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Vancouver architect Alan Boniface is one of the collaborators on a 62-acre, master-planned waterfront neighbourhood that will double the size of downtown Denver, Colo.

Dialog/SAR/ABA

What will Vancouver look like in a post-COVID-19 world? That question, and the controversial issue of density, has been on a few minds lately.

A report from the New Policy Institute, published April 12, reveals that areas of England where people are crammed together with fewer bedrooms and bathrooms have suffered higher rates of the virus. The report’s author concludes that the virus has changed the way we view housing.

“There is already enough evidence in this research to conclude that the standards which have come to determine what constitutes adequate housing now need to be abandoned and made anew,” the report says.

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Within quarantined Vancouver, living space has suddenly become the all-inclusive pandemic shelter, office and daycare. And with that new crucial use of space, the housing inequities are strikingly apparent, says Andy Yan, director of Simon Fraser University’s City Program. Using numbers from the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation and Statistics Canada’s Canadian Housing Statistics Program, he found the space disparity over the decades has grown wider between those who live in houses and those living in condos. As of the 2018 data set, city of Vancouver single-detached houses had an overall median total living area of 2,420 square feet compared with median condo space of 760 sq. ft. For new dwellings built between 2016 and 2017, the average new house had an area of 3,820 sq. ft., and condo, 644 sq. ft.

That gap is growing wider. Just before the shutdown, in an effort to boost affordability and bedroom count, city council had approved construction of small, windowless bedrooms in a rental development on East Hastings.

In post-COVID Vancouver, will a ventilation and light-challenged bedroom still be possible?

Mr. Yan thinks mental and physical well-being and biosecurity measures could soon eclipse superficial features such as granite countertops. Smaller, cramped units will be increasingly frowned upon in a post-pandemic world that prioritizes livability and flexible use of space.

“Urban density shouldn’t be assumed as just, ‘rack ‘em, pack ‘em and stack ‘em,’” Mr. Yan says. “It should be a thoughtful convergence of design, amenities and public investment. Future physical distancing requirements will challenge the idea that urban density is the simple trade-off between small private space and a big city life.”

Urban designer Scot Hein says if poor density choices are made, there will be increased public pushback against the idea of density. He says “no infections in my backyard,” will be the new NIMBY acronym.

“COVID may make the rounds for years, but it shouldn’t cause us to say the sky is falling on density and neighbourhoods. It should be quite the opposite. We need [density] for social connectivity; for relationships where we can share in the larger challenges of environmental sustainability.

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“I think this moment we have here before us – before a vaccine is found – allows us to rethink our social contract … with each other, and with governance,” says Mr. Hein, now a professor at Simon Fraser University who worked as an urban designer with the city of Vancouver for 20-plus years.

Mr. Hein says he doesn’t want to see Vancouver again choose blanket supply of housing over thoughtful citywide planning. He sees the window between now and development of a COVID-19 vaccine as an opportunity to design a healthy city, as opposed to recent years when housing became a commodity.

“We need to ask, ‘can we embrace this, and understand the prospects for how this converts to a better city? Can we lock that in somehow, as a new way?’

“The thing that I’m most anxious about is the related economic collapse that will cause cities like Vancouver to go back to the former paradigm. It would be easy and lazy to go back because we need to load up the city coffers … cranking out product as a way of landing even more world capital. It’s so self-serving.”

He says people may come out of the pandemic with a new appreciation for gathering spaces, mom-and-pop shops and neighbourhood diversity.

He is urging the city to support development that promotes the unique character of existing neighbourhoods, a concept he has called "the five-minute city.” He says the pandemic has made his idea for small enclaves even more relevant as we are forced to live small, compact lives.

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“Vancouver self-organizes into much smaller hyperlocal five minute proximate communities. That’s such an asset in an era in which we will need each other even more.”

Mr. Hein has found 122 enclaves in Vancouver that have formed around arterial intersections that grew naturally from the city’s old streetcar grid. Future planning should focus on making those areas self-sufficient, with amenities and retail streets that serve the entire area’s needs, he says. Residents shouldn’t have to go far to get their needs met; they know their barista or grocer and live within a village within the city. In a world where we must accept the possibility of future pandemics, the potential of cyberattacks that could shut down the internet, and global warming crises, residents would benefit from such an immediate support system.

Gentle density that gives people proper space and access to the outdoors could be designed around these enclaves.

We’re already seeing residents pulling together in their neighbourhoods every night at 7 o’clock, with front porch cheers and applause.

“They are rising to the occasion because they value their community so much,” Mr. Hein says. “So let that be the underpinning for how we now think about the design of cities.

“But not necessarily in towers, and not necessarily even in apartment buildings, but certainly in “missing middle”-like densities that allow for you to have more neighbours who you get to know because you are near them and you see them. You get to know their dogs’ names. And you have more patronage close to that shopping street so ‘mom and pop’ can survive when we have events like this.”

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Vancouver architect Alan Boniface, who does work on master-planned communities, also worries about an anti-density post-pandemic reaction. He is one of the collaborators on a 62-acre, master-planned waterfront neighbourhood that will double the size of downtown Denver, Colo. The new neighbourhood, to be built on former industrial land, will take up to 25 years to fully construct, and will emphasize walkability over cars. It will include a school and commercial and mixed-use residential developments, as well as a restoration of the South Platte River that will include a watershed, wildlife habitat, and 27 acres of park and open space. He’s emphasizing an “eyes on the street,” design approach so that there aren’t dark unsafe areas.

“[Density] is a really important conversation at this moment,” Mr. Boniface said. “The reason we get hired is because of our understanding of making dense, walkable mixed use environments. When you look at the positives of those types of things, including health, in general, walkability, heart rates of people, the lowering of cancer rates and crime, the sociability. … The list is endless of why making those types of places is a positive.

“My belief is there is a lot of reactionary behaviour going on at the moment, not just about density but in general, so we are ending up with fear-based decision making, which is the worst.

“I’d be very upset if we lost all of the great things that we have been working towards in the density realm of cities.”

Mr. Boniface says he understands the fear, but he says there is not a direct correlation between dense urban areas and highly infected populations.

“There is a relationship to density for sure, but to automatically assume that that’s the cause is very reactionary and I don’t think it’s fact-based. I think NIMBYism will rise. I think people will use this to push away development and transit.”

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Mr. Boniface rejects the idea that residential design should now be evaluated in terms of self-isolation, saying that, in self-isolating, we are also damaging the economy. Perhaps we should spend money instead on looking at a way to carry on functioning, safely.

"We’ve made it a premise that we have to self-isolate in a particular way: go to your house and don’t open the door. Maybe there’s another way.”

Urban Land Institute BC vice-chair Duncan Wlodarczak said he’s been on the phone with cohorts in the United States discussing the potential blowback against density. The ULI is an international non-profit organization that aims to focus on city building rather than real estate, he said.

Mr. Wlodarczak, chief of staff at the Vancouver-base development company Onni Group, says that major cities Singapore and Seoul, South Korea, have come through the pandemic relatively well, so density alone is not the problem.

“Obviously it’s still early, we don’t know the evolution, but they’ve seemingly gotten things under control faster than other countries in Europe and in North America," he says. “So is this about density, or public health infrastructure, and how we respond to the crisis? And how does that tie into our city building?”

He says the answer will come from further examination of the difference between the cities that survive relatively unscathed – and those that don’t.

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