Stephen Rees's blog

Thoughts about the relationships between transport and the urban area it serves

The Market for Walkable Urban Development

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Shifting Gears

Christopher Leinberger at SFU downtown

Thanks to Frank Pacella I am about to make my first attempt at live blogging.

Chris Leinberger was introduced by Larry Frank as a member of Brookings Institution and also a developer who has written for the Atlantic and the Tyee today

Christopher LeinbergerWatch “Back to the Future” – two ways to build a town 1955 and 1985 Hill Valley and its downtown. Two ways to set up the built environment. Now we are going back to the future.

Built environment is 35% of the asset base of all advanced economies – the largest segment. But only 2% changes every year which is why it takes longer to turn around than a supertanker. Walkable cities were the model for 5,500 years up until 1945: transportation drives development – it dictates the form of the built environment. Pompeii and Pepys London were basically the same urban fabric. Even with the introduction of rail – both where you boarded and got off you had to walk – with country in between. Then cars overwhelmed the right of way. Between 1930-45 building virtually stopped and there was no car production. We got collective amnesia and went down a new path – the new image came from the the 1939 New Yorks World’s Fair – Futurama. Fundamentally different way of building our urban places – all we built was driveable suburban – Levittown. We wanted this! ( “I walked 2200 miles as ten year old”) We made it a very good place to park a car.

In the twentieth century 30% of the economy was directly connected to cars “What was good for GM was good for the country”. And not just the US – China and Chekoslovakia too.

Wall Street commoditised real estate – they have to be all the same to be tradable. The same product is traded like pork bellies. Canada follows a more European model of land use controls. In US it is predictable where growth will go – the edge cities where for every 1% population growth we had 8 to 12% growth in land use.

In Canada, US and Australia there was a lot of land available – because our germs were stronger than their germs. In US we made drivable suburban the only thing you could build. Massively subsidised – cf sewers at 1 to the acre vs 40 to the acre. “One price, all you can eat” – low density means 10 to 22 times the subsidy

Only over the last ten years have we begun to study the unintended consequences. It was based on cheap oil, we have now passed peak oil. Its Achilles heel “more is less”: every addition reduces the quality of life on what is there. NIMBY opposition to growth is rational. And, of course, climate change. 73% of ghg comes from the built environment.

Difference between walkable and suburban is about 2 to 3 times the ghg.

Somewhere about the mid90s the pendulum started to swing back. Walkable urban places are different – as it grows it gets better, and it is also being driven by the market – the Gen Xers and the millennials. The boomers grew up watching “Ossie and Harriet” or Dick van Dyke – it all happened in the suburbs. In the 90s we watched Seinfeld, Friends and “Sex and the City” – all urban. Hollywood does more market research than the rest of the planet and they noticed that people wanted urban places – childless households were 50% 1950, 67% today but 88% over next 20 years.

Tremendous pent up demand for more choices – 50% want or put up with walkable urban – 50% drivable suburban – but there are many cities where there is less than 5% walkable. This will depress the value of suburban houses. In coming years all the demand will be for multifamily dense housing.

Downtown is regionally significant. Washington DC will be the model for the 21st century – mainly because of the subway. In last ten years urban DC has been restored – and office rents have climbed as downtown DC started gaining market share for offices. Not just DC also Baltimore MD, Chatanooga, Portland, Chicago, San Francisco, even downtown Detroit! Light Rail 3.5 mile from downtown to the train station – in the motor city.

Downtown adjacent – lower density but incredible character – Dupont Circle, the West End – in DC and here – Granville Island. It will also be suburban town centres – Bethesda MD, Lakewood CO – Via Italia Mall – now BelMar – 60% premium over rest of Lakewood. Reston VA – lifestyle centres “instant urbanity”

Two thirds of walkable urban places had rail transit.

Unintended consequences – lack of affordable housing, what do we do with the surplus big houses and the old strip malls.

Recommendations for Metro

  • fund new transit plan
  • more tod and overlay zoning
  • create additional private sector led WU non-profits B.I.Ds
  • 13-15 region serving walkable urban places – 6 per million


two panelists at SFU city talk April 25, 2008

Photo by Jason Vanderhill

Jim Cox

it felt like you were blaming us – we did what we thought was the right thing. We do things differently now – smarter now. VanCity Enterprises – after a career of buggering things up – does socially conscious development

Vancouver has a good downtown but a crappy region – sea of suburbs past Kits. We are going to have to stop driving – its too expensive. In Vancouver EcoDensity is going to have a tough time. Bowen Island is dead set against adding second storeys! Huge task to create regionally significant places. “We have just the crappiest transit system of any city I have ever been to.”

Blake Hudema

Less optimistic about pent up demand. You are speaking to the converted but how do we mainstream that? Schizophrenic – filled with fear. Market looks for simplicity and comfort. Current environment is going to be more diverse “the StarWars bar scene” – more types of building, more types of tenure. In shopping we have taken a huge step back when we left regional town centres for big box.

