $30,000 as in Texas - and there is no economic reason why they should not have - prices in the rest of California could have been kept down, California would not have lost so many people, and there would have been next to no financial crisis.

The Hugh Pavletich article I recommended above has been posted by Scoop NZ. Hopefully it will be posted by others too, but meantime, it is essential reading on the subject of mortage based losses in California versus other States.

Of course other areas had price bubbles too, but there is an undeniable correlation between urban limit constraints and these bubbles. Check out Randal O'Toole's recent provocative paper.

Rubber stamp: tardy.

Small l standard template argumentation using PK's 'Zoned zone' out of context to prop up their worldview: check. The average time it takes to trot this out got a little longer, though. One wonders why it took so long to cough it up this time...



Report today: In the Shadow of the Olympic Flame

Here is today's Democracy Now program from the poor section of Vancouver:

In The Shadow of the Olympic Flame: A Report From the Downtown Eastside of Vancouver, the Poorest Neighborhood in Canada

Michael Lewyn's picture

foreclosures not that closely linked to home prices

Foreclosures are concentrated in four states - Arizona, Neveda,Florida and California.

California is of course quite expensive- but the other states far less so.

Even according to Wendell Cox, Las Vegas and Phoenix are highly affordable markets, with housing prices less than three times median income.

In Florida, Miami has affordability issues, but every other region in the state is pretty close to the magic 3-1 mark.

Meanwhile, notice what ISN'T on the four state list- every other expensive state besides California!

Demographia's affordability ratings

Michael, you need to look at previous Demographia reports, and also Randal O'Toole's recent paper (I wish he would not select such provocative titles for his papers). There is a connection between foreclosure rates, and price rise-and-fall, not between foreclosure rates and prices as they are now.

California still looks unaffordable now while the others look affordable, because California has crashed from absurdly high median multipliers like 7, 8, and 9; down to 4 - 5; while the other markets you mention have gone down to 3 from levels like 5 and 6, which were cause for concern in their time.

Hugh Pavletich of "Performance Urban Planning" has just done the most thorough analysis I have yet seen, of the sums of money involved in mortgage finance related losses, in California compared to Texas. This should be widely read:

The planning profession and the economics profession also need to be alerted to Randal O'Toole's analysis of previous urban market bubble volatility. It appears that urban markets around the USA have gradually been joining the ranks of the "volatile" markets as they institute urban limit policies; each bubble has been bigger in terms of the whole of the USA as more and more markets have become bigger and bigger participants in each bubble. If he is right, next time will be bigger than this time - God forbid.........Or perhaps a long, slow stagnation like Japan? Who knows?

Michael Lewyn's picture

Interesting statistics

The link between market volatility (as opposed to high housing prices) and foreclosures is certainly there, somewhat to my surprise. Looking at the NAHB statistics (which show changes over time) really bring the point home. ( , then find the "Complete History by Metro Area" spreadsheet).

The larger metro areas in the "Four Horsemen" (Fla, Az, Cal, Nv) states show price drops as high as 50 percent. By contrast, super-expensive metro areas in the Northeast show 15-25 percent drops.

Not sure how this supports the alleged link between regulation and foreclosures. If you assume (as many commentators seem to) that any home prices above the 3-1 income/price level are the result of land use regulation, then the superexpensive housing markets would have the highest levels of land use regulation. Yet they seem to have avoided foreclosures, volatility etc. to a much greater extent than only moderately expensive markets. What's up with that?

Foreclosures resulting from predatory lending

Foreclosures in lower income neighborhoods can result from predatory lending. People were sold loans they could not pay back according the terms of the loan. Some, now, just will never be able to afford the homes they were sold.

Lax to non-existent government regulation over lending institutions is in part responsible for this problem.


Why do you blame "predatory lending" and LACK of government regulation for this problem? I thought the lending institutions had in fact been forced by regulatory mandates, to lend to people of high risk of default, so as to not deprive disadvantaged people of the "right" to home ownership. I don't think this is controversial or in dispute; do I have to link to articles about it?

Financing Low Income Communites Text

Financing Low Income Communities by Julia Sass Rubin Chapter 8 covers predatory lending

Predatory Lending

"Lax to non-existent government regulation over lending institutions is in part responsible for this problem".

Actually, consumer lending is heavily-regulated. A lot of those "predatory loans" were made using US Government-approved underwriting as they were made specifically to be purchased by Freddie Mac/Fannie Mae (no use trying to argue that Freddie Mac/Fannie Mae is not explicitly part of the USG) in an effort to "encourage homeonwership". There was greed all around, and everybody made a ton of money (see "Barney Frank" and check out the bonuses given to Freddie Mac/Fannie Mae executives got during the bubble... conveinent that some of that dough made its way into campaign donations) except the vast majority of taxpayers and the people who are stuck in their homes now.

HRP, please do not take my comments to mean that I don't think many people were taken advantage of and are now in a bad situation, I just don't think that the root cause of the problem is lax regulation...

