Illustration by Studio Tipi

Vancouver these days has become a city fixated by the curbside view of its gold-plated residential real estate. As the city obsesses over stratospheric house prices, media accounts of shacks selling for seven figures and real estate industry scandals, British Columbia’s mega-city seems to have become a place beyond reach.

The view from the city’s hundreds of kilometres of rear laneways, however, is far less gloomy, and indeed offers an economically affordable and environmentally sustainable alternative. Ever since Vancouver council, in 2009, approved a policy encouraging the development of laneway housing, the city has seen the construction of about 3,000 of these cozy homes, most developed at the rear of the city’s standard 5,000 sq.ft. residential lots. They range in size from 600 to 1,000 sq.ft., and are either leased out by the owner or become second suites for older or younger family members. Some are all about style and energy efficiency, while others have the look and feel of traditional cottages.

Laneway housing in B.C. Photo by Joe Wolf
Laneway housing in B.C. Credit: Lanefab/Krista Jahnke

Jake Fry, who owns a design/build firm called Smallworks, has become one of the leading developers of Vancouver laneway housing. In recent years, he’s come to see these dwellings not merely as solutions to the city’s housing affordability crisis, but also as a means of rebuilding the density and street vitality that has slowly, and surprisingly, drained out of many of Vancouver’s leafy neighbourhoods.

Real estate speculation has created a curious demographic stasis, says Fry. Older residents can’t afford to move out of larger homes but hope to stay in the city, while younger families can’t cobble together the funds to buy into communities featuring multimillion-dollar homes that once teemed with middle-class families. As Fry puts it, these neighbourhoods aren’t replenishing themselves, and the loss of young families with children means they’ve lost population.

The laneways, however, offer a source of land that allows the city to add – or more accurately, restore – density. Fry says Vancouver has about 75,000 residential lots, and about 50,000 are served by rear laneways. The city, moreover, expects to grow by about 100,000 to 150,000 people within the next decade. The laneways, in theory, could absorb much of that growth.

The accelerating development of these relatively inexpensive homes – they cost about $300,000 – offer property owners the opportunity to create a compact residential unit for downsizers or tenants, and even add a basement or second floor apartment in the main home. These compact structures are energy efficient because they tend to be located close to transit and amenities, including existing retail strips, which in turn benefit from a larger customer base within walking distance.

“We’re not looking at adding [density] to the neighbourhood but rather going back to 1950s levels,” says Fry. “It improves the system and starts to make that nice kinetic energy that’s been missing.”

In recent years, many fast-growing cities like Vancouver have been struggling to come to terms with the dual pressures of population growth and the cost of sprawl. While low-density, car-oriented suburbs have grown more or less continuously at the edges of metropolitan regions since the end of World War II, many city-dwellers have either rediscovered denser downtowns or, in the case of millennials, are choosing to root themselves in walkable core areas well served by transit, street life, bike lanes and conveniently situated amenities.

At the same time, municipal and regional planners in many cities are trying to optimize pricey infrastructure expenditures by encouraging more compact development that costs less to maintain and serves larger populations. And, as anti-sprawl advocates have argued for many years, traditional subdivisions built in farmers’ fields are energy sinks – they require residents to operate multiple vehicles and also take valuable agricultural land out of operation, forcing food distributors to ship produce across greater distances.

Although urbanists have advocated intensification for many years, the case for denser cities suddenly became much more urgent with Canada’s newfound commitment to the climate change policies that flowed from the Paris accords. After all, buildings and transportation together account for a third of Canada’s carbon emissions. In short, if Canada truly wants to become a greener, low-carbon country, it absolutely needs to build much more energy-efficient cities.

But while many of our big cities are seeing rising densities in their downtown areas, the intensification imperative is anything but straightforward, much less assured. Critics point out that poorly executed, high-density residential projects, especially in the suburbs, can unwittingly dump more traffic onto congested and alienating arterials. Accelerating gentrification in compact, older working-class neighbourhoods also means that the many people with modest incomes won’t have access to the vibrancy of successfully dense communities. Finally, many metropolitan regions struggle with the dirty reality that while more city-dwellers want to live close to the urban action, their jobs remain far afield, in low-cost suburban office or industrial parks that are nowhere near transit. The flip side of intensification is the reverse commute.

