It actually happened

Those of you who follow this blog or who know me in person are aware of the relatively dysfunctional relationship I have with cellphones. Today I did something exciting that I honestly didn’t think would happen: I topped up my credit before the end of my current credit. That’s right I won’t be going through the monthly process of forgetting and then not having my plan renew and then being cut off for half a day while I try to get it together and find a computer where I can top up.

For the first time since switching to this provider I get to experience whatever the process of having my plan just top up again is like. Should be exciting.

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Making room

The topic of housing is a difficult one in Canada these days. Young people in our big cities are feeling increasingly squeezed and the pressure of housing bubbles is becoming a common topic of conversation. As someone who has a degree in urban strategies and design I have known about housing issues and policy for a while but the last couple of months it feels a bit different. I’ve started to take it personally.

I had this vision of how my life was going to work out last year during my masters that I have now abandoned to the inevitability of having two contract jobs with no guaranteed hours that fill up my schedule and pay me enough to cover about what it would cost to rent a one bedroom apartment in any part of Calgary’s historic core — you know those rare urban spaces we have where going for coffee doesn’t mean a two hour bike ride — and nothing else. I don’t want much, just a space of my own that is comfortable and clean. I want some fairy lights and bunting and a Great Gatsby poster and a standing desk. That dream feels so far out of reach. I’d have to earn about three times as much as I do to achieve it and there isn’t room for a third or fourth job in my life.

The thing is that despite what we say about millennials and our expenditures on avocado toast and lattes housing is out of reach for many of us. I shouldn’t have to earn $60,000 a year to be able to buy food and live in a walkable urban neighbourhood. I frequently feel like there is no room in Canada’s major cities for me to have a home, to survive, to live. I want to be a part of a community and build a life. I want to feel like I have a place I belong in.

This year I went on a Jane’s Walk in Ramsay, a community in Calgary that I worked in and could potentially see myself living in. Ramsay is supposed to be hip and artsy and cheaper on account of the potentially contaminated soil and the odours from the chicken factory, when I noticed tones of NIMBYness and lots of McMansions. Our guide had a nice small historic home now worth over $1 million — in the last potentially affordable corner of the inner city in Calgary — and proudly noted that her and some neighbours stopped a five-storey condo with ground floor retail on the community’s natural high street. She had voiced no objections to the expensive and large homes taking out historic properties and taking over the neighbourhood but the type of housing that someone average might be able to afford and that God forbid was something other than a single-detached home was to be stopped and stamped out. She had her home and her equity, what did I matter?

Calgary is becoming a land of McMansions. As our aging middle suburbs turnover they aren’t densifying and no variety is being introduced in these communities. The houses are just getting bigger and the communities are becoming enclaves for wealthy elites. I will never be able to afford a home in the community I grew up in.

We care so much about property values that we have forgotten that people need somewhere to actually live. I need somewhere to actually live. We need a variety of housing options because there are a variety of people with a variety of wants and needs.

If you own a home already and are scared of change and density of any kind even modest midrise I am finding it harder and harder to hear concerns about character, privacy and shade because these seem trivial in comparison to my general sense that there is no place for me in my country’s cities, that I don’t get to survive or have a place to live. I have worked hard, have more than one job and have a couple of fancy pieces of paper that were supposed to get me somewhere and still I would drown if I lived on my own. These concerns about preserving our low-density communities seem a lot higher up on Maslow’s hierarchy of needs than my basic I can’t afford somewhere to live need.

In Vancouver, the city I’d like to live in and build a life in, eighty per cent of land is still zoned for only single-detached dwellings. If you don’t want to live in a single-detached home or can’t afford one where are you supposed to go? Because I am a massive nerd and because this video basically sums up everything I feel I am going to include it. Watch it once (or a dozen times).

I got started writing this because my sister shared a letter to the editor by a lady who was evicted from her home in Toronto after her landlord sold it for a handsome profit to an investor.

Explaining the housing bubble and speculation to an eight year old is difficult, but she actually caught on pretty quickly. “But if no one is actually going to live there, why can’t we stay? I thought houses were for living in. Why does our landlord need to make so much money?” Smart kid. Fair question.

