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My wish for Cuba

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via Photo Challenge: Wish


The photo was taken last week in Old Havana, on the Paseo Marti at lunchtime. We had found a restaurant on the roof of the Asturias friendship association’s building: they have a barbecue up there. I had a whole grilled red snapper, my partner the largest pork brocheta I have ever seen. We felt very lucky to be away from the cold of Vancouver, in a beautiful old city. Then I looked across at the other side of the street.

There are many old buildings in Havana, which tourists love to photograph. They are highly picturesque and a few have been beautifully restored. Many more are in desperate need of repair. Look at the balcony of the window to the left of where this woman is standing. The old rusted rebar is still there, hanging loose. The concrete has fallen away. Yet there she stands – and where she is standing is going to go the same way one day.

Cuba has been subject to a lot of severe weather – many sites show the damage caused by hurricanes. These weather events are getting more severe and more frequent. Many countries are switching to renewable energy sources to try to limit the increase in the greenhouse gases that are the cause of the change in our climate. It is not just warming: it is sea level rise, storms and plagues.

In  its recent history Cuba suffered as a result of the US embargo. It had an ally in the former Soviet Union but that source of aid has gone. It used to rely heavily on Venezuela for its fuel but that country is now facing its own challenges. A Canadian company, Sherritt, has been helping in recent years to exploit the newly found oil and gas resources not too far from Havana in Matanzas, near Varadero – which is also a major area for all inclusive resorts where we also spent some time last week. We saw the huge chimney of the thermal power plant that now supplies Havana’s electricity – and it’s long plume of particulates. These add to the smoke from the open burning of sugar cane residues in the field after harvest. And the tailpipe emissions from old cars that never had catalytic converters or any emission controls and have now been mostly converted to diesel. I got through four packs of nasal tissues every day while in Havana.

What we did not see – despite the sunshine and strong winds – were any photovoltaic panels or turbines. Someone told us they were in the plan for the future but were currently considered “too expensive”. She also said that Raul Castro has announced his intention to retire next year. There is much uncertainty over what may follow.

My wish is that the people of Cuba will benefit from the long overdue improvement in relations with the United States as a result of President Obama’s decision to end the embargo. The main immediate effect of which was to end the opportunity of travel for Cubans to the US as refugees. Increasing uncertainty is unfortunately a major plank in the policy of the current occupant of the White House.

Cuba is a poor country with many people who are underemployed: well educated but unable to find a way to utilise their knowledge, skills and willingness to work hard. Every embassy and consulate I saw in Havana is heavily fortified, not because Cuba is unsafe but to deter those who might climb their fences seeking asylum.

My wish is for a better future for Cubans that is not dependent on the individual generosity of tourists, or the investment of more Canadian money in exploiting fossil fuels. A future which offers dignity for all. And safety in their homes. Not a precarious perch in a crumbling ruin. I wish I knew of a way of getting this message out to more people. I wish we could persuade our governments that waiting for chaos to break out – or even provoking it – and then offering shelter to a tiny percentage of the resulting refugees is not a tenable foreign policy option. That foreign aid is not just an easy target for spending cuts to allow tax breaks for the wealthy. That countries like Cuba are not simply a useful place to conduct torture that would be illegal at home – and is anyway ineffective.

My wish is that countries like Canada and the United States will do something to tackle the gross inequalities that now characterize our world. Symbolized by the wealthy old white guy enjoying his expensive lunch while a young woman looks out from her window a few feet away and wonders what she will do next.


Much later in the same day I wrote this piece my partner found an article by Michael J Totten in World Affairs entitled “The Once Great City of Havana” 3 December 2013. It is a Long Read but very thought provoking.

And then I found this via twitter: of course if the first rule of SNET is don’t talk about SNET then posting the video to youtube was flouting the first rule and probably endangering the network. I see this as a sign of hope – especially if the authorities decide to leave it alone.

Written by Stephen Rees

March 8, 2017 at 11:55 am

That new bridge

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I apologize for driving you to a paywalled article. Francis Bula is reporting on what Geoff Freer (executive project director for the Massey project) says about replacing the tunnel and why transit won’t meet that “need”

60 per cent of the commuters are travelling to Richmond or Surrey, the U.S. border or the ferries – so are unlikely to use transit anyway.

The chutzpah of this statement takes one’s breath away.

It is not as if the Canada Line was not already changing travel patterns in Richmond. And the introduction of useful inter-regional connections to the transit system (over many years since it was entirely focussed on downtown Vancouver) with direct service to Metrotown and Newton shows that when the transit system actually looks at how people are moving, as opposed to used to move, even ordinary bus services can be successful. When I first arrived in Richmond and had to commute to Gateway in Surrey I initially tried the #410. Then it was infrequent, with a huge one way loop through Richmond wand was always very lightly loaded. Over the years it has become one of the busiest bus services in Richmond and the only one in the Frequent Transit Network.

