Q&A: Single-family houses “a dying breed” in Vancouver

Vancouver is seen as one of the most livable cities in the world. UBC sociology associate professor Nathanael Lauster believes that’s partly because more people live in condos and townhouses than single-family homes in this city.

In his new book The Death and Life of the Single-Family House, Lauster discusses how many Vancouverites have accepted the idea that not everyone can live in a detached house, and offers lessons for the rest of North America on how to build livable cities.

In your book, you make the case that single-family houses are bad for the environment, urban vitality and people’s health. Why is this?

Just about any way you look at it, single-family houses tend to be bad for the environment. Their development consumes an enormous amount of land, disrupting and displacing ecologies. Houses also require more energy to heat and cool, and encourage people to drive everywhere, boosting greenhouse gas emissions.

Detached houses also tend to deaden city life, as they are surrounded by lots of private and little public space. Urban vitality thrives when the private and public are balanced – when people have places to go and things to do near their homes, and they can walk or bike or take transit to get there. All of these ways of getting around put people in contact with one another and make for an engaging environment. Walking and biking also keep us healthier.

A lot of people are still emotionally invested in the idea of owning a singlefamily house. They grew up in a house and can’t imagine not also raising their families in one. What do you say to them?

They are not alone. Culturally, many people have come to think of the house as an important symbol of success, and an important aspect of taking proper care of their children. But I suggest they re-think what’s important in terms of understandings of success and livability. Most of the people who live here, including parents with children, have made a home without a house.

We have people who really enjoy high-rise living and others who thrive better in low-rise neighbourhoods. We have people who love the yard access and porch feel of some of our newer townhouses, and others who prefer the character of life in our older, subdivided mansions. There are lots of lovely ways to make a home.

What mistakes have urban planners made in Vancouver, and what lessons can other cities learn from us on building a livable city?

Urban planners across North America have made mistakes – not just in Vancouver. I think the biggest was creating what I call the “Great House Reserve” and setting so much land aside for single-family houses.

Slowly but surely, however, Vancouver has been building over the Great House Reserve, reincorporating this land back into the urban mix. The city has also renovated the very meaning of single-family residential neighbourhoods by legalizing secondary suites and laneway houses, transforming lots that initially could only support a single household into lots that can now support three. These are building projects that other metropolitan areas can also work toward.

But there are still issues that remain. The biggest of these is ensuring livability for all residents, rather than just the wealthy. Allowing more densification of single-family residential areas will go a long way toward opening up new market options for middle class Vancouverites, but we need a lot more subsidized and co-op housing too.

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