And so I’ve become just another statistic in the stories that have dominated the front page for more than a month. I’ll move into a small apartment – that is if I’m lucky enough to be picked from the hundreds of people who apply for each new listing. And that will cost most of my monthly income. I’ll walk by the Popeye’s Chicken that moved into the storefront where a local florist proudly displayed his bouquets for years; until his rent doubled and he went bankrupt. I’ll look away from the row of “for lease” signs littering the windows of now empty stores where I used to buy fresh fish, share an ice cream on a warm summer evening and stock up on homemade lemon bars made daily by Gus at the family owned bakery. I’ll pick up a Starbucks (there are lots of those) and think back on the city that Toronto used to be – vibrant, welcoming, full of opportunity.

So, Mr. Landlord, thank you. You’ve taught me an important life lesson – greed wins. I am a Torontonian who contributes to the economy of this city, volunteers in this city, chose to raise my daughter in this city. Heck, I even pay my water bill early every three months. And yet this city has no room for me. Literally.

What all of these stories add up to is a generation of people squeezed and excluded and struggling. I am a part of that generation. Even my friends with decent stable jobs feel the pressure. People who already own homes find it hard to see the argument I am making. I should just work harder and then I too can take part in this Canadian ideal of a single-detached home for all. I have a different ideal: a diverse range of housing choices and flexible zoning, increased spending on affordable housing and treating homes as places where people live rather than investments. If the young people in your city and country are asking questions like where am I supposed to live, how am I supposed to survive and is there even a place for me then you need to listen to them and change some things. If you don’t the answer will increasingly feel like a resounding no.

 

Thirds: Why it’s so hard to build transit in Canada

For everyone angry about the Green Line route the way we fund public transit in Canada is broken and incredibly flawed. That’s why this is happening. It takes years to decide to build part of a line. Oh yeah and phase 1 still doesn’t have provincial funding.

Making three levels of government agree to a plan before it goes through guarantees that we rarely build the transit infrastructure we need. The thirds system sucks and cities deserve the ability to fund transit themselves.

In other places — France for example — they could’ve built two or three lines in the time it’s taken us to decide to do part of a line. That’s because French cities have the taxation powers needed to pay for transit.

Get angry at Chu for not standing up for his ward and Centre Street. Then again folks in Ward 4 voted for a guy who hates active transportation and this is what you get.

Be angry at your MLA, Premier, MP and Prime Minister for not treating cities like the vital things they are and giving them the power to make their own choices and build the transit they need.

Sadly this is the best that we can do as far as routes go and it’ll be a huge struggle to get this much built.

Depot

The new Green Line route in Calgary has been announced. The provincial government has been stalling on funding until they know exactly what the City wants to build so here’s the city with a plan.

The line is a lot shorter than the big ambitious thing we’ve all talked about but it is a start. I appreciate that we are aiming for quality through the downtown section, which will be the hardest and most expensive to build. Going underground is the right call even if it means that sections further out will have to wait.

Sadly, the north is going to miss out. The Centre Street corridor, which has long been hibernating in anticipation of the Green Line arriving is not going to see any trains for a good while. That is on the back burner. The part of the south route will be built first.

This isn’t terribly surprising to me. In part because the area councilor, one Mr. Chu, isn’t very supportive of active transportation so he hasn’t exactly been fighting hard to make sure his residents get a train.

The other reason is that the depot and maintenance facility are in the south. You absolutely have to build the section with the maintenance depot first. This happened in Edinburgh as well. The unpopular route to the airport was prioritized in part because it was home to the maintenance depot. Leith, one of the densest communities in all of the UK and the area with the highest ridership potential, was put on the backburner. They’re working on it now but people were pretty angry about it.

The same thing is happening in Calgary. Centre Street is a crazy and congested place with no potential for any new buses — kind of like Edinburgh where any new buses would actually make things slower and the streets are actually full — and a huge ridership potential. You snooze you lose and the north is losing.

It often feels like the cool things happen on the other side of the river like most of the nice bars and the actually nice cycling infrastructure. We finally got a Rosso. I thought things were looking up.

This is a start and hopefully our only two thirds funded huge infrastructure project can get moving. After the core is built it will be much easier to extend out.

It’s also very frustrating that as a city, province and country we can’t cobble together enough money to build a long awaited and struggled for LRT project. This process is so hard and complicated. It takes so long to build so little. The smaller first phase still isn’t fully funded.