The other huge change was when Translink backed off the long held belief  that it ought not to compete with Pacific Stage Lines and run a direct bus between the ferry at Tsawwassen and downtown Vancouver. The new service they introduced initially required a transfer to the B-Line at Airport Station, and now requires a transfer to the Canada Line at Bridgeport. It coincided with increased vehicle fares on the ferry so that walk-on traffic grew exponentially. (BC Transit had long met ferries with an express bus from Swartz Bay to downtown Victoria). The #620 now requires articulated buses and frequent relief vehicles. Just like the express bus to Horseshoe Bay.

Artic unloads at Bridgeport

As for cross border services, it would be easy to set up a “walk across the line service” at Peace Arch, with connections to Bellingham. There are just much more pressing priorities – mostly getting students to post secondary institutions thanks to UPass. But bus service across the line has seen significant commercial traffic with both Bolt bus and Quick Shuttle in head to head competition. Some of the casinos down there run their own shuttles too. The best thing that has happened so far on this route has been the introduction of a morning Amtrak train departure for Seattle.

What is actually needed is transportation planning that looks at the future pattern of development in the region, and integrates land use planning to meet population growth and travel needs. Strangely the desire of Port Authority for deeper draft for vessels in the Fraser River is not the first and foremost consideration. Port expansion is not a driver of economic growth. It is path towards calamity, since it is driven by the desires of a few very rich people to export yet more fossil fuel at a time when anyone with any sense recognizes that we as a species have no choice but to leave the carbon in the ground.

I think that one of the great benefits of rail transit development would be protection of the last bits of highly productive agricultural land left after the ruinous performance of the BC Liberals to date. People riding on trains get fast frequent service through areas which see no development at all, because it is concentrated around the stations. What part of Transit Oriented Development do you NOT understand, Mr Freer? Expand the freeway and sprawl follows almost inevitably.

Trains like this one serve the region beyond the Ile de France, and provide fast direct services for longer distances. The much faster TGV serves the intercity market.

It is perhaps a bit hard for people here to understand the idea of fast frequent electric trains that are not subways or SkyTrain, but they are a feature of most large city regions – even in America. As we saw in yesterday’s post even LA is bringing back the interurban. West Coast Express is not a good model as it only serves commuting to downtown on weekdays. All day every day bi-drectional service demands dedicated track – or at least the ability to confine freight movements to the hours when most people are asleep.

New Jersey Transit provides statewide services to the suburbs and exurbs of the New York region

Transit to Delta and South Surrey has to be express bus for now, just because there is so much catch up in the rest of the region. But in the longer term, really good, fast, longer distance electric trains – which can actually climb quite steep grades equivalent to roads over bridges – must be part of planning how this region grows. It requires a bit better understanding of the regional economy than just assuming that somehow coal and LNG exports will secure our future, when they obviously do no such thing.

Managing Growth: Integrating Land Use and Transportation Planning

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Metro Vancouver Sustainability Community Breakfast at BCIT downtown Wednesday June 12 at 7:30am

I went along to this outreach event. The link above should also eventually link to the presentations as these are made available some time after the meeting – look at the top left of the screen that opens for “Previous Presentations”. They also had their own hashtag so I have a storify link too, which includes some  pictures of the slides.

Before I get into the detailed transcription of my notes, I want to make a couple of observations while they are fresh in my mind.

The meeting was chaired by Derek Corrigan, who is both Mayor of Burnaby and Chair of the Metro Regional Planning and Agriculture Committee. He made introductory remarks, and then ran the Q&A session after the presentations, interjecting whenever he felt the spirit move. I seriously think he constitutes a strong case for considering term limits for municipal politicians. While there is clearly value in having elder statesmen, and people with extensive experience, there are now a number of these Mayors-for-Life. Rather like Hazel McCallion of Mississauga they become characters, and gather electability over time so that they effectively can no longer be challenged. This gives them an air of invincibility – and  a distinct lack of humility. For instance, when someone, actually from the North Shore where no-one supposes rail transit is even a remote likelihood, raised a question about Translink’s current inability to make commitments to greater transit expansion, he responded  by going on an editorial about how buses are more efficient and effective than rail, and people in the room should not think of Transit Oriented Development as being dependent on rail – which he said was unaffordable. Now that is in some senses true, but is really easy to say when you are Mayor of a City that has two SkyTrain lines and no need of more any time soon.  He also intervened when someone was discussing community reluctance to embrace development and increases in density with observations about the importance of making commitments that developers can rely on. The important point to him was consistency so that no developer should think that “someone else is going to get a better deal”. That seemed to me to be tone deaf to the question which was about communities, not developers.

Peter Ladner also raised a very pertinent question about Christy Clark’s determination to hold a referendum on transit funding – which could well make the whole process of planning in this fashion pointless. He asked the panel members if they intended to campaign for the referendum – and again Corrigan intervened. Pretending to be humorous, I got the distinct impression he was issuing a warning to staff to not get involved in politics. He also said – with heavy irony – that all the Mayors were really keen on promoting tax increases to pay for transit.

