Category: Urban Planning

I recently built a web tool to solve a simple question that comes up often in urban planning: after taking setback requirements into account, how much of lot can be built on? The answer is often surprising: for example, Vancouver’s most common residential zone only allows houses to cover about 28% of the land.

It was a fun weekend project, and a few weeks later I decided to upgrade it on a long plane ride. It’s now a neighbourhood-level simulator with many more parameters:

Alt Text

These are mobile and desktop-friendly, and the visualization is entirely done in the browser. Here’s how it all works.

AHV Letter Builder

Software for Housing, Part 1

I’m a member of a nonprofit called Abundant Housing Vancouver, and as you can probably tell, I happen to do some programming too. In 2017 I was able to spend a lot of time combining these interests which was pretty great!

Over a few blog posts I’ll briefly outline the projects I worked on – they’re all open source and who knows, they might even be useful for other housing advocacy groups someday. First up: the Abundant Housing Vancouver Letter Builder.

Japanese Apartment Hunting

Craigslist, eat your heart out

Over the past 10 years, I’ve spent a lot of time looking for apartments in both Vancouver and in Tokyo. It’s been an interesting chance to compare two very different cities.

Vancouver has a remarkably low vacancy rate, so right off the bat renters are competing for a very small pool of available homes. Apartment hunters are also usually stuck with Craigslist. Craigslist is far and away the best place for browsing apartments in Vancouver, but not because it’s a well-designed site. It’s a perfect example of network effects: it offers a poor user experience, but landlords can’t afford to ignore the large pool of renters using Craigslist and vice versa.

Things are very different in Tokyo. It seems difficult to get comparable rental vacancy data (see the numbers and caveats here), but the sheer number of rental listings available online makes me suspect that the vacancy rate is much higher than in Metro Vancouver. The tools are better too: apartments tend to be listed by brokers on a few big websites, and the experience for renters on those websites is much better than on Craigslist.

Since most North Americans don’t know what they’re missing, I’ll give a quick overview of what it’s like to look for an apartment in Japan.

Vancouver’s rocky start with secondary suites

From wartime homes to student homes

Or: that time that Vancouver decided single-family zoning was more important than defeating Hitler

Secondary suites (often just “basement suites”, or ADUs) are an everyday part of Vancouver neighbourhoods now. Even before they were fully legalized in 2004, they provided a large amount of Vancouver’s low-cost housing stock.

The story I usually hear about suites goes like this: people started building a lot of unauthorized suites in Vancouver Specials in the 1970s and 1980s, and this set the stage for a long drawn-out political battle that eventually ended with suites being legalized.

It’s a good story, and it’s true! But Vancouver’s history with secondary suites goes back much further. People were trying to live in secondary suites – and Vancouver was trying to stop them – for a long time before the Vancouver Special.

Ask a random person what the purpose of zoning is, and they’ll probably mention that it keeps unpleasant or dangerous things away from homes. You wouldn’t want to live next to a garbage dump or concrete factory, right?

Most people agree that that’s a good thing, but zoning codes do a lot more than that. If you could ask the people who wrote our first zoning codes, you’d quickly learn that separating industry from homes was very far down their list of goals. Separating certain homes – specifically apartment homes – from other homes was the primary motivation for Vancouver’s first zoning code.

Point Grey

Our story starts in the 1920s, with 3 municipalities where Vancouver lies today: The City of Vancouver, Point Grey, and South Vancouver. Point Grey encompassed not just modern-day Point Grey, but most of the West Side. Point Grey was the first municipality in Canada to introduce zoning in 1922. The chairman of the Point Grey Town Planning Commission was eager to boast of the zoning bylaw’s “successes,” specifically, how it excluded lower-cost housing:

Such by-laws as these served, in no uncertain way, to implement the ideals held by the residents that their municipality was to be one in which the best type of home could not only be built, but also adequately safeguarded from the encroachments of undesirable types of development. That the quality and type of dwelling within the municipality at the present time is of a very high order is indicated by the study of the “dwelling permits” over a five-year period. The average cost of residences over such a period, these “permits” show, was in excess of $4,100. At the present time over ninety per cent, of the municipality is zoned for one-family dwelling districts. Point Grey has no slum district. (A Plan for the City of Vancouver, p. 297)

Vancouver’s Interim Zoning Bylaw

By 1927, the City of Vancouver was seriously considering a zoning bylaw of their own. They had hired Harland Bartholomew, a prominent urban planning consultant, to devise a comprehensive plan for Vancouver. But these things take time, and time was in short supply. Well before Bartholomew could finish his official plan, Vancouver commissioned him to write a temporary bylaw to stop the most pressing danger to the city: apartment buildings. His instructions were unambiguous:

“When Bartholomew asked what abuses he should consider in the interim zoning by-law of 1927 he was preparing, the chairman replied that ’the only serious abuse… is the intrusion of undesirable apartment houses into residential districts’” (Zoning and the Single-Family Landscape, p. 60)

Bartholomew was happy to state the motivation for the interim bylaw in official documents:

…largely to prevent the intrusion of apartment houses in single or two-family residential areas, an interim zoning by-law was prepared and approved by the Town Planning Commission, recommended to the Council, and became law on 5th February, 1927. (A Plan for the City of Vancouver, p. 211)


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