Ex-mayor should properly state Jane Jacobs’s views
Let’s assume Sam Sullivan isn’t stupid [“ Sullivanism vs. Jane Jacobs”, June 7-14]. He must, then, be aware of how intellectually dishonest it is to boost his argument for more condo towers by slagging Jane Jacobs as some kind of defender of suburbia. That’s the sort of absurd distortion that’s hard to get away with, unless—as in this case—you’re debating someone who happens to be dead.
In actuality, Jacobs argued for the human-scaled urbanism of row houses and low-rise walk-ups versus the alienating density of the massive towers favoured by Sullivan. Since he describes Jacobs as his “intellectual hero”, you might hope Sullivan would have a better idea of what she actually stood for.
Let me state the obvious: if towers were the solution to cheap housing, then by now Vancouver ought to be the most affordable place on earth. Yet somehow the orgy of overbuilding since the millennium has succeeded only in pushing up the cost of housing 300 percent—as much in one decade as in the previous 30 years combined.
Sullivan is right about one thing, though. The death of affordability in Vancouver has something to do with supply and demand. Not so much the supply of land or houses, but the endless supply of cheap mortgage debt, which has inflated the housing bubble right across Canada. Zero down payments, 40-year amortizations, interest rates near zero, $75 billion of dodgy mortgages bought off the banks in 2008 (don’t call it a bailout, though), a massive increase in government-backed mortgage insurance to near $600 billion—none of that has much to do with civic policy. It’s all courtesy of Sullivan’s ideological soul mates in Ottawa, and all designed to make sure everyone has more money than everyone else when it comes to bidding up the price of houses.
The housing bubble nurtured by the Conservatives created this situation, and the only thing that will restore affordability is the apocalyptic housing crash now peeking over the horizon. When will an average family income be enough to buy a house again in Vancouver? Watch for the giant holes in the ground left by bankrupt developers—chainlink surrounding vast pits filled with rainwater. Wait for them to seem so familiar you don’t even notice them anymore.
> Michael Brockington / Vancouver
While Daniel Wood seems to understand that a hippopotamus won’t fit in a bathtub, he ignores the elephant in the condo: parking. When it comes to high-density livability, the limiting factor is not the number of people or the height of the buildings, it is the number of cars. And car ownership, energy consumption, and carbon emissions are more closely related to parking supply than to density.
A single underground parking spot typically costs over $35,000 to build, and excessive parking requirements are a huge barrier to building affordable housing. Greatly reducing the number of parking spots required in new developments is the most important step city council could take toward making Vancouver sustainable, affordable, and livable.
Jane Jacobs was as much a critic of automobile-dominated planning, including Le Corbusier’s freeway-oriented towers, as she was an advocate of participatory community design.
> Eric Doherty / Vancouver
Daniel Wood’s thought-provoking article on densification in Vancouver presents Sam Sullivan’s case for adding to high-rise density while “reluctantly” writing off Jane Jacobs’s advocacy of low-rise, dense buildings. Let’s look at a few numbers: Vancouver has an area of 115 square kilometres of land and a population of 0.6 million. Paris has an area of 105 square kilometres—it’s smaller than Vancouver—but a population of 2.2 million, which corresponds to a density four times that of Vancouver. And yet, Paris has few high-rise buildings but many five-to-six-storey structures.
In other words, we can choose how we add density: it can be via a few high-rise buildings or through many low-rise ones. Historically, Paris made a different choice from the one Sullivan and others are pushing.
One issue not mentioned in Wood’s article is that low-rise construction can use wood. It is cheaper than concrete, makes possible more affordable housing, and can be more environmentally friendly.
Wherever you stand in this debate, it is important to frame the alternatives honestly and not pretend that high-rise towers are the only possibility.
> John Bechhoefer / Vancouver