The general tenor of the presentations was educational. It was a bit like attending an academic planning seminar – except of course this was actually about the future of this region – and what it could be. Although, if Corrigan and Ladner are right, might well fall short. All the transportation planning that was discussed was about walking, cycling and transit, and dealing with a more limited role for cars in the  future. But the newly re-elected provincial government seems to be on an entirely different track.

Lee-Ann Garnett, Senior Regional Planner, Metro Vancouver

Her presentation was about the tools that Metro use to manage growth and in particular Frequent Transit Development Areas (FTDA) . She showed how the 1m population growth in the next 30 years is to be distributed across the region by municipality. The biggest changes are to be South of the Fraser – mostly in Surrey. The Regional Growth Strategy has been adopted  by all of them, and each gets some growth. That growth will be shaped by a combination of the Urban Containment Boundary, Urban Centres and FTDAs. At the top of the hierarchy of centres is the Metro Core (downtown Vancouver) Surrey Metro Centre (no longer to be referred to as Whalley) seven regional city centres and 17 municipal town centres.  Only 40% of the population growth will be in those centres: the current concern is about where the rest will go.

The municipalities are now in the process of producing their Regional Context Statements (due in July) which show how their Official Community Plans and zoning will accommodate this growth. There are already a number of FTDAs including the Cambie Corridor in Vancouver (in response to the Canada Line) around the Evergreen Line stations in Coquitlam and Port Moody as well as a proposed FTDA at UBC. The municipalities are urged to “think regionally” and across boundaries. [The significance of this became apparent when Surrey discussed development in its north west sector which abuts Delta – which was shown as blank space on their map. At least it did not have the annotation ‘here be dragons’.]

The objective is to prioritize areas for development – where it goes first. She said that “the market is on board” and supports TOD for jobs and housing. The risks include the possibility that there are too many centres, that adding FTDAs will spread growth too thinly and that FTDAs on the edge of the region present issues of their own.

Andrew Curran, Manager, Strategy, Strategic Planning & Policy, Translink

[Much of what he said has already been covered here but is repeated for convenience of reference] Translink is currently updating Transport 2040 with more emphasis on co-ordinating land use development with transportation investment decision making.

Transportation shapes land use: Marchetti’s Constant – humans have long had a 1 hour travel time budget in their day. He illustrated what this means – the “one hour wide city” as a series of circles overlaid  on the map: the walking city = downtown Vancouver: the streetcar city = City of Vancouver: the auto city = Metro Vancouver. He also showed how the use of single occupant vehicles increases at each scale. In the future “cars will have a role but we have no room for every trip to be by car”. T2040 aimed for a 50/50 split between the walk/bike/transit mode on the one side and car on the other. He then very quickly went through the “Primer on the Key Concepts of Transit Oriented Communities“, noting that transit orientation is really about walking and cycling -which determine transit accessibility. The Frequent Transit Network (FTN) are the routes which run at 15 minute frequency – or better – all day, seven days a week. He said on these routes “you don’t need to rely on the schedule” [which suggests to me that the rest of humanity must have a great deal more patience than I do].

Land use shapes transit: He quoted Jarret Walker’s principle of routing “Be On The Way” – which he illustrated with the Expo Line and the Liveable Region Plan of 1976. While a six Ds [destination, distance, design density, diversity, demand] matter a metastudy by Ewing and Cervero showed a relatively weak direct relationship between travel and density – which in reality acts as a proxy for the other five Ds. “Don’t get too hung up on density, but don’t put it in the wrong place.” He showed an iterative dialogue between a land use planner and a transportation planner developed by Jarret Walker for his book Human Transit.   He also pointed for the need for transit to have bidirectional demand along a route, rather than the typical unbalanced “everyone goes downtown in the morning” route. By being more efficient, transit can provide more service for the same cost. He showed examples of recent transit plans for North Vancouver based on FTDAs, the pan for Main Street in Vancouver and also for Newton in Surrey.

He recognized the need for certainty to guide developers but acknowledged the need greater funding. Nevertheless he felt there was still a need for agreements between all parties to assure appropriate zoning. There is no requirement for municipalities to promote FTDAs but he felt they would recognize the value of partnerships.

Don Luymes, Manager of Community Planning, City of Surrey

Surrey is moving from the auto-oriented suburban development pattern of its growth until now, towards Transit Oriented Development (TOD). There are three key strategies

  1. Reinforce centres along corridors
  2. Define new centres on those corridors
  3. Identify future corridors as planning areas

This was being driven by health concerns, geography and the need reduce the impact of energy cost increases. The idea is to wean Surrey off auto-dependancy. Around SkyTrain stations density is being increased from 3.5 Floor Area Ratio (FAR) to 7.5.