Michael, one thought

you might distinguish between house prices and mortgage amounts in your evaluation or thinking on this. We must all remember that there are at least a fair number of homeowners living in $500-$750,000 homes with mortgages that may be less than $150,000 or none at all. I joked many times while living in California that if people had to buy their homes at "today's" value, they would really be hurting. That was more true 3 years ago, but still is somewhat true today. You can probably see how that can affect a conclusion about foreclosures and housing prices. I find the higher growth states (in the 2000s) have had problems because of the larger LTVs relative to today's or even 2006 values. I think the rub about any significant land use restriction as it relates to housing is this: it certainly could have benefitted those who already owned homes effectively lowering their LTV and reducing their foreclosure risk while increasing prices for those looking to buy and pushing to "drive till they qualified" and putting them at greater risk of foreclosure. The regulation=foreclosure is a big leap, but it's probably an argument you can reasonable make as long as you consider that there are many other reasons for foreclosure and that is just one small one.

Another thought for you and Michael

This is a most rewarding discission, thank you Michael, and thank you, ContrarianPlanner.

That explanation is very good, ContrarianPlanner. There is also the factor to consider, that it is a common practice for existing owners of homes to use their homes as collateral for borrowing; for new cars, for holiday cruises, for business investment, for home improvements, for education of them or their children, for unexpected medical expenses, and (this is important) as collateral for purchase of another one or more properties as investments. It might be very revealing to analyse the number of properties thus purchased in the bubble period. When you have low interest rates and rapidly appreciating property prices, the temptation is great.

But clearly incumbent owners in areas like California, while enjoying appreciation from the low value at which they bought their home years ago, to some absurdly high figure; frequently may not have the income to support loans taken out against the increased value; and they may also simply be too wise for that.

You are certainly right, ContrarianPlanner, about the new entrants to those markets being the biggest problem.

I should also clarify my claim about the connection between price volatility and foreclosures. I think this is self-evident, yet Michael is right that some less-inflatory markets have had high rates of foreclosure. I believe this is the result of regulatory lending mandates regarding the disadvantaged (some people call this "predatory lending"; it is a question who are the predators; the lending institutions or the politicians who forced such lending practices on them).

In high-inflating markets, there was no way even under the most relaxed "sub-prime" terms, that the unemployed, beneficiaries, checkout operators, cleaners, etc, were ever going to qualify for loans. But in markets like Atlanta, because of the existence of cheap land and even cheaper down-market area homes, it was possible for these people to become home owners with mortgages of $60,000 and even less. As soon as a downturn hits, (and California started this, not Georgia) of course many such people will become defaulters. The numbers of foreclosures will be high and yet the total sums of money lost by the finance sector will be low.

I have already posted on this thread, the analysis by Hugh Pavletich of the difference in sums of money lost, between California and Texas. This is deeply illuminating on the point I am making here.

Latest report

This gets more and more complex and difficult to understand by the day. I just read THIS:

How can anyone safely forecast anything about housing markets with this sort of thing going on?

".....The number of lots owned or controlled by a dozen of the biggest builders rose slightly in the second half of 2009 after years of decline as renewed buying offset heavy tax-related selling of unwanted parcels, according to a Bloomberg analysis of company reports. In crash-prone markets such as Southern California and Florida, prices of some construction-ready lots are up 50% or more from their 2009 lows. "There is definitely a shortage of land, and you cannot turn the switch on overnight," says Douglas C. Yearley Jr., executive-vice president of luxury builder Toll Brothers......

"......It's tough to say how much land prices have risen because each market is different......"

They said it. But they missed the crucial word "zoned" out of that sentence: there is definitely a shortage The difference between the various markets is affected to a large measure by this factor, too.

Homelessness in Vancouver and the cost of housing

I contend that the homelessness issue in Vancouver has very little if anything to do with the high cost of home ownership.

Unlike in the US, we in Vancouver do not have a phenomenon of people being foreclosed upon and winding up on the street. It just has not happened here. My point being that very few of the homeless on the streets of Vancouver were former Vancouver homeowners that could no longer afford their mortgages. Likewise, I doubt that the cost of a monthly mortgage payment is the main impediment keeping the homeless from entering the homeownership market. Saving up for a down payment and going in to a bank to get approved for a mortgage is probably not on most homeless peoples radar screen.

Again my point is that the cost of homeownership is not linked to the homeless issue. It is instead the rental market that the homeless would be looking to participate in. And Vancouvers rents are really not all that high. They are certainly lower than in Toronto and Seattle, far lower than in LA or San Francisco, and only moderately higher than in Edmonton and Calgary. I would contend that they are more or less in line with local incomes. So while it is a tight market, it is not fundamentally an affordability problem in my opinion. The rental market is self-correcting in real time. Most recently the rental market in Vancouver is quite soft. And despite the official stats placing rental vacancies below 2%, that reflects purpose-built rental buildings only (of which there have been very few built in the past 20 years). The vast majority of current rental supply year to year is provided by condominium investors, who ensure a well-supplied marketplace. Indeed, it is the large number of condominium completions over the past 12 months that has resulted in the softness that landlords are currently experiencing. But this hasnt translated to fewer homeless in the Downtown-Eastside.