In for a real challenging time


1 What is the incentive for the non profit to do these transit nodes?

CL – I am just reporting from the front. They are funded by property owners – beginning to really brand a place – more aggressive The market wants something different – very complex – more like flying a jet than driving a car. We lost the ability to do walkable urban

2. Influence of parking policy

Jim – parking is bloody expensive you should do a lot less of it – use car co-ops – get the community to let us do it

Blake – look at the efficiencies – look at what those spaces are doing – integrated development.

CL Having a parking problem is a sign of success. Over time the amount of parking needed drops

3 – Offices in these devts?

CL – it integrates quite well: old model we separated land uses. There is no reason why you cannot integrate housing and offices. Post industrial offices and town houses work well together. Perfect shared use due to time differences: the house is occupied at evenings and weekends when the office is empty, so they are perfect neighbours.

4 – What do you want from a transit system?

Jim : Two or three times as much – all suburban communities – transit will one day be cool – driving will be like smoking. Go beyond central Surrey – want more express buses – want to see everybody have that opportunity. We did a really crappy job of concentrating jobs.
Blake – we need a real variety of systems – there are all kinds of barriers to get cheap solutions into place – need for more frequent service – no matter what it is. Trying to retrofit into car based system. We tend to concentrate on rail – we need more demand responsive, cheap transit.

CL – we don’t need any more roads – build transit to sell real estate – have the station underground. On the surface you always have to wrong side of the tracks. You can handle all the growth – you don’t need another sq inch of space if you do it right

GP – what do you do with a dead Mcmansion or a surplus u/g parking lot

CL – Mcmansions will become apartments but they are not going to hold up. There will be a lot torn down

BH – retrofitting will work for different market segments – very optimistic. In the retail sector we only built temporary space anyway. Most buildings of last 30 years will have to be bulldozed

CL – underground parking lots have all kinds of potential uses – paintball, artists …

5 Gateway – goods movement – what kind of policies made these things happen

BH – Gateway is evil – national agenda should have been more advanced – should have got railways

CL – freight railway lines are booming – we will see a shift back to rail. Truckers would vote for transit to clear the freeways of SoVs

Policies were v important – overlay zoning district to encourage the right thing – make it easy and legal at stations put in density

Q – Paul Pinsker – we are putting in local centres and reviewing parking requirements – look at sustainable activities – Bill 27

Affordable housing – how can we get more?

CL – short term – inclusionary zoning 20% must be affordable – put it over a large enough area, land prices will drop and the go back up again. Subsidy will not be felt. Montgomery County MD did it 20 years ago

Low income tax credits, workforce tax credits, auxiliary units “granny flats” should be legalised

Long term expand supply – the NIMBYs that don’t allow density around stations are the problem. More income needs to go into housing less into transportation. Drop one car and put it into your house

Make the right thing easy – downtown

Albuquerque 21 principles

The final question related to cycling and small towns in the BC interior, but I had to leave to go to work.


I am going to be able to use a lot of this tomorrow at the Rail for the Valley meeting. It is refreshing to hear someone else say that we have a crappy transit system. I am fed up with the way our boosters like to think we are doing well, simply because downtown Vancouver is successful. We need much more transit – and very much more affordable housing. And obviously not a single inch more tarmac! Retrofitting the suburbs should have been the main feature as that is going to be our biggest challenge. I was surprised no-one pointed out that the LRSP identifies Regional Town Centres, and only Metrotown and Surrey Centre got any mention. One of the great losses, in my opinion, is going to be the way that the Golden Ears Bridge spells the end of the unique character of Maple Ridge’s centre. It is now one of the few real places with a park and a band shell, community theatre and lots of independent businesses. How long will that last under the impact of the traffic streaming into town? There are suburban places of regional significance – Steveston and Fort Langley for instance. The problem I see is that the heritage stuff is so thin – especially in Steveston – that it is being lost as the place becomes more popular.

Written by Stephen Rees

April 25, 2008 at 7:06 pm

7 Responses

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  1. I am becoming increasingly concerned that the envisioning and design of walkable places places too little importance on micro design features. These are things that are cheap and easy, and give good bang for the buck, but simply don’t get done. We focus on the big sexy developments and trains, and we neglect the details. Most trips are not probably not commutes. They are for shopping, school, to visit a park or library, a friend. In a walkable neighborhood, these trips must be done by foot or bicycle. People on foot operate on a very small scale, often of just a few blocks (less than the distance between two Skytrain stations). This is much smaller than the birds’ eye views of planners (example of that phenomenon: Brentwood Skytrain station is beautiful from above, but it looks like a concrete monster from underneath where many people experience it). We know that pedestrian neighborhoods are often severed by things as simple as a four-lane street, or a sidewalk alongside half a block of blank wall. The walkability of these places is affected by a thousand little features and decisions: a bench here, a bit of distracting greenery there, a shortcut, a space for people walking, a cafe, etc. The focus on transit is essential for medium- and long-distance trips, but for most people it is not a reasonable option for trips within a neighborhood. Why wait 15 minutes and pay $2+ for a 3 minute bus ride?

