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Seeking a stronger sense of community, 10 Vancouver families are working on plans for an 'urban village' project that will be much more than just another condo

An illustration from Happy City’s new tool kit, Happy Homes, which seeks to build homes that help foster connections among residents. A similar project, called Tomo House, to be located near 41st Avenue and Main Street in central Vancouver, is working its way through the city’s development process.

James Chamberlain and his partner live in a perfectly nice triplex near Vancouver General Hospital, a home many people in Vancouver would aspire to.

But the lack of connections with anyone around him in the Fairview area had begun to bother him.

"Our neighbourhood has hollowed out over the years," said Mr. Chamberlain, a fiftysomething elementary-school vice-principal.

So he decided to look for like-minded people who would want to live in a new development together, in a place that would foster a sense of community.

Three years later, 10 families have come together with plans to live in a new kind of multifamily project that is more than just another condo building but not as complex or elaborate as co-housing.

Called Tomo House, the proposed project is in central Vancouver, near 41st Avenue and Main Street, and just working its way through the city's development process.

They're calling their Our Urban Village project "co-housing light," and it's being designed, with the enthusiastic participation of an unusual developer, Mark Shieh of Take Root, along principles aimed at creating housing that fosters sociability.

Those principles were laid out last month in a new publication by the Vancouver planning and design group Happy City, an unusual business that grew out of the work of local writer Charles Montgomery and his efforts to study what makes cities work well.

Among the many ideas that the group identified, through studying research on design, were concepts such as creating spaces where residents can do things together.

Happy City's new tool kit, Happy Homes, identifies the qualities in a multiunit home that help foster connections among residents.

Among the many ideas that the group identified, through studying research on design, were concepts such as creating spaces where residents can do things together – gardens, child care, dinners – and building projects that cluster no more than 12 families together, with a shared entrance.

The Happy Homes guide also says sociability thrives when people have a sense of control over their own space (so make sure that, even if some parts of a development are open to the public, there are still private areas), if they can have a say in the design of a new project, if they can show off their individuality by painting their door in their favourite colour, and if their building is designed to create a safe feeling – there are eyes on a shared courtyard and no dark, isolated areas.

Paty Rios, a project lead with Happy City who has a background in architecture and participatory design, said the principles were based on 10 months of research into studies of what people say they want from the housing where they live.

"We know from health research that green habitats are good. We know that when people participate more in design, they feel more connected to the community."

Ms. Rios said the group was motivated to work on the project because of the common story they heard about people in apartment buildings, especially high-rises, saying they felt lonely and disconnected.

It doesn't have to be that way, she said, but many building designs have the unintended effect of isolating people. There are no amenities that might generate flow and "the only time people are together is in the elevator, when they feel the most crowded" and unwilling to talk.

Mr. Chamberlain said he and his fellow urban villagers have all read Happy Homes and have worked with the developer to incorporate as many of those ideas as possible.

The families are calling their Our Urban Village project “co-housing light.”

There will be a shared courtyard, which the group is helping to design, and a 1,200-square-foot "common house" that can be used by both residents and people in the neighbourhood. The group is aiming to avoid having an underground parkade (which is expensive and can feel dangerous) and to include a car-sharing scheme instead.

They are hoping that, with a mix of retired people and young families with children in the building, they can have shared child care.

Mr. Chamberlain said the group wanted to avoid some of the more expensive aspects of co-housing and also to lower costs by making their group demands simple.

"This process doesn't mean we get to micromanage the building. We were trying to be a buyers' club with the least barriers."

So Mr. Chamberlain and another person act as a liaison with the developer, to reduce the planning time. And the group has asked only for open-concept design with natural light and moveable walls.

Architect Bruce Haden says the Happy Home/Happy City efforts are much needed in Vancouver.

"We've been sold a bill of goods that the most important thing in housing is luxury and status. Happy City is trying to unpack some of the issues," he says.

Mr. Haden, who has worked on all kinds of projects from mega to small in Vancouver, said a lot of developers are reluctant to put in space that fosters interactions among residents because "social space is space you can't sell."

The Happy Homes guide also says sociability thrives when people have a sense of control over their own space.

But, he said, it's clear that good design, which includes that social space, helps people make eye contact and get to know each other in a casual way.

"The most important thing is line of sight. If you can't see someone, you're not going to talk to them."

Mr. Haden is working on building designs for BC Housing that aim to incorporate some of those ideas for fostering sociability.

He is not the only architect in the city thinking about sociable design.

James Cheng has designed a number of prominent buildings in the city, from the Shangri-La tower to the row of Concord Pacific towers at the foot of Davie that many see as the epitome of the new Vancouver.

He is incorporating more social spaces for both offices and residential buildings he designs, in part because people want them and in part because the city is asking to see that kind of element included.

Mr. Cheng says that one of the key elements is providing some kind of outside space where people can gather away from their offices or apartments.

"In Canada, the cultural norm is that, if you are outside, you can talk to your neighbour."

There will be a shared courtyard, which the group is helping to design, and a 1,200-square-foot “common house” that can be used by both residents and people in the neighbourhood.

That happens naturally in single-family neighbourhoods where people are out gardening. But it can be created for even the tallest tower by providing a courtyard or garden terraces.

At the Brentwood development, where some of the region's highest towers are being built, "we have created a lot of small spaces where people can gather every several floors," he said.

In an office development at 1133 Melville St., he has put in a series of terraces on different floors where workers can gather.

If a space can't be outside, it should at least have windows. People will talk to each other if there is a window in a lobby or lounge – even if an elevator is all glass. But they tend to shut down when they're in a space enclosed by solid walls.

And, he said, providing WiFi for lounge-type spaces is important.

Many people are going to third spaces – restaurants, cafés, pool halls, bookstores – to be around people and get out of their tiny apartments. But some third spaces can be built right into an apartment building and it will get used as long as people can use their mobile devices there, said Mr. Cheng.

Those kinds of design efforts may eventually result in people in some high-density, multifamily buildings feeling more connected than even the stereotypical single-family neighbourhood.

In fact, one of the families involved in Our Urban Village, the development planned for Main Street, is moving there to escape the single-family dead zone she feels she lives in now.

"It's empty all around us," says Cherie Lang, the mother of two young girls who is currently living in lush, west-side Dunbar with her husband's family. She is a teacher; her husband runs an import/export business. "I feel like we're in an empty city."

Now, after spending a year getting to know the other people buying into Tomo House and working to plan many of the elements in her future, she feels like she'll soon be living in a real community again.

"We want to live in a safe environment. And here, you have people who are not just neighbours, they're your friends."