There are a number of factors contributing to the homelessness problem in Vancouver, but I dont believe that economics is one of them. These include first and foremost that Vancouver is the only city in Canada with an agreeable enough climate to permit living outside in the wintertime, but also a lack of proper mental health institutions and a self-perpetuating ghetto of social services in the Downtown Eastside. There are plenty of more affordable areas in the Greater Vancouver region where one could find rental housing than a semi-waterfront district a stones throw from the CBD, so why is it all ghettoized thereÉ The only answer I can come up with is, because thats where it always has been.

Richard Wittstock

True, but your turn is coming

Good points, Richard.

Rents do tend to stay low in a housing bubble because so many "investors" are buying properties with the capital gains in mind. Then there is an "oversupply" of investment properties for rent.

But given the size of Vancouver's housing bubble, identified in the last Demographia survey, your turn will come for the tent cities of recently foreclosed residents.


Thanks for blogging during these busy days and giving the Planetizen readers a glimpse of what your city is like during the Games.

Congratulations to the Vancouver Planning Department and your partners, for both the long transformation over the years and the successful showcase for density, transit, and pedestrianization. Your vivid descriptions reveal one of the true goals of urbanism: creation of an atmosphere and environment that encourages spontaneous civic celebration in a flexible public realm.


Brent Toderian's picture

just to add...

I should have definately included TransLink, our regional transportation authority, in the credit for our transportation success - the job they've done is simply tremendous! And to HR, I agree, and I'll speak to the homelessness and affordability issues and legacies, and the much-needed messages given on homelessness during the games from many speakers, in my next post.

Brent Toderian

Maintain Momentum

Please keep the momentum going. The Granville Mall should be kept as a pedestrian-only space. The street car project should be implemented quickly. I love the way the city has transformed over the past 2 weeks - let's keep it going.

Maybe I missed something... but WHAT are you talking about?

Consider this:

AARON MATÉ: It’s just a short walk from the Olympic festivities, but the Downtown Eastside can feel worlds apart. An area of fifteen square blocks, it’s the poorest postal code in Canada. It has the highest HIV infection rate in North America, an outgrowth of rampant drug use and prostitution. But for decades, right through the Olympics, it’s also been a community of resistance.

PROTESTER: What we have in the Downtown Eastside is the most impacted and one of the most devastated communities as a result of the 2010 Olympic Games. People are being pushed out. People are being shoved around. People are being thrown into jails. And yet, we’re standing here, because this community always fights back and always resists with courage and with love. Thank you, everyone, for being here.

AARON MATÉ: The Winter Olympics cost around $6 billion, nearly $1 billion on security alone. That’s seen as an affront in the Downtown Eastside, where residents have fought to preserve the social services that can mean life or death for many vulnerable people. Libby Davies is a member of the Canadian Parliament.

LIBBY DAVIES: In many cities across North America, inner cities have either been demolished, gentrified, wiped out, or people just left in misery. In this neighborhood, there has been a struggle for more than thirty years to fight back and to say, “This is our community. We have a right to be here. We have a right to live in dignity, in good housing, with parks, with a community center.” And so, this struggle goes on.

Is Planetizen part of the neoliberal ignorance of what is happening in urban regions?

Goetz Wolff - UCLA Urban Planning



Planning for everyone

The reality is that we are operating in two worlds within each city. In many ways, much of our planning is only serving higher income people.

People, including planners, are recognizing this is a problem and are trying to change it. We have to plan for communities that serve and include people of all economic backgrounds/walks of life.

Back To Basics

Sorry if this is old news to everyone, but Joel Kotkin did quite a good analysis of this:

"Back To Basics", by Joel Kotkin

Clueless at UCLA

You are quoting people with hard-core anti-capitalist if not Marxist agendas. These people have no credibility in the mainstream and are speaking only for their own consituency of self-perpetuating so-called anti-poverty activists. The reality is that nobody in the Downtown Eastside has been displaced by the Olympics, believe me these people would have been screaming blue bloody murder if anyone was being evicted to make room for Olympic visitors. This place was under a microscope prior to and during the Olympics and yet there were no sordid stories to report other than the superficial observations of this reporter. The Downtown Eastside has been a sinkhole for hundreds of millions of dollars in social services funding from various levels of government, with what progress to show as a resultÉ At least the Olympics produced an experience for the City that had tangible economic benefits and obvious community spirit, patriotism and memories that will last a lifetime.

Whenever someone says $6 billion I stop listening because I know immediately what their agenda is. Over half of that number was much-needed infrastructure spending. I have never known the hardcore left to be so vehemently against transit infrastructure, but I guess it suits them in this case.

Michael Lewyn's picture

Vancouver and rents

I did a brief (not too scientific) survey on Craigslist, looking for housing under $500 advertised in past several days. I counted 14 in Vancouver, 5 in Toronto. Here's actual data supporting this:


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