My dissertation looked at the tram in Edinburgh, which was a disaster. In part because different levels of government couldn’t get it together and commit to it — the echoes of the broken Canadian thirds system were a strong motivator for the topic. I compared Scotland to France, where they build LRT quickly and easily. Cities have the ability to make their own choices and fund their own projects. That means they get shovels in the ground quickly. In France the Green Line would be old news and the full thing would’ve opened ages ago. Instead of moving on to the next route — yes that next LRT route as we try to build out a full and robust network — my vote is for one from Downtown, through the Beltline to MRU — we’re going to be trying to get every little stop we can out of the Green Line. This is why Canada’s cities are so dysfunctional and car dependent. Calgary wants LRT so badly but it’s so hard for us to get even a little bit of it.

 

10:10

It is 10:10 pm and I am tired. I am going to bed, old lady tired. This is so not me. Usually I’m the 2 am girl, not the sensible adult bedtime girl.

Perhaps it was coming home from Jane’s Walks tired and wanting to sleep. Maybe my schedule is just sliding slowly towards one of someone with an office job, which is so not me. I keep waking up at 7:30 am, so that’s pretty weird.

Flashes of light

When I was leaving the Calgary Reads booksale preview earlier the sky was a bit overcast and a few drops of rain were starting to fall. People were concerned for their newly obtained and very precious cargo. I was fine. There were only a few drops. It was nice.

It’s no longer nice. It’s really coming down out there and the lightning is very close. I keep seeing these bright intense violent flashes of light out my window. It’s intense. I don’t know if I’ve ever been this close to lightning before. Stay safe folks and find shelter.

Kingmakers and vote splitters

The BC election a couple of days ago didn’t go as badly as I’d expected it to. There was a strong Green campaign so I figured Christy Clark would sneak through to another term.

She may have, we will see. News will come in a week or two.

The saddest thing about all of this is that if it weren’t for the Greens (or FPTP) the NDP would’ve won in a landslide. They had to work way harder to try and eek out each vote to make up for what the Green Party was taking. They lost at least 16 seats to vote splitting. 16 seats in an election decided by one or two. Take a minute to think about that.

I appreciate what Elizabeth May has done in this country and think that a Green Party is a nice idea. There’s just no room for one so long as we have FPTP. The strong Green campaign will potentially hand power to a party dead set on destroying the environment and spewing as many GHGs into the atmosphere as possible. Christy Clark could care less about orcas and wild salmon runs. This is everything the Green Party doesn’t want. If Clark wins the environment loses.

Until we get electoral reform the left needs to get its act together. The NDP and Greens have far more in common than divides them. Why not work together to get power and then implement electoral reform?

Just because the left cares about the environment and investing in services doesn’t mean we can’t get our act together and learn to play the game. Right now we’re a bunch of amateurs that conservatives walk all over. The right all over Canada is united or uniting and the left is divided. We will never win elections this way.

I like social democracy because it is sensible and pragmatic? Why can’t our left wing parties also be sensible and pragmatic? You can have all the ideals in the world but if you’re always in opposition it doesn’t mean much. Let’s unite the left and then have a real chance at actually changing things.

Wagons and falling

So I feel off the wagon a bit on the daily blogging thing. It’s super lame. I have a stack of ideas and posts I wanted to write but I got tired and busy and decided to abandon my daily goals for the month. Alas.

Jane’s Walks were busy and I have thoughts on them that I will share soon. Some jerk driver almost ran me over in a cycle track and I want to post about that. There was an election in BC and it’s had a wild ending. So much to talk about. It’s a new day.

Baconbits

This whole daily blogging thing is going well. It’s nice to get back into it.

I still don’t have any answers about the future and where my words will be but I’m trying to float and accept that things are unfinished and always will be. Life is a work in progress as are all of us.

I went to Baconbits yesterday where they were screening of One Big Home, a doc about huge homes on Martha’s Vineyard. The doc was very American and made some very interesting points about home size but I also think it missed some things — one doc made by one guy will never get all the things. I also have some thoughts about the discussion afterwards.

