Ask for Urban Family Districts

Ask for Urban Family Districts

The City of Vancouver recently announced the beginning of 18 months of consultation that will result in a “Making Room” rezoning which is intended to find neighbourhoods to add more duplexes and laneway homes. Making room implies that there isn’t room already, but this is far from the truth. Vancouver has loads of space, but it is poorly used. Vancouver’s land use has barely changed since we paved over the orchards and farms to build suburbs south of the downtown core after WWI. Rather than just “Making Room”, it’s time for Vancouver to evolve from Citified Suburbia with families stuffed in laneway houses and basement suites to a network of purposefully designed “Urban Family Districts”.

Current approaches for urban planning in Canada, assume that the current neighborhood plan is at its best and needs no improvement. As a result, any new developments in an existing neighborhood should conform to the current character of the neighborhood (i.e., don't mess with a good thing).

We sometimes forget that the current layout of our city was a product of circumstance rather than design. Vancouver was shaped by where the Canadian Pacific Railroad laid tracks, where the railroad had landholdings, where the port was located, and so on. For example most of the Vancouver Westside originally belonged to the Municipality of Point Grey until 1929 when it amalgamated into the City of Vancouver along with South Vancouver.

Simply “making room” within an urban design that happened by accident before the second world war does not seem like a modern progressive approach to solving our housing problems. Rather than adding laneway homes and bike lanes to modernize our city, we should step back and design the city that we would want our children to live in 30 years from now, and begin slowly building toward that vision.

In this article we will:

  • Define a Family District

  • Illustrate what one might look like

What is a Family District?

Family Districts are future-oriented multi-generational neighbourhoods with plenty of family sized apartments that are ideally anchored by:

  1. A Large Park

  2. Public Transit

  3. An Elementary School

  4. A Community Centre

  5. Local Shopping

These new neighborhoods are intended to be more accommodating to multiple generations, more inclusive, more sustainable environmentally friendly, and create greater social connectedness and a greater sense of community.

1. Large Park

Children growing up in apartments have a greater need of park space and playgrounds than kids with big backyards. Parks and public spaces provide the residents opportunities to stay active and healthy, and they also provide a space for fairs and farmers markets.

2. Public Transit

Family Districts are connected to the city to reduce the need for residents to own cars and reduce street congestion. All of the apartments are within a 10-minute walk of public transit. This also helps teens to commute to high schools. Easy access to transit also reduces the impact of new residents by locating near transit and traffic arteries. To be clear, family district are built around parks, but those parks should be near transit.

3. Elementary School

Most people have fond memories of friendships made as children with kids in their neighbourhoods. Opportunities to develop relationships are important for child development and we believe having all the local kids attend the same elementary school helps to reinforce these early friendships and social learning opportunities.

4. Community Centre

Community centres a great source of shared amenities, great programs for kids, and they also provide critical programs for older residents who have chosen to age-in-place. That’s why it make sense to have community centres located close to high concentrations of multi-generational families. Kids with no possibility of backyard pool or trampoline deserve good community centres. Their green-thumb parents would benefit from a rooftop community garden and perhaps some time at the gym while their kids are in lessons.

5. Local Shopping

Corner stores make stronger neighbourhoods, more sociable, and walkable neighbourhoods. Healthy urban neighbourhoods provide most of their residents needs within walking distance. Toronto has mastered this “Urban Concept” grocery store with the widespread popularity of stores like Longo’s, Rabba, and Metro. As well, think of local small sidewalk cafes and restaurants. With smaller living spaces, options for pleasant escapes become more important.

Goals for Family Districts in the City of Vancouver

Bring young families to areas with schools at risk of closure due to low enrollment.

Under the BC Liberal government many elementary schools in the City of Vancouver were identified as candidates for closure. Although the schools seem unlikely to close under the current NDP government, we believe in future-proofing these schools against politics to ensure their future financial viability. School funding is driven by enrollment so keeping schools close to capacity by building family housing near schools with help these school balance their budgets and guarantee community-based education for future generations.

More quickly address the critical housing shortage.

The housing supply problem is bad, it’s real, and will likely get worse. We’ve all heard people in Vancouver who blame lack of supply for housing unaffordability. Many will have heard the opposing “Supply Myth” argument. We have conducted analysis that shows the supply problem is real and could be worse than any of us imagined.

By 2020 Metro Vancouver housing stock will be short by 47,000 homes! In context, the typical 6-storey apartment building proposed for the Cambie Corridor has 60 homes. We would need to build 780 6-storey apartment buildings simply to keep up.

Provide a diverse mix of apartment sizes so people can grow up and grow old in the same neighbourhood.

This is about the right kind of supply. In August, we conducted an analysis of household in Metro Vancouver and found that there is an under investment in more affordable three and four-bedroom apartments. in our current market, it is unreasonable to expect families to afford a single detached home to accommodate the needs of their household.  24% of households in Metro Vancouver are made up of four or more people. It's unlikely that these are all nuclear families, that can easily fit two people per room, so realistically 24% of the apartments we are building should have 4 or more bedrooms. This is common practice in Europe and today in Madrid, for example, there are over 6,500 4-bedroom apartments for sale.

Focus on smaller “family districts” that will form part of larger integrated Official Community Plans (OCPs).

Most community plans In Vancouver are 10 to 15 years old and ideally Family Districts would be planned as part of refreshing these official community plans (OCPs). However, since the City has found it very difficult to maintain relevant, modern, and responsive community plans, it is counterproductive for Family Districts to wait for these OCPs to be updated before moving forward.

For that reason, we recommend that sites for Family Districts be selected, the form, function and pre-zoning of Family Districts be finalized, and the city move forward with haste. Family Districts can be designed with the intent that future OCPs can more fully define how small Family Districts centred around one park, interact other areas of a larger community. This includes blending them with the “Missing Middle” and “Making Room” residential areas.