Perhaps most importantly, the litmus test of urban density is whether the compact city of the future will be liveable and socially sustainable as well as environmentally efficient. “The ultimate goal is to create human scale density,” says Montreal architect Owen Rose. Adds Cherise Burda, director of the Ryerson City Building Institute: “It’s not about how dense you make it, but how you make it dense.”

Herewith, some scenes from the front lines of urban intensification.


Intensifying Canada’s mid-sized cities

When Joseph Fung, the manager of human capital for Waterloo, Ontario-based NetSuite, goes out with co-workers for lunch or an off-site company event, he tries to make sure they end up in a restaurant or public space close to the company’s office. While that approach would scarcely merit a second thought for firms in the downtown of big cities, NetSuite’s office is located on King Street, the long central spine that connects Cambridge, Kitchener, Waterloo and Galt.

For many years, including through the heyday of BlackBerry, King Street and parts of Waterloo’s downtown were fairly rundown, with shuttered stores, social service agencies and derelict industrial buildings. But in recent years, Fung says, a growing number of tech companies like NetSuite have begun to settle in the downtown – part of a revitalization trend that has seen research institutes, cultural amenities, boutique hotels, mid-rise condos and tech accelerators reclaim the core. “There’s a lot more happening now,” he says.

And more is still to come: Waterloo Region is developing a 36-km light rapid transit/bus rapid corridor with 22 stations, with service expected to begin sometime next year. The transit corridor – which will link to a major new transportation hub with bus and regional rail service to Toronto – will only succeed if the area around the transit route becomes denser and more pedestrian oriented. “The LRT is necessary for us to meet increasing population demands,” says Fung.

Waterloo isn’t the only mid-sized city looking at intensifying its downtown core as a means of accommodating more residents while limiting sprawl. Burlington, a suburban Greater Toronto Area (GTA) municipality, recently approved a plan to boost density in its core area – a move that has spawned a robust and somewhat anxious debate among local councillors and residents more accustomed to low-rise, subdivision-oriented communities.

“It’s an easier decision to make than to implement,” says planning consultant Brent Toderian, a former Vancouver chief planner whose firm Toderian UrbanWorks is advising the City of Burlington. With the city’s population expected to grow to 250,000 from 175,000 in the next few decades, Toderian recalls a recent council debate about this transformation during which the mayor asked if there’s an optimal size. His reply: “It depends on how well you build your city.”

Toderian says the success of intensification campaigns in places like Burlington and Waterloo hinge on the quality of the pedestrian realm: for corridors targeted to be redeveloped with mid-rise residential buildings, municipal planners have to provide quality public spaces, comfortable sidewalks, bike lanes, architectural variety and conveniently situated amenities such as schools and community centres. If the local street network remains a “traffic sewer,” he says, the added density is “a recipe for disaster. It’s entirely possible to do mid-rise poorly.”

“These areas,” adds Waterloo University professor of planning Pierre Filion, “have to function differently than all other parts of the metropolitan area; otherwise you’ll have a major conflict between residents and cars.”

Fung, however, adds another layer, which is the tendency for transit-driven redevelopment to accelerate gentrification. He points out that downtown Kitchener has long had a larger share of low-income residents than the rest of the region, and worries that escalating land values associated with the transit line will drive them out as tech firms, young condo owners and bistros move in. “Although our community doesn’t have a big gentrification issue right now, it may in 10 years,” he says. “We need to build affordable housing now in anticipation of that change.”


Communities in the sky

On the southeast and southwest corners of Yonge and Bloor, Canada’s most famous intersection, a pair of towers of almost unprecedented height are pushing into the sky, reprising the bank tower rivalries that re-cast Toronto’s commercial skyline in the 1970s. At 76 storeys, One Bloor East, a $450-million Great Gulf project, will feature a tri-level, 100,000 sq.-ft. retail podium, with over 700 apartments above. Across the street, One Bloor West will rise to 80 storeys, making it Toronto’s second tallest building. Developer Sam Mizrahi has hired starchitect Sir Norman Foster to design the tower, which will also incorporate retail and heritage features.

These twin giants are merely the latest, and certainly not last, examples of ultra-high density residential development in Canada’s largest city. With Toronto leading North America in terms of the number of high-rise condo projects under construction, it’s little wonder that the downtown core saw its population jump by over 50,000 people between 2006 and 2011, and many more since then. For that reason, the proportion of Torontonians riding, walking or taking transit to work has grown, with many high-rise dwellers eschewing car ownership altogether.