(“A density measure expressing the ratio between a building’s total floor area and its site coverage. To calculate F.A.R., the gross square footage of a building is divided by the total area of its lot. F.A.R. conveys a sense of the bulk or mass of a structure, and is useful in measuring non-residential and mixed-use density.” source: Lincoln Institute) In other town centres like Guildford and Newton this was at a lower scale, moving from 1.5 previously to 2.5 FAR now. The calculation is made over the gross site area to encourage developers to relinquish part of the site to the road allowance needed for a finer grain street grid. Cloverdale is not slated for much development as it is not on the FTN.

Subcentres for midrise developments within 400 to 800m of transit, not in exitsing centres. So far four have been identified.

  1. Scott Road SkyTrain station is “a no-brainer” as a new centre
  2. Between Guildford and Surrey Centre  on 104 Ave
  3. Along 152 St at 88 Ave and Fraser Highway
  4. Clayton
  5. Fleetwood West

No higher density will be permitted in Bridgeview to protect the existing community

Within these centres Surrey will encourage mixed use, pedestrain connections to transit, increase FASR on gross site area and relax parking requirements on developers – although there could be interim requirements until transit can be provided.

He then indicated on the map where there are candidate areas for future corridors.

  1. Will the market respond? See undeveloped sites in Surrey City Centre
  2. Timing of transit delivery – already have some dense neighborhoods without transit

His final slide illustrated three levels of transit – BRT, LRT and SkyTrain – but he must have run out of time to discuss this.

Q & A

1. There was no discussion of industry – which usually has a density well below that needed for transit

LAG – our focus on residential and commercial development in centres protects industrial land. The limited pool of funding for transit precludes provision for low density industrial areas

AC – it is very expensive to serve industrial areas. We do provide basic mobility (infrequent service) but there is interest in industrial intensification to provide more employment intensive areas. the key thing is to protect industrial land

2. There is going to be push back from the community to increased density. Are there better practices for communications?

DL – It is difficult to get the community engaged at this level of planning. More interest in immediate impact on neighbourhood. We have a well developed community planning process but there are different levels of interest in different areas

DC – Certainty and consistency [for developers]. Make sure that no-one else gets a better deal (see my introductory note)

3. There is no mention of food in your strategy. There is Metro Food Policy document but if you allow a small loss of ALR every year in 30 years most of it is gone. Have you considered rising ocean levels and the increases in cost of transporting food over long distances?

LAG – We have five goals – and I could have talked all morning Our policy protects food growing areas, we are also trying to make agriculture more viable and looking at local food strategies

DC – our prime concern is to protect the ALR

3. Housing for families in town centres? and minimum level of transit provision outside centres to provide an alternative to car use

DL – Our policies provide for a mix of housing types that includes three bedroom apartments as well as “skirt” of townhouses around centres. There are family areas adjacent to centres where we are stabilizing the community and providing “relative affordability”.

AC – Services in low density communities means that they need to be located along the FTN if they are to get good transit service.  We are working to improve South of Fraser networks using the 6d score and wouldlike to develop  more but the fudnign and resources are not there now. When there is a limited amount of money it has to go to higher demand areas.

4. Planning for a future village centre in the District of North Vancouver does have community support, but we have no confidence that Translink will deliver the service that is essential to support the development

AC – In the conversation about funding everyone wants everything but no-one wants to pay for it. We hope we will get new funding tools – but that is part of a larger conversation

DC – fixed rail is very expensive, buses are cheaper – improvements to the bus system are efficient and effective (see my notes above)

5. Access to transit: drawing neat circles on a map does not address the reality of cul de sacs in suburbs. Access is typlcially much longer than a straight line

DL – auto oriented streets frustrate direct access. We need new street connections and our density calculations allow the developer to benefit from the density otherwise “lost” to streets – they can “pile density on the rest of the site”. Pedestrian only links from street end bulbs have not been successful. It can be challenging to get new links without establishing a right of way.

DC – See Patrick Condon’s study that show how building new roads increases pedestrian access [can someone provide me with a citation for that please]

6. Bike Share?

in the absence of anyone from the City of Vancouver AC replied on the issue of helmets as slowing implementation

7 Car sharing and ride sharing can provide intermediate capacity where ransit not viable

DL – we have entered into agreements with developers to provide car sharing in return for less parking provision. In farther flung areas this can prove more challenging

Is car sharing included in the package?

AC – Translink has an Open Data policy and will share data more than just transit data now provided on Google apps through the API

8 Commercial development within mixed use can be very expensive to do. In the same way that we support non-market housing can we support commercial development?

LAG – We have only looked at office development on a large scale

AC – Los Angeles County has a program for supporting commercial development at transit exchanges

DL – Legislation forbids that here: local government is not able to support commercial developments financially. Subsidy is not allowed

9 Are you setting aside money for separated bike tracks to improve safety? There is no room for bike lanes on North Vancouver roads

AC – it is an engineering challenge on existing streets and there is growing consensus on the need for separate facilities. We will cost share at 50% with municipalities but there is only $3m a year

DL – there is going to be a two-way separated bike path along King George Boulevard. We will fund all of it if needs be.