City planners need to focus on planning and function, over aesthetic considerations or what the current residents think they want built.

Urban design is the proactive shaping and design of public spaces (i.e. streets, zoning, public squares, parks and open space) for our desired style of city living. At its heart, urban design incorporates a “people first” philosophy that promotes healthy and socially interactive neighbourhoods that contribute to the economic success. It involves proactively guiding developers to an understanding of what the city wants built and approving construction that meets the guidance, rather than reacting to developer proposals and attempting to shape the public space from the few pieces of the puzzle under immediate consideration.

The value in building “people first” developments is wide ranging. Foremost, it encourages a compact urban form, which promotes alternative and healthy transportation choices (i.e., walking, cycling and transit), better use of municipal infrastructure and maintains the viability of neighbourhood businesses. Over the longer term, this style of development fosters a distinct community character that builds a brand and civic pride for the City and its neighbourhoods.

Urban design is the key to making places where talented people will want to live, which will nurture economic success. It is our hope that providing Family Districts as a canvas will allow urban designers to create vibrant and dynamic multi-generational spaces that foster a tight knit urban community.

What would a Family District look like?

In Vancouver, we have built up areas like Family Districts, but they’ve generally been situated in areas that command premium real estate prices, they are height restricted, they are not near at-risk schools, or their zoning doesn’t allow for a small neighbourhood-oriented business district. The nearest examples today are, Olympic Village, Arbutus Walk, and Quilchena Park.

Ideally, we would plan for a network of Family Districts connected by transit and bicycle routes. If there isn’t a community centre, then the City can plan for one to be built with support from developers and the taxes from new residents.

How to identify the ideal site for a Family District?

Below is an example of the type of Park where we would want to create a Family District.  You can see that there is a school at risk of closure in the top right corner, there's a transit corridor running down the right-hand side of the park, and there's a community centre in the park. We've created mixed-use zones around the park to allow for cafes and pedestrian friendly shopping. Consistent with tradition, we've allowed mixed-use commercial and retail along the transit corridor and allowed greater height near the transit corridor, so the greatest density is located nearest to transit.

It is unlikely that City Planners will find a site that look exactly like the one show above, and this illustration is simply intended as a guideline for assessing the many parks in Vancouver and bordering Vancouver (e.g., Burnaby Central Park) that may be perfect to support Family Districts.

Family District Building Design

To better illustrate what the buildings in this family District might look like, we've selected examples of recent proposals to the City of Vancouver. This should be a good representation of what the city would approve under current building code and zoning but is by no means intended to limit the creativity of potential developments to create neighbourhoods with unique personalities.

This taller building is approved for Southeast Marine Drive. Sometimes the community can benefit from height because this allows the developer to give over land to public space as is Illustrated in this building with a small park at its base. In a family District, this park could blend into the current public park, extending its reach like what was done at the southeast corner of false Creek in Olympic Village.

Possible Concerns

What if all these family homes are bought by speculators?

We must trust that the current and future measures from the federal, provincial, and municipal governments to address speculation and underutilization will prevent this new supply from being misused or underutilized. If current measures don’t work, we expect various levels of government to continue to close loopholes and tax speculators for the costs they are creating.

Why aren’t the proposed buildings shorter?

Land contributes most of the cost in a new development, so building more homes with less land is the best way to bring affordability. This is even more important if we expect developers to build 4-bedroom homes for families with children who will fill schools, some of which have been targeted for closure because of low enrollment. Higher density also reduces the building footprint per household and environmental of impact on the area. Finally, sharing costs across more units lowers maintenance costs and fees for all the residents.

Won’t these districts case traffic congestion?

We are focusing on transit friendly areas and areas near major traffic arteries to reduce impact. More density creates the business case to support development of better public transit.

3 and 4-bedroom apartment are expensive!

Yes, family sized apartments are expensive to build and buy, but they are much cheaper than a house. As well, they are extra expensive because there are so few of them and their nearest substitute is an even more expensive townhouse. As well, these apartments are near a large park and since children raised in apartments need access to parks more than kids with yards, the buildings built near parks should have plenty of 3 and 4-bedroom homes.

Pre-zoning will raise the land costs

This is not necessarily true.

  1. Developers will never pay more for land than they can recover when selling the condos and townhomes later.

  2. If you ask an industry insider, they will tell you it is very difficult to borrow money to buy land for development. Given the limited capacity of developers to buy land, the best way to avoid a steep rise in land values is overwhelming supply of developable land. More supply than the developer community could possibly buy. That doesn’t mean blanket pre-zoning, but it does mean that any areas that are obvious for pre-zoning (e.g., Broadway Corridor) should be pre-zoned to the level of density that seems appropriate.

Any specific project would still need to get formally re-zoned and obtain a building permit, so this would hardly be a free ticket, but it does signal what the city hopes to see built in the future. Bringing more supply to the market quickly will help balance the market and allow home buyers negotiate better home prices.

The pre-zoning proposal doesn’t include special stipulations for affordability, other than family sized apartments. We expect that during re-zoning and permitting the City will use the current tools available to incentivize construction of daycares, purpose-built rental housing, affordable housing, assisted living.


Please take a moment to imagine that you’re looking out the window to check on your retired father who is watching the kids play in the park. He has downsized to a cozy 1-bedroom apartment 2 blocks away so that he can help you and your partner with the children.

You live in a comfortable 1,200 square foot apartment with 3 bedrooms and there’s a corner store 2 blocks away in case you run out of milk. In an emergency, your partner could leave work and be home within 30 minutes by transit.

If this is a life you’d like to have then you should be in favour of Family Districts. Spread the word!

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