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Making Room Despite the Boom: Can Developers Help Shape Neighborhoods of Equality?

Last Wednesday ZUS gave a presentation at the Lab introducing their week’s focus on finding sustainable solutions to gentrification and posing the question: How do we continue to develop great cities in an inclusive manner? As real estate prices skyrocket in desirable neighborhoods and cities, how do we ensure that they remain places where people with a diversity of backgrounds and incomes can live?

This is one of the toughest questions out there in the world of urban livability, and a question plaguing cities everywhere around the world, as I discussed briefly in my earlier post about the Dhobi Ghat in Mumbai.

It’s also a topic that is very near and dear to my heart. I come from Vancouver, British Columbia, home to both Canada’s most expensive real estate market (though we were, admittedly, recently knocked from our post of most expensive city overall ) and Canada’s poorest postal code.

It is a city frantically grappling to find creative solutions to the gentrification being caused by an out-of-control real estate bubble that doesn’t seem to want to pop any time soon.

One of these attempts at taking a unique approach to solving this problem is a project known as Woodward’s, which is as much a social experiment in urban solutions as it is a real estate development.

The pinnacle of an architect’s vision to employ the form of the city to create a more just and equal society, Woodward’s used the tool of density bonusing (http://www.toolkit.bc.ca/tool/density-bonusing) (where a developer builds community amenities in exchange for the right to build higher condo towers than zoning would usually allow) to create affordable housing in an extremely poor neighborhood just teetering on the brink of gentrification.

Woodward’s is extremely contentious, and it will take years to understand the effect that the development will have on the neighborhood. But as we continue thinking along these lines this week, it’s an interesting project to consider on a number of levels.

Check out these two articles I wrote in the past couple years about this development in The Tyee and BC Business magazine

Then tell me what you think, as this is a fascinating discussion. Do you think it’s a good idea to harness the power of a booming housing market to ensure a certain amount of social housing, or is it just an invitation for more development that will lead to less overall affordability?

  • Ashok Lall

    In the context of Mumbai, a “booming housing market” is an euphemism for the demand for speculative investment by the wealthy ‘global’ citizens in real estate. The slum redevelopment formula – of the auctioning of development rights with enhanced FSI in exchange of free rehabilitation of slum householders in tenements on one third of the property – is symptomatic of the enormous concentration of wealth at one end of the social spectrum. Otherwise the economics of such real estate developments would not work out for the developer, for he has to make at least 30% on investment! out of the salable upper-income housing, after providing free housing for the slum households .

    It is seen that 30% of the recently developed high value housing which has been purchased but remains unoccupied – the investor does not need the house for his own use, nor does he need to rent it out. He is happy to park his wealth in idle steel and concrete till the market rises to meet his expectation.

    The resultant built environment for homes is in the form of 16 storey towers built cheek by jowl. For the high income component there are several floors of mandatory car parking. The street below will be choked with the increase in density of population and of motor vehicles. The local infrastructure for water, electricity, sewage conveyance and treatment will be strained. High density – high rise is the most carbon intensive mode of constructing homes – in terms of both, operational energy per capita and embodied energy per capita. From a sociological standpoint and from the point of view of a city’s culture of urbanity, this emergent monstrous form looks like Gotham at its worst.

    The financial model has clearly exceeded the acceptable limits of social, cultural and environmental sustainability. An alternative strategy is is to be found urgently.