Some ideas just have to bide their time. The most recent example of that bit of reality was one of the winners of the “Re-think Housing” competition put on by the city as part of the strategy to increase the amount of affordable housing.
The particular idea that has been cooling its heels for almost two decades is called “Thin Streets: Turning Asphalt into Affordable Housing.”
It has been tucked away in the back pockets of two former city planners, Christina DeMarco and Ted Sebastian since the 1990s. That’s when, as you will note in reporter Mike Howell’s story in today’s Courier on page 26, they were cycling into work from Point Grey and noticed the lack of traffic and all that unused spaced on particularly wide streets that crossed their route.
Those streets were 66 feet in width, which, as it turns out, was the same length as an English surveyor’s chain. This was also equal in length to the distance between the wickets on a cricket pitch. (This is after all British Columbia.)
They predate the 1928 Bartholomew plan and came from a time when planners imagined these streets as major traffic arterials.
Most didn’t become arterials. The proposal from the two cycling planners was to cut the streets down the centre, allowing half for traffic and half for housing.
But when DeMarco and Sebastian flew their plan past their bosses it fell flat. The politics at city hall were such that the car was sacred. Asphalt was the altar on which it was worshipped. And the city’s urban planners and the city’s transportation engineers were in a kind of holy war over directions and priorities.
This was not the only idea whose time had not come. Laneway housing and removing the viaducts were two that found no champions until recently from politicians and bureaucrats who were influential enough to move them forward. And 20 or 25 years ago, who would have imagined that when we finally got around to legalizing secondary suites, rather than the pitched battles of old, hardly anyone would turn up for the public hearing?
So what has changed to make all of these things more acceptable? Well, for one thing our view of what makes a good community has changed significantly. Then there was the rising cost of housing and, finally, our attitudes towards the environment.
Secondary suites not only provided a “better” mix of folks in each neighbourhood, they also were mortgage-helpers for people stretching to become homeowners. Laneway housing was enabled by the general acceptance of what is referred to as “gentle density” to produce affordable housing and communities more accepting of modes of transportation other than the automobile. All of that was swept in on a tide that brought with it an interest and passion for urban agriculture, farmers markets, and, of all things, the legalization of beekeeping in urban areas.
There was also, and not coincidentally, a transformation taking place at city hall in general and in engineering departments in particular. The old school transportation-focused engineers were being replaced by a new generation of folks who were focused more on city building and the development of livable communities.
When Larry Beasley headed planning at city hall, the idea of demolishing the viaducts, those remnants of engineering dreams of a crosstown freeway, was considered a lost cause. Now, their removal and re-connecting the communities to the east seems a distinct possibility. Brent Toderian, who followed Beasley, managed to sell the city on laneway housing; gentle density was branded “EcoDensity.”
DeMarco sees “thin streets” as just another step down that same gentle path but one that requires community involvement to work.
That’s exactly what the mayor’s task force will propose to city council in the fall with the recommendation to have one trial project within a year.
It is time.