One of Vancouver’s largest antigentrification protests took place on June 11, with more than 200 people demonstrating at the corner of Main and Hastings streets. They were objecting to the approval of more than 1,000 new condos within a few blocks of the Carnegie Community Centre, claiming that development is displacing the poor from their homes.
“People are here today because we need justice, not accommodations for the real-estate market,” activist Ivan Drury told the Georgia Straight’s Travis Lupick.
These types of protests are likely to continue as old inner-city neighbourhoods like the Downtown Eastside become increasingly desirable places to live.
In a phone interview with the Straight, Toronto-based architectural and urban-planning consultant Ken Greenberg said there’s been a sharp increase in demand for housing in parts of cities built before the Second World War.
“A small house in the older areas of our cities now, very often, costs twice as much as a much bigger house on the urban fringe,” he explained.
Greenberg, author of the 2011 book Walking Home: The Life and Lessons of a City Builder, noted that the traditional North American dream of a house in the suburbs with a garden and a two-car garage is losing its allure. Generations X and Y, and particularly the millennials—who came of age in the 21st century, are turned off by the “banality of the malls” and long commutes, not to mention the shrinking size of suburban homes.
Young people, in particular, also appear to be driving far less than previous generations. ICBC has reported that between 1994 and 2011, there was a 10 percent drop in the percentage of B.C. residents between 18 and 24 with drivers’ licences.
“Now in North America in the age cohort of 16 to 34, 26 percent of that group don’t bother getting driver’s licences,” Greenberg said.
At the same time, he noted that inner cities are far more pedestrian-friendly, with far better access to public transit than most suburban locations. In Toronto, for example, 46 percent of downtown residents walk to work. As far back as 2006, the City of Vancouver reported that about 40 percent of downtown residents walk to work.
Greenberg pointed out that young singles, young couples, and some empty nesters were among the first to embrace living downtown. The turning point came in 2005 and 2006, when real-estate analysts began noticing that demand for living in prewar cities was eclipsing demand in the suburbs. He expects this trend to accelerate as baby boomers age and decide that they no longer want to drive as much.
“These old neighbourhoods are the cool and lively places to be,” Greenberg said.
That’s reflected in the real-estate marketing. He pointed out that in the past, condo advertising would highlight views or the package of amenities. But with the rise of websites like Walk Score, which track distances to shopping and other services, the marketers’ emphasis has changed.
“What they’re really stressing is proximity to transit and neighbourhoods,” Greenberg commented. “They’re selling neighbourhoods now.”
While this is breathing new energy into the urban core, he cautioned that it comes with a price. In Toronto, he claimed, almost every area of the pre–Second World War part of the city has become fair game for developers.
“The result is that people with lesser means have been pushed into the first-string suburbs—places that are not very walkable, where it was intended that people would drive everywhere,” he said. “A lot of these people are recent immigrants and do not have cars. They find themselves in situations where transportation is thin on the ground.”
Greenberg added that there’s even talk of “food deserts”—a catch phrase to describe the difficulty obtaining the basics because of distances that need to be travelled.
“It’s not surprising in any political system of any society that I’m aware of, people with the greatest means somehow find a way to get in the places that are seen as most desirable,” Greenberg concluded.