10 (Peter Ladner) All of these plans crash on the reef of the referendum. Are you going to take an active role?

AC  – It’s early days yet, and the province has already given direction to the Mayor’s Council to develop a strategy [which is what they are doing]

DL – the pressures that give rise to the strategy are not going to go away. We will figure it out

LAG – It depends on the Metro Board

11. Are you going to change the zoning of corner lots to recognize that they have greater development potential?

LAG – established question actually directed at the City of Vancouver


Written by Stephen Rees

June 12, 2013 at 2:06 pm

Why are there homeless people in Vancouver?

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Judy Graves, the City of Vancouver’s homeless advocate, retires after more than two decades on the job

The CBC interviewed her on The Current and The Early Edition – you can read a condensed version here – but this question and answer seemed to hit the crux of the matter

Q: Why were so many people on the streets and in the doorways?

A: We had several people collide in the early 90s. We had the federal government pull out of supplying subsidized housing for the very poor. We had been developing rapidly in Vancouver so the old rooming houses had been torn down and the apartments that had been built weren’t affordable for anybody with a low income.

Judy Graves, the City of Vancouver's homeless advocate, retires after more than two decades on the job.

Judy Graves, the City of Vancouver’s homeless advocate, retires after more than two decades on the job. (CBC )

We had welfare cutbacks, and the system became so difficult that people with any kind of brain injury or mental illness could not navigate the system.

There were government programs – but they were cut. Homelessness was the result. I would say that the result was inevitable. I would go further. I would say that homelessness was created deliberately.

There has been a steady drumbeat throughout my working life that taxes were too high, and that government spending was wasteful. Money should be left in peoples’ pockets so they could spend it – not some bureaucrat. And the market was a much more efficient system for ensuring a better outcome. There was a stream of people claiming that the intellectual foundations of the Chicago school of economists were far more intellectually respectable than “the left”. Friedrich Hayek – of whom I had never heard when studying political philosophy – was now canonized. There were a number of platitudes that were recited about the rising tide that raised all boats, that increasing economic growth would benefit everybody. That wealth would “trickle down”.

It was, of course, all nonsense. Mostly lies and half truths. What was actually happening was that the rich had decided they no longer wanted to pay taxes. They disapproved of the priorities of society and wanted to keep their wealth for their own indulgences. Only a few areas were to be protected – or possibly see increased spending. Defence, prisons and policing.  After “One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest” it was easy and popular to close grim mental institutions. There was talk of “care in the community” but none was ever provided.

And even though tax rates for the wealthy plummeted, the expected increase in government revenues that was supposed to occur never did. The wealthy were no more willing to pay lower taxes than high ones, and came up with ever more creative ways of hiding their money. They moved it to tax havens. Tax avoidance became the major source of income for a number of small, independent countries that had very little else to generate foreign earnings. The Cayman Islands has a bit of tourism – but earns much more from looking after money than people.

I can clearly recall an economics lesson learned at East Ham Grammar School. The teacher had been a well paid Ford executive but left that job to teach there. And I can still see him sitting at the front of the room arguing with some conservative minded students. He said that he actually felt that he ought to pay taxes, because he appreciated what those taxes bought. Not the least of which was the room in which we were sitting.

There is no doubt at all that many publicly funded services are far more efficient than their private sector comparators. Healthcare is the most obvious. The management cost of the US private system – mostly insurance companies looking at ways to avoid paying for procedures – greatly exceeds that of the public systems like Canada or the UK. ICBC is actually a cheaper way to provide car insurance, with a better outcomes – especially when their collision data is used to drive road safety measures, something a private sector insurer would never consider. The privatization of British Rail resulted in public sector costs that were four times higher than they were  in public ownership. Competition did not drive down costs.

In order to pull off this triumph, the elite have had to hijack democracy. We keep on voting for right wing governments, despite their obvious failures. Well, a lot of people no longer vote. That makes things a lot easier. The right wing has mastered the art of storytelling – the “narrative” now always trumps anything backed by objective research. And, just in case, those engaged in such activities will be silenced. Many willingly collude with these devices. The “buy in” to the myths and legends is quite impressive. And those of us who have facts and figures on our side are urged “don’t go negative” – with the result here we have recently seen.

The cure for homelessness has always been obvious and staring us in the face. House them. The private sector has a long and miserable record of housing the poor – since exploitation is always going to trump any other strategy for a rent seeking or profit maximizing entity. The public sector’s involvement is more problematic. The record is spotty, partly due to the way that its activities were always moderated by those who were less than enthusiastic about it succeeding – or being seen to succeed. It is only when there is fear of the lack of a social safety net that people will comply with requirements that are obviously against their own best interests – but they see little or no alternative. Homelessness – and people begging on the streets – serve as a useful minatory device. This is what will happen to you if you don’t co-operate.

