Questions and Lessons on the Future of Cities

Vancouver's affordable housing crisis


More than half of the world’s population currently lives in cities. Although cities occupy just 3% of the Earth’s land, they account for 60-80% of energy consumption and 75% of carbon emissions.

At the UN, I think about the implications of the rising mega-cities as embedded in Sustainable Development Goal 11: sustainable cities and communities. I have also been fortunate to conduct independent research as a Sidewalk Toronto Fellow, where I’m exploring areas including mobility, health, sustainability, and data governance in designing the future “smart” neighbourhood. As part of my research, I’ve spoken with a diverse set of urbanists, politicians, activists, and technologists on how they’re tackling some of the biggest challenges their cities are facing.

I’ve learned a lot. In every city travelled, I’ve kept a diary summarizing key research questions and lessons taken away.

These learnings are being shared as a three-part series exploring the future of cities.


Chapter 1 Vancouver: A skyline of mountains and skyscrapers

At first glance, Vancouver is an idyllic paradise, with a skyline of snow-capped mountains and skyscrapers (fun fact: the city has building height restriction laws to preserve public views of the mountains). It’s a city rich with nature, a temperature climate that encourages public realm use and active lifestyles, and a progressive Liberal government.

But the challenges Vancouver face are historic - literally. Built on the unceded territory of the Squamish, Musqueam, and Tsleil-Waututh indigenous tribes, the land has a dark history of colonialism that the city is just starting to acknowledge. Housing is unaffordable - the most expensive in North America - and the income inequality is hard to digest while walking through the Downtown Eastside where drug users and the homeless juxtipose the luxury developments and commercial shops selling $2,000 lighting fixtures.

I spoke with Spencer Lindsay, the Indigenous Specialist for the City of Vancouver on: How can we create more inclusive public spaces that welcome all and incorporate the history and heritage of the Indigenous?

  • Design diffused rather than distinct visibility of Indigenous heritage and history.
  • The city is drafting the Indigenous Design Principles, a standardized guide for Indigenous design to be incorporated in city officials’ and designers’ planning and programming. Lindsay emphasized how these processes need to be separate right now, to recognize the severity of the mistreatment of the Indigenous people. Reconcialiation starts with understanding the distinct ways we see the world and relationships.

Vancouver city staff are working with the Musqueam, Squamish and Tsleil-Waututh on signage designs for each of the plazas. Last month, the plaza adjacent to the Queen Elizabeth Theatre was renamed šxʷƛ̓exən Xwtl’a7shn.

Vancouver has the highest average housing prices in North America. But what people tend to ignore is that the city also has one of the lowest average median wages of all Canadian cities ($72,000 compared to Toronto’s $80,000) which contributes to the affordable housing crisis. Catalyst, a non-profit developer in Vancouver is pushing for new models of below-market housing. How can novel buildings and developers lower the price of housing?

  • Traditionally, lowering housing prices means (a) lower land cost, (b) getting rid of profit, and (c) grants. Catalyst focuses on (a) and (b) to ensure sustainability without government funding. In an unstable political climate and a looming federal election next year, this ensures that Catalyst isn’t constrained by politics.
  • New types of building innovations (e.g. tall timber; modular, mixed-use housing) can increase buildings’ average life spans (currently about 60-80 years for affordable housing).
  • All new housing development in Vancouver must be comprised of at least 20% affordable housing units. These units should blend in with the rest of the development’s typology.
  • Experimenting with innovative financing models e.g. social impact bonds, as a low-risk investment for the private sector and philanthropies.

Tall timber
The 18-story Brock Commons Tallwood House, a student residence, topped out last year at the University of British Columbia, in Vancouver, and has been dubbed the world’s tallest “plyscraper”. This new, high-tech form of timber construction has the stability to become a new urban building material.

Woodward’s, a groundbreaking project integrated 125 units of low-income housing with market-rate condominiums, retail outlets, and Simon Fraser University’s Centre for the Arts for a mixed-income redevelopment.

Two of Vancouver’s biggest assets are it’s geography and climate. City dwellers find all the perks and accessibility of being in an urban area, added onto temperate, West Coast weather, proximity to mountains and the ocean, and plenty of green space. Touring the seawall and new developments planned in the Northeastern False Creek begs the question: How can we create public spaces for artists, and public spaces with meaningful art? How can art capture data and provide residents with information about their city?

  • Janet Moore, the Head of CityStudio challenged us to ask ourselves “How can we all be artists?” and “How can we get artists to lead?” She founded a successful incubator for students where they pair up with municipal officials to ideate urban solutions including art installations. Examples include:
  • Mobility and safety: Illumilane, an illuminated interactive cyclist and pedestrian path through Creekside Park that lights up when cyclists pass by at night with colours indicating their speeds.
  • Energy: NEU Community Energy Centre’s Emission Stacks, “five finger” emission stacks that change colours to reflect the amount of energy being produced by the utility system. It’s goal is to inspire residents and passer-bys to take an interest in the neighbourhood’s sustainable energy infrastructure.
    Climate change: A False Creek, chromatic blue stripes painted on Cambie bridge pilings and fifteen lampposts along Vancouver’s seawall. This allows passer-bys to see impacts of potential environmental change in a visually and physically palpable way.

Six industrial concrete silos on Granville Island transformed into a vibrant mural by street artists, OSGEMEOS.

A False Creek
A False Creek installation painted on the Cambie bridge pilings.

In closing, last Wednesday, Sidewalk Labs finalized and publicized their Plan Development Agreement with Waterfront Toronto, the stewards of Toronto’s revitalization. Julie Di Lorenzo, an ex-Board Member of Waterfront Toronto who resigned days before due to contention with the project said, “[Waterfront Toronto] controlled our narrative and our destiny and did not relinquish it to any other until now. I do not believe it was the intention of the 3 levels of government to allow a single limited company[, Sidewalk Labs] to become our filter, our gatekeeper and our agent. Yet through an unconventional and an opportunistic series of circumstances, I feel we have allowed this to happen.” With the skepticism around the project intensifying, it’s important to examine what makes successful partnerships, especially public-private partnerships like the one that governs Sidewalk Toronto. What should the roles of the private and public sector be in private-public partnerships?

  • Governments should represent the needs, wants, concerns of residents, was the sentiment of Janet Moore, CityStudio’s founder. She asked, “I’d be concerned if the private sector was coming up with the problems… Why is [Sidewalk Labs] here?”
    • Vancouver’s Digital Strategy states, “The city sets the pace for digital.” Not the private sector.
    • Both Janet and Spencer Lindsay emphasized that sometimes, building fast is not the best strategy. “Slow down, be thoughtful in your process, it starts with people – sometimes that’s innovation.”

Wreck Beach
Admiring the sunset from Wreck Beach. It may look like a trendy Instagram filter but the haze is from the growing wildfires in BC’s Interior.