The model for this type of downtown development can be traced back to Vancouver’s 1986 Expo, when the city and Concord Adex, a west coast builder, came up with a plan to redevelop the north shore of False Creek and some of Vancouver’s derelict industrial precincts, such as Yaletown. Concord proposed situating its new high rises on man-made islands in False Creek, but the city’s chief planner Larry Beasley rejected that idea. Instead, he told Concord that if it wanted to erect point towers, the firm had to invest in the public spaces around those high rises and also create townhouses and retail amenities at their bases to foster street life.

That pioneering planning technique created the formula for high-density downtown development in other large Canadian cities. As former Vancouver planner Michael Mortensen notes, Vancouver’s downtown population doubled while car use flatlined. “That’s an epic success.”

In fact, high-rise towers are sprouting up in more distant suburban regions as well – evidence that those settling in high-growth cities like Toronto regard a condo apartment as a sound real estate investment, even if it’s not situated in a trendier downtown area.

Yet planning experts point out that many medium and high-density towers in these regions may actually be undermining the case for intensification. “If you look at what’s being built in suburban areas,” says Burda, “maybe I’d want to live in a detached house instead.” Toderian unpacks the problem: monolithic towers surrounded by parking infrastructure and situated in areas lacking pedestrian-friendly public spaces. He cites Mississauga City Centre, a high-density suburban node with a mix of residential, office, retail and public amenities. The problem is, the area was developed to the scale of the automobile – the pedestrian realm between buildings is alienating. “It fails the test of scale even though it has density.”

Examples like Mississauga City Centre are now more the norm than the exception, but a handful of high-density suburban nodes offer an alternative vision of this form of intensification. Waterloo’s Filion, who is part of an international team studying “global suburbanism,” has identified 14 such high-density suburban cores across Canada, including Richmond Centre, Metrotown, in Burnaby, British Columbia, and North York City Centre, in north Toronto.

North York, which developed from a sleepy low-rise strip into a dense downtown-like core, today boasts 60,000 residents, street life and a range of amenities, but also thousands of jobs in a string of office complexes served by three heavily used transit stops. As Filion notes, the most successful suburban intensification efforts tend to expand block by block, not around the shopping malls.


Gentle density

Although tens of thousands of Canadian city-dwellers have invested billions in high-rise condos, Rose, the Montreal architect, counts himself as a skeptic when he ponders the dream of high-rise living. In the 1960s, when North American cities were razing working-class neighbourhoods in favour of high-rise apartments, “we were all going to live in the sky.” The reality, he argues, “is that we haven’t succeeded in creating neighbourhoods with that kind of high density.”

Dense housing in Montreal's Plateau district
Dense housing in Montreal’s Plateau district

Rose, in fact, believes that when cities look to high rises for intensification, they’re overlooking solutions hidden in plain view – the potential of the dense urban form that characterized early 20th century working-class/immigrant neighbourhoods served by streetcars, like Montreal’s Plateau district. In a recent presentation to planners, Rose noted that Vancouver’s West End, with its soaring point towers, and Berlin’s Prenzlauer Berg, a trendy working-class area dominated by mid-rise apartments, both had densities comparable to the Plateau, whose streets are lined by three-storey, walk-up row-houses on narrow lots.

As with similarly compact neighbourhoods in older parts of Toronto, such neighbourhoods are well suited for families with young children, and they also provide space for greenery as well as enough critical mass to allow street retail to flourish. Rose questions whether the anonymity of tower living, and the inevitable disconnectedness from the street, can ever replicate those qualities. “The developers want to build 45-storey towers, but what is the sense of community?”

Of course, the skyrocketing prices of homes in such neighbourhoods confirms Rose’s thesis, but he says it’s possible for municipalities to develop comparably scaled communities instead of turning to high-rise development to boost density. He points to Vauban, a community in Freiburg, Germany, that provides a compelling example of how to build human-scale, high-density, transit-oriented development. “It’s an incredible model,” he says.

Vauban, Freiburg
Vauban, Freiburg

Vauban dates to the mid-1990s, when a squatter community on Freiburg’s southern fringe began developing a co-op community near a tram stop. By 2001, it had 2,000 residents, and today is home to over 5,000, as well as 600 jobs. What distinguishes Vauban is that the neighbourhood, though quite new, has narrow streets and no on-street parking or private garages. Residents with cars can drive to their homes, to drop off groceries for example, but they park on private lots at the edge of the community, a few hundred metres away.