The City, of course, has no powers that it could use to actually address the  problem. Even the City of Vancouver, which has a Charter and thus has somewhat more ability than other lesser municipalities entirely subject the whims of the legislators. They may  indeed hire another advocate. They may allow a few more shelters to open – but only in really bad weather, of course. Not all the time. And the shelter provision is minimal: it does not even pretend to be housing.   And the shelter experience itself drives many to the streets as comparatively safer places.

Postscript – please also read the comment by MB: the last paragraph of this post is unfair to the City of Vancouver, and I apologize for that. But not everybody shares his opinions about these developments

UPDATE “30,000 Canadians are homeless every night, 200,000 Canadians are homeless in any given year, national report says” CBC from which we learn

“Vancouver, through a series of public and private partnerships, has achieved a 66 per cent reduction in street homelessness.”

This post was further updated on December 31, 2013 with the addition of two links – one on why people don’t vote and another on how Utah intends to end homelessness

Written by Stephen Rees

May 29, 2013 at 9:21 am

Posted in housing, politics

Tagged with ,

Terraced housing

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There has been quite a lot of interest here recently about terraced housing – what the real estate agents here call “town homes”. Others have been blogging about the need for these to be sold on a fee simple basis rather than the strata title that is currently used in BC.

Place des Vosges panorama

Place des Vosges, Paris – my photo on flickr

When first thought of, in 1613 by Henri IV, these houses were designed to accommodate courtiers in separate accommodations. There was always a crowd hanging around at the palace – even at bedtime! – so I expect they welcomed the idea of their own front door.

By 1880 the pressing need was – as now – how to accommodate the lower income part of the community. The people who actually did all the work, on which the economy and the state depended, but who could not afford – even on several wage packets in a household, much in the way of housing. The Victorian 1% had even developed a bit of conscience about this, and actually legislated minimum standards like the need for each room to have its own window. The way that local taxes (‘the rates’) were then calculated also meant that the frontage onto the street needed to be minimized. So a very standardized home was produced – most constructed by small independent building firms working from a book of plans. This was the sort of London suburb where I grew up, and is one of the reasons why I am still, to this day somewhat reluctant to embrace the idea that a fee simple row house – or what I knew as a freehold terrace house – is much of an answer to our current shortage of affordable housing.

March 1921: Densely packed housing along Kensal Rise, London
Photograph: English Heritage/PA

Written by Stephen Rees

June 26, 2012 at 4:47 pm

Posted in housing

Tagged with

Olympic Legacy

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There is a longish piece in the Guardian today about what is expected to be the legacy of the Olympics on East London.  The title cites Newham and the Carpenters estate. In fact the article ranges further than that – discussing Tower Hamlets and Hackney as well. My interest is because I spent the first 18 years of my life in Newham – though somewhat to the east of the area in question in what for much of that time was East Ham. My family moved out of the area soon after I left for university, and I have not been back for more than very brief visits since. Even so I accept that if anywhere needs regeneration it is the area around Stratford, which used to be mostly railway facilities and a network of declining industries known as the Bow Back Rivers. It is also true that the man who ran the locks on the canal used to answer the phone by announcing “Bow Locks”.

Now the summer Olympics is a much bigger deal than the winter Olympics, and in London it is all on one site not split as it was here. But the immediate similarity struck me – the victims in our case being the unfortunate residents of a BC Housing estate on the edge of the Olympic site in Queen Elizabeth Park. That site was cleared – though BC politicians were vehement in their denials that the removal of the tenants was anything to do with the Olympics. And the expected development has still not yet happened.

The other Olympic legacies here are the Sea to Sky Highway – which lead to a variety of residential developments in and near Squamish based on the newer shorter commute times by car to Vancouver – and the Canada Line, and lots of high rise residential towers in Richmond, with again much displacement of waterside industry. Not to mention the Olympic Village in Vancouver, which at long last seems to be getting going as a community with its own grocery store opening last week.

The other influence on my thinking is this recent article from Spacing Vancouver about Tom Slater the “unabashedly subjective” gentrification researcher.

in the opening chapter of his upcoming book Fighting Gentrification, he realized that “a different picture of gentrification emerges if one takes the trouble to talk to those who do not stand to profit from the rising costs of land and real estate.”

So he made himself a promise. “I felt that I had a civic duty to be critical in the work that I was doing, and to present a story that captured the predicament of the people living at the bottom of the class structure. So that became, if you like, my mission,” Slater said.

And if you read what the residents of the Carpenters Estate are saying, it reads very much like what his interviewee says in that article – or what the residents of Little Mountain have been saying.

The Little Mountain Site

 “I think that the Olympics has lost me my home.” She has lived on the Carpenters for 40 years and is disinclined to depart quietly. “I think they’re gonna have to come in here and drag me out. Why should somebody be able to force you out of your home? A home that’s got nothing wrong with it, that’s standing solid? I do not want to go.”

