UBC Graduate Research

The Suburbanization of the City: Assessing the Family Friendliness of Downtown Vancouver's New Row Houses Sherrell, Bryan


This research project is a focused evaluation of the family friendliness of Downtown Vancouvers’ new podium tower row houses, in terms of their unit and common area design. When the City of Vancouver initiated the “Living First” strategy over two decades ago, one of the key goals was the attraction of families with children back into the downtown area. As a result the row house became a prevalent component of new residential development establishing the “podium tower” as a new building typology. This research has been initiated at the encouragement of the City of Vancouvers’ former Co-Director of Planning, Larry Beasley, as a means to gauge how well the podium row houses have been meeting the needs of households with children. From the onset this project was designed to facilitate a better understandings of the residential experiences of families with children living in podium row homes, and to apply that knowledge as an assessment of current row house designs. The families that participated in this study identified a number of design ideas they felt were important in the development of family-oriented row houses. These ideas were supported by design literature and worked into a set of ten design principles. The Principles of Family-Oriented Row House Design were used to test the suitability of a sample of five row houses and further validate the interviewees’ self-assessment of their homes. Although respondents initially indicated satisfaction with their housing, further probing about particular aspects revealed a very different understanding of the family-friendliness of the row houses. Through a series of in-depth interviews with row house residents and an independent design review of a sample of row houses, a number of successes and concerns with the design of the row homes began to emerge. The design review generally supported the resident’s own assessment and further emphasized the need for greater attention to be given to the development of family friendly row housing units if they are to truly satisfy the housing needs of families with children. Most concerning to this researcher was the frequency with which families with young children question the ability of their homes to satisfy their families needs as their child(ren) grow older or if their family expands. While many of the downtown Vancouver row homes work relatively well for young one-child households, their ability to satisfy the needs of multiple child families is marginal. In spite of city policies and regulations promoting family friendly housing units and the movement of families into the downtown, the row houses that are sampled in this research raise questions about the extent to which actual row house developments adequately incorporate existing guidelines. Given the findings of this study, there is a need to consider the extent to which the goal of having twenty-five percent of new households in the downtown having children living in them can be achieved. The Principles of Family-Oriented Row House Design (and their assessment of existing developments) brought a number of liveability issues to the fore. While significant in influencing the everyday satisfaction of residents many of the liveability flaws could have been easily revised at the development proposal stage without significantly impacting the viability of the development. Of the key design principles identified, unit size and flexibility are the most difficult to resolve and tended to manifest themselves into broader design issues. Major findings from this research, then, are two fold: firstly, unit size and flexibility are key issues in the development of row housing that meets the needs of households with children. While other design issues identified in the course of the research are relatively easy to correct through the application of careful and thoughtful design, unit size and flexibility are the most difficult to change. Without due consideration of these issues downtown row houses may not have the ability to compete with single family dwellings. Secondly, many of the principles are already incorporated (at least to some extent) within existing guidelines. While the Principles of Family-Oriented Row House Design were developed mainly with consideration of the experiential knowledge of current row house residents, they conformed – at least in part – to the existing guidelines – something, which became even more apparent when considering findings. This questions the degree to which existing policies/guidelines are being adhered to, applied and enforced. In light of the findings of the current research, there is a need for the City of Vancouver to consider either rethinking their objectives or re-evaluating the performance of their development policies and design guidelines. Although policies and guidelines exist that are intended to facilitate the development of family-friendly housing in the downtown they do not appear to be as successful as the City would hope them to be. There then exists a need to examine why existing policy and guidelines are not working to their full potential and to identify existing barriers or potential incentives that may encourage the development of better quality family friendly housing. The following recommendations are made: 1. Practitioner Workshops: A series of practitioner workshops should be initiated to discus and pursue solutions to the design issues and findings of this research to facilitate better family-oriented design. 2. Continued Research: To further facilitate better design a broader, more representative post occupancy evaluation (POE) of existing and/or future row house development needs to be undertaken. The results of a broad POE research program, utilizing a representative sample, could be used to facilitate an update to the City of Vancouvers’ High-Density Housing for families with Children Guidelines to provide a more prescriptive set of design objectives and criteria for future development. 3. Identify Regulatory Barriers: The possibility exists that current policy and regulations may preclude the development of row houses that would better meet the needs of households with children. To facilitate better design regulatory barriers need to be identified, reviewed and amended to provide broader discretion or outline established equivalencies to promote efficiency of the approval process. 4. Policy Analysis: The “Living First” strategy, official development plans, and various guidelines provided policies and regulations to guide the development approval process of housing intended for families with children. Findings of this research project suggest that many of the podium row houses stray significantly from family-oriented liveability guidelines. Review and further refinement of these tools and their application are necessary if the podium tower row house model is to broaden its ability to provide families a viable urban housing option.

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