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Is Vancouver becoming a city where people are ready to ditch the single-family home?

November 15th, 2016 · 10 Comments

That’s the argument that University of B.C. prof Nathanael Lauster is making in his just-published book, The Death and Life of the Single Family House: Lessons from Vancouver on Building a Livable City.

Lauster (who walks the walk, living in a townhouse in Kits with his wife and two children) interviewed a few dozen Vancouverites about where they live and how they feel about it. His conclusion was that a significant number are adapting to a new kind of lifestyle here, one where they don’t live in a house with a yard but have instead traded that off for smaller space closer to urban amenities.

My interview with him and summary of the book is here. I’m sure many of you will agree with some parts, have some questions about others, as I did.

One of the things I noticed as I read his book was that house was deemed to be automatically equivalent to more space but far from urban activities, a form of housing that cut people off from their communities. Apartments, on the other hand, seemed to be equated to an automatic connection to more parks, shops, other people, and activities.

Yet there are plenty of apartments in the region that are parked in isolation near busy roads and without much around. And there are houses in neighbourhoods that are lively and filled with people walking around, meeting each other and connecting.

It seems to me that it’s more a failure of city planning than something to do with the actual structure of a building that defines whether single-family houses and apartments are isolated or connected, contributors to an integrated community or not.

But I appreciate Lauster’s approach, because the reality is that Vancouver is changing into a region that is different from other cities. Whenever census numbers come out that show more people are living in the suburbs than ever, certain public commentators leap on that with glee, thinking it proves that people really do prefer houses with yards and not urban living.

But the fact is that there are vastly more apartments, townhouses and rowhouses being built in the region than single-family houses, even in the remotest suburbs. The building starts for the region from January to October this year show 3,909 single-family starts and 13,415 “multiples.”

His emphasis in his research is understanding what we mean by home and how having a home structures our lives. From all the evidence, Vancouverites increasingly define home as not necessarily the house with yard.

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