There is also some very relevant stuff about what people want – and it isn’t high rises

She [London’s outgoing Olympic legacy chief, Margaret Ford] gathered intelligence for the masterplan on “mystery shopping” excursions – chatting to people in cafes and the old Stratford shopping centre. “They wanted front gardens, back gardens for their kids to play in, really good lighting, lots of storage space, nice green spaces, somewhere they can afford and a decent school – it’s not bloody rocket science.”

Written by Stephen Rees

June 13, 2012 at 11:42 am

Posted in housing, Olympics, placemaking

Tagged with

Bernstein at SFU

with 5 comments

Initially the title I have used was just a “working title”. I was going to paste in the title used in the material that promoted the lecture. But take one look at “Progress Lost, Progress Redefined, Progress Regained – How Location Efficiency Performance Measures Are Being Used to Achieve Economic Security” and I think you will agree that it is hardly a grabber.

This was the second of two talks by Scott Bernstein, President, Center for Neighborhood Technology, and the Visiting Fellow in Urban Sustainable Development in SFU’s Urban Studies Program. The most noticeable thing at the start was the nearly empty room. I got there fifteen minutes early so I could sit near an electrical outlet, but I need not have worried. There was a very late start, and a very long introduction: this included the information that “The Visiting Fellowship in Urban Sustainable Development is funded from an endowment by the Real Estate Foundation of British Columbia and the Fraser Valley Real Estate Board.” Which makes me wonder why the room wasn’t populated by the development community. Michael Geller was there and sent a few tweets: there will be a video of the talks at the Urban Studies web page, in due course.

In fairness I think it will help if I insert the “blurb” that went on the ad for this talk

A new index of combined affordability of housing + transportation, which cost households at least half of their available income, are being tested by federal agencies, metropolitan organizations, states and local governments. The results are encouraging. Agencies taking combined affordability into account have shifted billions of dollars in long-term commitments from highways to transit; provided incentives for locational preference in subsidized housing; and awarded capital intended to demonstrate the efficacy of place-based integrated resource strategies.

Location-efficient neighborhood residents felt only one-quarter the economic “pain” felt due to gas prices by those in average neighborhoods, while those in the least-efficient places experienced their region’s highest foreclosure & bankruptcy rates.

Bernstein started by saying that he intended to take a “fresh look at the benefits of transportation and better cities” and why it’s worth paying attention to the efficiency of location. One of the advantages of confining the study to the US is the relatively open source data available everywhere. This is in stark contrast to Canada, of course, where StatsCan has been trying to make data sales a major source of revenue and has only recently begun to relent from that disastrous decision. Even so our Prime Minister, who clearly dislikes the way that facts and figures get int he way of his prejudices, cancelled the long form census which deprives us of about the only data on commuting behaviour across the country.

What is different is that he focuses on what to expect from our public investment, its benefits, not just the costs. He mentioned how gobsmacked Stephen Quinn of the CBC was at this notion, when he appeared on the Early Edition recently. All the prepared questions were simply about the amounts of money that would be spent – not the returns that would generate. This illustrates the ignorance of  why infrastructure is important to cities. It “provides the stuff you need to make the buildings work” and includes municipal services. He estimated that in residential developments this amounts to  US$50-100k per unit plus the land cost – which is roughly similar. Basically what he is advocating is  how to get the infrastructure shared by more units, so that the cost gets lowered. Over the last 30 years we have seen better solutions emerge. For instance, we no longer see rain as a dangerous waste product once it hits the ground.

The development of green infrastructure has produced a new mind set. Previously the purpose of investment was to promote consumption: now it can be to increase productivity – e.g. streets to connect people rather than promote car use. It has even proved more efficient to pay people to consume less energy than build new power plants. Findings from recent polls show that people want better, more affordable transportation but are not wiling to raise gas tax to pay for it. They do not trust the system to deliver the promised benefits. 13 states allow voter initiatives “tax elections” which show that people will vote for increased taxes provided that there are specific conditions in place to ensure delivery, and the ability for voters to sanction those that do not deliver. These programs are always local or regional in nature and not led by a state or federal government.

There have been some very significant demographic and price trends. Since the beginning of the twentieth century household size has been steadily declining. At the same time developers have increased home sizes. They have found that they cannot sell that product any more. Gasoline prices were $1.13 a gallon in 2002 and $4.33 now – with the clear expectation that they will rise further. People who live in new exurban developments, where there are no services find that they have to spend a gallon of gas to buy a gallon of milk. The increase in gas price has been 8x faster than income. There has been ten years of foreclosures in the suburbs – not just since the 2008 market crash.

Currently the most attractive investment is high density Transit Oriented Development (TOD). He noted that it  is harder than it should be to do TOD here! He showed a graphic which contrasted the “Nourishing economy” where connectedness = prosperity, compared to the conventional model of residential cul de sacs, and limited access highways, which is where economic distress is note widespread. His advice was that we should tear down the viaducts – just as other cities are doing.

A good example of what he advocates is the Pearl district in Portland OR where  affordable housing is mandated at 25% on all development. It is not concentrated in one place, and there is no displacement due to development. The idea is to  build things worth keeping up.

