I don’t want a white picket fence: density and changing demographics

I don’t want a white picket fence: density and changing demographics

By Amy Huva

July 05, 2012

This is actually more common in Vancouver than you may think

Last month, I attended the Vancouver Urban Forum hosted by Sam Sullivan in the style of one of his salons. It was a day jam-packed with ideas and speakers – twenty in total! – that covered so much breadth that I will be breaking it into several posts, but the main topic was density.

Andrew Ramlo from Urban Futures Incorporated told us about how the demographics of Vancouver are changing. Right now, the typical resident of Vancouver is 50 years old. As the tail end of the baby boomers age, so will our population, and with the current trend of boomers staying in their houses and remaining independent for as long as possible (some without downsizing) this leads to houses with more bedrooms than people. The suburbs that people grew up in, and might want to raise their own families in, are no longer affordable because no-one is moving out.

Another issue with housing in Vancouver related to density is that 90% of the city is suburban single dwelling detached houses. People may think of the highrise skyline of the downtown core when they think of Vancouver, but overwhelmingly, it’s suburban and only one kind of suburban.

We need more options for housing – options that are not only different from the nuclear family suburban home, but also denser and closer to transit. This can make use of changing tastes and needs as well as the decline of the ‘traditional’ nuclear family, which is actually not a long standing tradition at all.

1950's nostalgia

The nuclear family was created as a social construct after the Second World War in order to convince women out of the workforce and back into the home once the troops returned. It was sold as the ideal, and from it, grew the North American dream of suburbia that the baby boomers grew up in.

Because of this construct, our cities were designed and built around the car. These suburbs are now increasingly expensive, further away from city centres that provide employment, and disconnected from transit and other public infrastructure. This design caters to only one type of family living situation and creates an environmental nightmare of sprawl as people move out instead of densifying.

However, needs and tastes change. I for one, hope to never live in suburbia in the style of the large house with a large garden and the long commute. I have never owned a car (which is becoming more and more commonamongst my generation) and that means I value things being close and accessible. I hate commuting, and the idea of sitting in traffic every morning horrifies me unless I was doing it on transit and could make use of the time. To me, time spent sitting in a car driving is time wasted.

I am also of a highly mobile generation – I would rather spend my money on travel than a big house, and the thought that I might choose to move overseas again in the next few years means I like to minimise the amount of stuff I own.

Densifying Vancouver’s housing in the next few decades as the population of Vancouver grows is going to be a necessity. And as the very entertaining Dan Zack (the development coordinator for Redwood City, California) pointed out, density needs to be done well. It needs to be walkable, it needs to fit the overall style of the neighbourhood (and not stick out like a sore thumb), it needs good street frontage, good transit and it needs to be ‘loveable’ before any residents are going to accept it.

Our population is changing and our housing needs to change to reflect that – we don’t all want, or need, a white picket fence.

(House photo courtesy of Pacific Northwest Regional Architecture/Flickr, 1950's poster courtesy of alsis35/Flickr)

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