Apr 12 2010

Urban Planning Through Deliberate Sabotage

When a neighborhood’s resiliency derives so much from affordability for the working class, artists and small businesses, should a neighborhood deliberately avoid making improvements? Deliberate sabotage of a community seems rife with risk and the threat of unanticipated blowback.

But for the funky, vital neighborhood of Commercial Drive in Vancouver, gradual improvements will just keep adding to the trend of gentrification that has made home-ownership for lower incomes totally out of reach and made some local business owners concerned about their long-term future. Without more massive infusions of subsidized housing, how can the Drive retain its character as the neighborhood becomes irresistible to Yuppies? My comments in the Granville Magazine blog post, When livability and resilience collide

Can Commercial hold back gentrification? If it can’t, is it possible to retain the neighbourhood’s distinct character? These were the sorts of questions that participants were dealing with at the recent Drive to Resilience forum on envisioning the future of Commercial Drive, hosted by the students in the Semester in Dialogue program at SFU. Those in attendance included residents, local business owners and representatives from various neighbourhood organizations who were guided through a day-long exercise in collaborative problem solving.

Much of what participants discussed revolved around developing more support for affordable housing, help for artists and small businesses, and even programs to support the integration of the area’s homeless and marginal people into composting efforts. In this sense, much of Commercial Drive’s character seems dependent on low rent and subsidies for those with low income.

Ironically, the characteristics that define Commercial Drive may have actually become more pronounced due to the gentrification of areas like Kitsilano, which has sent artists and working-class holdouts fleeing for the Eastside. But in a few more years, rent increases for residents and businesses may conceivably turn the area into a slightly more mellow version of South Granville—with its Le Chateau, Pottery Barn and Chapters stores—sending purists and the area’s poor fleeing for some other as-yet ungentrified corner of the city.

If the consensus from neighbourhood residents and Vancouver-area citizens who make the Drive their second home is to preserve a working class neighbourhood and artist refuge in the midst of a rapidly growing, trend-setting cosmopolitan metropolis, the simplest way to keep rents down is to disincentivise certain yuppie types from moving into the neighbourhood. How to do that without going so far that you actually put the area into decline is tricky.

How Does Commercial Drive Retain This?

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4 responses so far

4 Responses to “Urban Planning Through Deliberate Sabotage”

  1. truepeerson 22 Apr 2010 at 2:55 pm

    Commercial Dr. isn’t already gentrified? It’s a working-class place? Every second door is a restaurant…

    Real estate is so expensive in Vancouver because of the cost of creating new housing. Part of the reason that cost is so high is because of the tax regime, and also the development policies of the city require condo developers to pay for all kinds of infrastructure (like parks) related to their new developments. Taxes are considerably lower per dollar of house than in other Canadian cities (allowing prices to float higher so that home owners pay more in mortgage payments than they do in taxes), while taxes for business owners and the indirect costs of developers are considerably higher than in other cities (those businesses on Commercial often go broke, and the survivors have to work their butts off…). In other words, the city conspires to keep housing prices high and residential property taxes relatively low, to favour the home-owning gentry (whether they live around Commercial or Kitsilano, however classy the digs). (See Howard Rotberg’s book, Vancouverism.) There can be no serious movement on “affordable” housing without making all home owners poorer on paper. Find us a politician willing to speak the truth… Vancouver is far from being a sustainable city (like most cities it is a parasite that draws people in but does not provide for realistic ways for many of them to reproduce themselves by having families…) The average daily commute in the GVRD is over one hour each way! This is a city where people expect to get rich by sitting on real estate (as long as there are enough newcomers able and willing to buy in to this nice piece of geography, the ponzi works): it is not really anywhere a seriously “working” – class city except for those who work like dogs to buy in (and they don’t have much time to hang out on the Drive, it seems to me).

    Vancouver is an ethically very dubious place, it seems to me. We all can do more to point this out.

  2. truepeerson 22 Apr 2010 at 3:02 pm

    In other words, Vancouver is a scheme built by aging hippies (who bought in years ago with their mostly middle-class public sector jobs) to get rich at the expense of that part of the newcomers who really are working class and any children they may have. That is why I am suspicious of the “working-class” rhetoric, since it sounds like hippie nostalgia lieing to its own children about whose interests are in play.

  3. jnarveyon 22 Apr 2010 at 3:40 pm

    Good points, Truepeers. I must admit my own confusion on the definition of “working class”, owing to a number of factors. I used to consider only certain sorts of occupations to be working class, like welders, longshoremen, factory workers and the like. I’ve since broadened my definition to include artists, wage slaves and even certain small business owners who don’t fit neatly into a “corporate” or “white collar” category — more of a categorization by income rather than type of job performed.

    As such, the “working class” definition for Commercial Drive is certainly debatable.

    On the larger point of Vancouver as an ethically dubious place, I also agree, but more in the sense with your previous point that ALL cities tend to be unsustainable (not on a national scale, but in the sense that if everyone wanted to live like Vancouverites, we’d very shortly be screwed). Fortunately, not everyone actually wants to live here (despite what the propaganda of very successful marketing campaigns might tell you).

    Who’s interests are at play? Well, as a believer in this messy, confusing democratic system we’ve got, I don’t think any one group (ie. business and wealthy elites) are completely setting the agenda. It’s up to people like us to ensure that a competition of interests prevails. We don’t live in a Rousseau-ian republic where a spontaneously-agreed “will of the people” prevails. The dog-eat-dog model still holds, moderated by rule of law.

    By the way, we should grab a coffee or a pint one of these days, bud. Drop me an email. Let’s plan. Perhaps we’ll end up on Commercial Drive, eh?

  4. truepeerson 22 Apr 2010 at 4:48 pm

    Ok will mail soon. Have you ever been on the Eastvan “culture crawl” in NOvember whent the artists open their studios? I’m always amazed by how many people exist in the cubbyholes, but they’re mostly young people. What happens when they age? I guess really the only way things can change on a large scale in a mostly freemarket environment is that people vote with their feet and refuse to take the jobs in Vancouver, many of which cannot support a mortgage let alone a family. That’s beeing going on for some time now. Of course, given the economic unreality in America right now, it is likely that at some point in the future there will be a big hike in interest rates; then we will see how much of a bubble exists in our housing market and how much people are really willing to pay to live here.

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