He eulogized Ellen Swallow Richards – inventor of the calorie counter, and the standardized home budget. She thought it important to teach people financial literacy and persuaded high schools to have  mandatory home economic courses.  “Somehow we got through the Depression” – mainly because people understood how to economize. Her structures included “Don’t go into debt for an automobile”. Eventually home ec was squeezed out by drivers ed. This was because federal funding of freeways required that there be a road safety component.

The revolution between 1885 and 1902 was the introduction of streetcars – which was equivalent in its day as the internet has been tom our era. There was one system in 1885 and 1 in every city of 10,000 by 1902. He did, in my view, somewhat confuse the issue by talking of streetcars and interurbans as though they were the same thing. He said that the streetcar was an illustration of a network economy. The first telephone was a curiosity: it was not until there was another one that it had any use, and the use grew exponentially as more telephones were added to  the system.

He showed an illustration of Vancouver in the 1890s, which showed the city was designed to have a grid of streets, connected to the port and the railway. It was said to be a developer’s design since it had more corners! This is simply because land value peaks at intersections. There were freely available maps of land value surveys to demonstrate that then but “Nobody is doing that now!’

Location efficiency = you don’t need to drive as much. A combination of density and transit access (proximity, frequency, connectedness) lowers the cost of living. Good transit access equals one car less per household , the equivalent of an increase of 10 to 20% in income tax free, or around $5k to $8k pa.

Location Efficient Mortgages way outperformed the market. In 30,000 transactions there was only one default and not one repossession Fanny MAE only committed to one experiment – it did not fail! This is in strong contrast to the “drive until you qualify” approach, traditionally used by lenders. There is in economists language “severe information asymmetry”. A British popular song ended with the tag “a week’s wage for a month’s rent”. This was the extent of the support for the notion that a household can support a mortgage at 30% of salary. In many years of searching he has found no research backing for 30% affordability.  And, of course, no reckoning of transportation cost.

The Housing + Transportation Cost Index has been published in two books – “A Heavy Load” and “Penny Wise,  Pound Fuelish” but there are now two new online tools using US data. He also pointed out that other researchers have found very similar results in London and Tokyo.

Example of HTA index mapping

Example of HTA index mapping

Transportation cost in Manhattan, Kansas

Transportation cost in Brooklyn, New York

“Who cares? You should!”

While I am quoting him I feel I must mention that no-one had corrected him talking about “the Frasier valley”! He said that HUD (Housing and Development) and DOT (Department of Transportation) both US federal government departments are using it to screen grant applications, MPOs (Metropolitan Planning Organizations mandated by federal transport funding requirements) are using it to rescreen transportation plans.

At this point I feel I need to explain that he was using slides with two columns and five paragraphs in each. There was too much information presented in a very short time and some of it was impossible to absorb. All I can do here is give some highlights that stuck in my mind or I was able to type.

El Paso TX is now directing affordable housing to areas of low transportation costs. Washington DC which was looking at one or two streetcar lines has now decide to build 20.

He said that there is now a 200% net return on public investment (I assume he was either talking about streetcars or TOD) .

Do you want to succeed for the long term?

The Q&A was not recorded by me but will be on the SFU video.


If you do a search of this blog on the term “Location Efficient Mortgages” you will see that what he is talking about is not exactly news. He has been at this for thirty three and a third years (he said). The questions that come to my mind revolve around why it is taking so long for these ideas to get adopted. In this region, of course, we have gone in completely the reverse direction. The BC Liberal government decided to expand the freeway and to hobble public transport. Christy Clark is simply following in the footsteps of Gordon Campbell – and Ujjal Dosanjh.

There is indeed a task force on affordable housing – and a fat headed approach to transit funding, which prevents any real progress towards sustainability in this region. There was a criticism of the Livable Region Strategic Plan in that it did not address affordable housing. That seems to be to miss the point completely. If we had done what the LRSP aimed to do – build a compact urban region, with complete communities that protected the Green Zone and increased transportation choice – then we would not have the crisis we now face.

There is some transportation choice in Vancouver and Burnaby – but it rapidly declines away from these municipalities. Everywhere else – and to some extent in those cities too – we have seen workplaces decentralize (something the LRSP did not anticipate) and steadily increasing suburban sprawl. Most of Vancouver south of 12th Avenue is suburban, and all of it unaffordable by any measure.

One thing that cropped up more than once in his lecture – usually as unscripted asides – was the potential for our region to see the same real estate crash that has affected the US. We certainly do not have what he termed funky mortgages like theirs. But most people here  have very little financial room to manoeuvre and are just as vulnerable to rising gas prices, with often no realistic alternative to driving. Not just for work, but for everything. And the real estate sponsors of this talk are ensuring that we will see low density, single family subdivisions endlessly extending up the valley for the foreseeable future – with Squamish now added for good measure. This is a recipe for financial disaster, and is nothing like a sustainable region.