Professional responsibility

An architect on the island was interviewed at length in the film. He defended his decision to work on commissions for huge homes that were out of character with the community and causing habitat loss. While he is entitled to the right to do his job I wondered what his professional responsibilities are. He answers to something higher than just money and his ego. Planners, architects and landscape architects are part of bodies with standards and values. These professional bodies act as gatekeepers and have a monopoly on providing services because of those standards. I am not a part of one of these professions but I’d potentially like to be in the future.

As an architect you answer to something higher and yet this architect in the film didn’t seem to think so. When Vishaan Chakrabarti spoke at Design Matters in April he raised this very question. If architects take commissions for anything like building Trump’s border wall or BIG’s work for Fox News’ studios at Ground Zero then architecture isn’t much of a profession at all. There have to be guiding principles and a sense of responsibility. Chakrabarti’s firm PAU lists work that they don’t do on their website including:

  • Single-Family Suburban Homes
  • Suburban Subdivisions, Malls and Office Parks
  • Work for Autocratic/Dictatorial Nations
  • Work for Nations with Unacceptable Labor Practices
  • Work for Clients with Unacceptable Environmental Practices
  • Correctional Facilities
  • Casinos / Facilities for Slot-Machine Gambling
  • Facilities that Manufacture Arms

This is because Chakrabarti feels he shouldn’t do work he doesn’t believe in because architecture is about more than making money. I agree with him. I think that anyone working in a built environment profession has a responsibility to best practices and the good of the community.

At the AIA Conference on Architecture 2017 Michelle Obama spoke about how architecture ties in with diversity, gender and equity issues. Architecture matters and it comes with responsibilities.

When asked by Vonier, “What’s it like working with an architect?” Obama praised the efforts of Tod Williams Billie Tsien Architects on the design of the Obama Presidential Library. “I don’t get to work with them often but our architects are so much fun,” she said. “The creative process—space, time—they think about things that we wouldn’t ever think of. We’re also closely considering the exterior, how it will relate to the community. The architects we’re working with are phenomenal; they’re listening, they’re doing their homework, they’re researching and starting to understand the South Side of Chicago.”

The crowd, some 5,500-strong, erupted into cheers after Vonier reminded everyone that Michelle’s husband, former President Barack Obama, once wanted to be an architect.

“Barack is an artist,” she shared, “though he tries to downplay it. He’s the kind of guy who says, ‘I don’t care what the living room looks like,’ and then has a thousand questions and opinions about everything. He’s someone with ideas, he’s someone who thinks big. That’s what architects do too, right?”

I included that entire whole long quote because I like how it ends with architects think big right? The same can be said of planners, landscape architects and urban designers. Design is a fundamentally optimistic act. Through it we remake the world around us and can either make it better or worse.

3,000sqft vs. 15,000sqft

A lot of the movie was about how big is too big. The homes being built on Martha’s Vineyard are enormous and palatial and make Versailles look normal. I can’t think of any reason for any one family to have a 10,000sqft or 20,000sqft house. They’re basically a hotel or summer camp facility. To make it worse they only drop by sometimes during the high season on the island so it’s just a huge vacation home.

After the film we got into a debate about whether or not the filmmaker sold out by building a 3,000sqft house for his young family. He sounded similar when talking about it to the way that one lady spoke about her 11,000sqft home had. Our moderator/host for the evening seemed to argue that there was no difference between the two because the words were the same. I can point out one really obvious difference: about 8,000sqft.

Sure the filmmaker probably didn’t needed vaulted ceilings and could’ve designed the house to be more modest but he didn’t have a bowling alley or more space than some schools. It was a big house but still a middle class one. The other was a palatial mansion for the ultrarich that was excessive beyond all reason.

When you act like 3,000sqft and 15,000sqft are the same because people talk about them using similar words you are missing the point. There are a group of people in the US so wealthy that they can actually afford a palatial mansion to spend a month or two at each year. The other is a home that might be on the big side that someone lives in full-time that is on par with many homes built these days. Sure, you can discuss the growth in average home size and how it’s becoming insane but this film was about the ultrarich and their sprawling mansions.