The space consumed in many neighbourhoods for cars is thus available for other uses, and the result is a cozy built form with parks, bike paths, local retail, public spaces, and a human scale. Rose points out that Vauban’s buildings are environmentally efficient and also demonstrate architectural variety to further enhance the community’s human scale.

Freiburg politicians were initially uncomfortable with Vauban’s seemingly radical approach to relegate cars to the edges. But as the community’s popularity grew and word of its viability spread, cities like Sweden’s Malmo and Stockholm have mimicked the concept. “You have a greening strategy paired with higher density,” says Rose. “You can totally bank on that being successful.”


The riddle of commercial intensification

In 2013, veteran real estate consultant Iain Dobson published a scathing indictment of the way Greater Toronto’s jobs have come unmoored from its transit infrastructure. While the subway and the GO Transit regional rail system established in the 1960s succeeded in bringing people to jobs in the downtown core, more recent trends offer an explanation for the traffic horrors in the suburban 905 area. About 100 million sq.ft. of office space, accounting for 500,000 jobs, is not linked to the GTA’s rapid transit network, Dobson found. With another half million jobs expected in the next 30 years, he added this warning: “[T]here is no coherent strategy for where and how the 100M sq. ft. of office space needed to house these jobs will be located.”

When cities debate intensification, the focus tends to be on creating compact neighbourhoods – either vertical ones or other forms, such as mid-rise apartments arrayed on arterial roads. The question of intensifying employment zones, however, tends to be overlooked, even in elaborate provincial planning policies geared at countering sprawl, such as Ontario’s Places to Grow Act. “They didn’t address it in a complete way,” says planning expert Pamela Blais, who recently completed an evaluation of employment zones in the GTA for the Neptis Foundation, an urban think tank. Others agree: “It has proven to be much more difficult to intensify other kinds of land uses, such as office space,” says Filion. “There’s a major issue there. Places of employment aren’t following residential intensification.”

Put simply, the re-colonization of downtown cores may seem to improve urban sustainability. But if many of those residents have to drive long distances to suburban office or industrial parks, the benefits are cancelled out.

The trends point to a fourth wave of urban development since the rise of industrial cities in the 19th century, when working-class neighbourhoods sprang up around downtown or port area factories and rail corridors. After World War II, families decamped for newly built suburbs and either commuted to jobs downtown or to new employment campuses in the outlying areas. Younger city-dwellers began to reclaim neglected older downtown neighbourhoods beginning in the 1970s, and that process paved the way for today’s cities, where the most sought after residential real estate tends to be close to lively core areas. The problem is that hundreds of thousands of jobs migrated in the opposite direction, as employers looked for cheap land on the fringes with ready access to highways.

Blais says that what’s been happening in recent years is a clustering of well-paid, knowledge-intensive white collar jobs in trendy downtown areas, but also an exodus of other forms of employment to places with little or no transit access. She points to three fast-growing employment “megazones” in Toronto’s outskirts where 543,000 jobs are now located, but more than nine in 10 employees come to work by car. By contrast, there are 465,000 jobs in Toronto’s core, and only 29 per cent of those workers use a private vehicle for their daily commute.

What’s worse, Blais says, the regional growth plan, which will direct tens of billions of dollars in rapid transit investment in coming years, basically ignores those three mega-zones. “There’s a disconnect between the actual patterns of change and what the growth plan suggests we will be or should be going,” warns Blais. “You can put transit in the wrong place.”

Mortensen, who currently works at the London office of a B.C. development company, notes that municipal planners have not challenged commercial and industrial developers to use land more efficiently and design more innovative buildings, as is happening with high-density residential structures.

Filion highlights another wrinkle. He points to an area in northwest Montreal that was a hub of post-war industry, and well served by highways that allowed unionized employees to drive to work. Today, that zone still has a lot of light industrial jobs, but they tend to be lower paying and non-unionized. Those lower-wage workers, he says, tend to rely more heavily on transit, but the service is poor or non-existent.

Toderian, however, has faith in the sort of smart and forward-looking planning that acknowledges these giant forces and uses a whole suite of tools to create complete urban communities – areas where you can live, work and recreate without undertaking herculean efforts to get from one place to the other. He points to the case of Surrey City Centre, a suburban hub in Greater Vancouver where planners have used a development corporation to combine housing, employment, transit, amenities and quality public spaces into a relatively compact zone.

As he puts it, “Every individual project has to play its role in the larger project.”

Latest from Built Environment

current issue