    The new townhouse developments along Murray St. in Port Moody illustrate the problem. They were advertised for their access to walking and trails in Inlet Park across the street. The park is indeed popular. Yet the cul de sacs in the developments end just meters from the sidewalk – with no connection for pedestrians! Tramped paths are visible, but do little for people with strollers, wheelchairs, rollerblades, etc. (and may not last as the vegetation matures). This didn’t save money. It’s just a stupid oversight. It didn’t even occur to the someone that residents need a way to walk across the street to the park.

    I live near Brentwood Skyrtrain. Many sidewalks are missing, e.g. near Gilmore Skytrain on the north side of Lougheed where I’ve almost hit pedestrians at night (yes, people – including me – sometimes walk to the big box stores). The city claims the civic services – library, recreation, etc. – for the neighborhood are at Confederation Park, north of Hastings, but there is no adequate connection for pedestrians or cyclists. The neighborhood west of Willingdon lacks sidewalks (woe to strollers, wheelchairs, or anyone walking at night), routes on the east side are tangled. Willingdon itself is the obvious option, but it has a narrow sidewalk next to four lanes of traffic: it’s a miserable trip, and few make it. They drive instead. The parking up there is already filled up some weekday mornings.

    Part of the problem is scale – the 15-20 minute walk between Lougheed and Hastings indicates this is really two neighborhoods, not one. There should be a library etc. near Lougheed somewhere (and we desperately need some outdoor public spaces near the mall). Failing that, a good cycle/pedestrian route physically separated from the traffic on Willingdon would make a big difference. As it is, the city plans to use that space for two more unneeded lanes of traffic, worsening the trip and further dividing the west and east sides of the street.

    Transit is essential. But I realize that in the walkable places I have lived (in Ottawa, Toronto, and St. Gallen Switzerland), I didn’t take it that often. I walked (or sometimes biked). The high-density neighborhoods here (in Burnaby at least) seem designed for transit and cars, but not for people.


    April 25, 2008 at 10:45 pm

  2. Burnaby barely takes any action on sidewalks. They just get developers to do it for them, so sidewalk standards will improve gradually on a development-by-development basis.


    April 26, 2008 at 1:07 pm

  3. I grew up in north burnaby, personally I think it has changed very little , the only diffrence that I can see is the fact that there are cars everywhere, and more dwellings. aside from that its unchanged over 40 years, but geof your point is well made ,and you make me nostalgic about my old stomping grounds. the population has about doubled in that area since I left, yet it appears when I travel through north burnaby on occasion that there are less foot travellers now then there was thirty years ago, maybe thats because of age demographics, fewer kids, or maybe because physical fitness has stripped out of schools, it seems most people I know in that area drive their kids to school, ——maybe its not possible to have that type of community anymore, parents and seniors and the vulnerable are scared of the SICKOS–PERVS–and the ADDICTED. signed………………………………………….the ghost of burnaby past

    grant g

    April 26, 2008 at 1:23 pm

  4. Great liveblog. It’s challenging to capture the speaker’s ideas on the fly, and you’ve done a great job!

    BTW – I was asked at EPIC ’08 whether I was “the Raul that always comments on Stephen Rees’ blog” 🙂 Hehehehe. I am now much more popular thanks to your blog! (I wish it was through my blog, but I’ll take popularity in any way shape or form it comes my way).

    Hope you’re enjoying the sun today, it’s a beautiful day. I went down to Richmond last night for dinner (as I do every friday, since two of my best friends live there, near Garden City Way and Alderbridge) and I could almost walk without my jacket. Of course, at night it was freezing again.


    April 26, 2008 at 2:21 pm

  5. There is a plan to create an ‘urban trail’ on the east side of Willingdon; whether or not that extends south of Brentlawn/Gravely or not is unclear, but I would agree that Lougheed and Willingdon in the vicinity of the intersection of the two have to be some of the least attractive pedestrian environments around, at least there is a sidewalk now on the north side of Lougheed south of the mall. but the west side of the mall, with that narrow sidewalk bounded by the shrubs, and the abandonded gas station..

    Traffic already regularly exceeds the speed limit on this stretch of Willingdon, this solid median, with two curb lanes virtually empty of traffic, is going to turn Willindon into a virtual freeway.


    April 28, 2008 at 1:01 pm

  6. I wouldn’t hold my breath waiting for redevelopment to add missing sidewalks west of Willingdon, most of it has already been redeveloped with new housing, on a piecemeal basis. Unlike Brentwood Park on the other side, which for the most part has retained its postwar bungalow housing stock. has some interesting aerial (not satellite!) photos of North Burnaby in the late 40s and early 50s, some show Willlingdon Heights but not Brentwood Park; some show Brentwood Park without Brentwood Shopping Centre.

    David Banks

    April 29, 2008 at 7:53 pm

  7. I’m a bit late getting to this great post. Very informative, Stephen. I’m always happy to see articles about much more than just transit tech, even though that’s important.

    One general comment is that it’s evident that there has been much more interest very recently in planning and urban design, especially about walkable communitiies, and through process of repetition and education, it’s bound to leak further into the mainstream. In many ways it’s not the planning and design community maintaining the status quo — too much fresh blood, new vision and changed minds have entered these professions in the past few years.

    It’s the political realm that needs a shake up.


    May 2, 2008 at 3:38 pm

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