I also found it crazy that during the discussion people were implying that raising his family in a shoebox condo would totally be a viable option for this conservation minded filmmaker. One of our biggest problems we have in Canada today is that people are expected to either live in a single-detached home or a shoebox condo. There’s this hashtag going around called missing middle. You don’t necessarily need 3,500sqft but people do need space to live. I want an office and space to keep the stuff for my assorted ever expanding hobbies. I’d like to not eat dinner at my couch. Does that make me evil or does it mean that maybe we need a variety of housing types? I am not a monk and neither are most people. I don’t want a huge home, I have no idea what I’d do with one. I can’t think of any reason for anyone to have a home that large. Still I can think of lots of reasons for people to occupy the 1,000sqft to 2,500sqft range. We need to provide housing that fulfills this need. Telling people to move into a microcondo is not the solution.

Yankee doodle dandy

There were a lot of very American discussions about the role of government in the film. They wanted to impose a limit on house sizes to stop people from going totally bananas. In the end they won. Along the way a lot of people said they felt uncomfortable telling people what they could and could not do. There was a lot of talk about individual liberty. There was a lot of let the ultrarich do what they want.

It was an American film screen hosted by planner with strong ties to the US in a Canadian city. There are a lot of weird ideas about government, property and wealth that Americans have that don’t cross the border and shouldn’t cross the border. I have lived in Europe and can bring that perspective to this film. Not everyone in the audience can. It’s important for us to challenge these notions and fight back against them.

I believe that government is good and beneficial. I believe that there are greater aims that we must work together to defend than letting each individual do whatever they want, especially if they happen to be particularly rich.

The logical end stage of this hatred for government and support for letting people do whatever they want is Trump’s America. The EPA is being destroyed. A bunch of people just lost access to healthcare. There are mass shootings every day. This is what it means to let people do whatever they want and to let money and powerful vested interests run your country.

In Canada we got peace, order and good government, not life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. The values that have caused the US to fall apart are not what we need here. Government is useful and good. We should make rules about what people can do and what they can build. We should protect sensitive environmental areas. Zoning exists. We tell people lots of stuff every day. Let’s make it work for us.

I am reminded of the 99 PI episode about the origins of egress. It’s one that’s beautiful and moving and makes you feel like humans are essentially good.

Marriam-Webster defines egress as:

  1. 1 :  the action or right of going or coming out

  2. 2 :  a place or means of going out :  exit

In a planning bylaw egress is your emergency exits. It’s your ability to get out. It’s someone in some government building taking care of you in the rare chance that you might need their protection. If your house is burning down and you survive it is because someone you will never meet made sure you would be able to escape. They took care of you. Because humans for all our brains and iThings are fragile creatures. We are easily injured and broken. We need protecting. Bad things happen. When they do we have governments and laws and communities. We have each other. At least in Canada we do most of the time. In the US you are on your own. Hopefully you were born rich and white and without a preexisting condition.

Nasty

ALERT: This post contains spoilers about the show Girlboss. They will either confuse you or ruin things for you.

Last night I came home post nachos and post a margarita and a daiquiri and felt like some Netflix. I have a general tendency to end up hating whatever show I’m watching after a certain threshold of episodes and didn’t really feel like actually watching any of them. What I needed was a new show, a show that wasn’t too serious, a show befitting of slushie alcoholic beverages.

Someone posted an article that was a take down of the lady who Girlboss is about. It was a clumsy takedown that said various untrue things about millennials based on the fact that one entrepreneur failed to scale up their business. The people of said group were generally very displeased with this vague generalized bashing of a generation that generally gets bashed even though our lives are hard and the boomers destroyed everything.

I’d never heard of Nasty Gal Vintage or Girlboss of any of that stuff before the article. Apparently while her business struggled — damn those country dresses — she did get a Netflix show. I clicked and proceeded to watch five episodes.

The show is decent and well done and San Fran is nice. Overall the main character seems like a pretty awful person. She’s selfish and steals and acts like there are no consequences and that rules don’t apply to her. I don’t know anyone like her or don’t think I’d feel a strong desire to be friends with her. She’s young but she’s pretty bossy and pretty awful to some people. She’s the type of girl who ends a date by running off and thinking about herself and her problems. It’s fun but it’s not about you.

The most relateable thing about her is her fear of bridges, which I share to an extent. I can walk across bridges but not always talk and act normal. Bikes and bridges can be a challenge. It depends on the bridge but big ones that make me feel exposed are not a good time.

I will keep watching and hoping that she grows up a bit. There will always be more daiquiris.