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Vancouver grapples with the ups and downs of increasing density

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A portrait of a dense city

Once a land of spacious abodes, Vancouver is becoming crowded – and residents are feeling the squeeze

Rosine Hage-Moussa, left, and Darin Wong hold their two daughters, Madeline, 2, and Celine, two months, in the small backyard of their Port Moody, B.C., townhouse on Thursday.

Dense City: The Globe and Mail's B.C. bureau is spending the summer examining how Vancouver's increasing density is shaping the city and its residents. This is the first in a series.

A century ago, Vancouver was seen as a utopia of single-family homes with lots of space to spread out.

Now, it's becoming a city where many of its residents are shuffling in together and squeezing in at a steady pace.

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The region has the lowest proportion of single-detached houses of anywhere in Canada, with only 29 per cent of the nearly million homes in the Lower Mainland in that category. A study from Toronto's Neptis Foundation has shown that, for every 1,000 new people who arrive in the city, Vancouver uses half the space Toronto does and a quarter of Calgary.

And it's not just in the City of Vancouver. Contrary to the image of the suburbs as the domain of the quarter-acre lot with the big house, there are more multifamily homes built in the suburban communities surrounding Vancouver every year than single-family.

According to the latest census, a quarter of people in B.C.'s Lower Mainland live in low-rise apartments. Almost one in five live in apartments with more than five stories. And about one in six live in what are called duplexes, which, in the Vancouver region, are often homes that look like single-family detached but also include a basement suite.

That translates into less space, inside and out, for everyone. And not just the people living in downtown Vancouver, but people throughout the region who are moving into condo towers in Burnaby or Surrey, new mid-rise buildings in Richmond, townhouse complexes in Port Moody and low-rise apartments in Langley.

This slow transformation means having to get along with a lot more people in close quarters. It means planners and builders having to think ever more carefully about how to service these newly dense areas with parks, libraries, schools and transit. Builders are now experimenting with how to provide some of the benefits of single-family living – storage space, workshops, back yards, hang-out spaces – to people now living at densities as high as 350 people for every square kilometre in some clusters in the region.

It's a profound change, say planners, that means more than just doing more of the same as cities such as Vancouver have become magnets, attracting ever more people who want the urban experience.

"There are enormous issues and it means thinking very differently. It's not just about how tall buildings are," says Ken Greenberg, an award-winning urban designer and architect in Toronto who has worked on city transformations around the world.

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That means planning for whole neighbourhoods – not just their infrastructure, although that's important, but about their social make-up.

"We're facing the issue of income polarization by geography. Unless we are prepared to deal with this, we run an incredible risk in undermining this idea of us being an inclusive society," he said.

For many individual residents, it also means making a profound mental shift in the kind of housing they aspire to.

"Going forward, multifamily is going to be a reality, especially in Vancouver. The townhouse or rowhome, it's going to be the single-family home of our generation," Darin Wong says.

Mr. Wong is a typical Vancouverite. He grew up in a single-family neighbourhood in east Vancouver. In his 20s, he bought a place in a condo tower in Burnaby near the Gilmore SkyTrain station – a soulless place with nothing around it that would make a resident feel like going for a walk. But he saw it as a good investment. It was also convenient when he was young and childless. A quick SkyTrain ride took him to his job downtown in environmental assessment or to restaurants and bars in the evening.

Last year, he and his wife, Rosine Hage-Moussa, both 35, moved to a townhouse complex at Heritage Woods in Port Moody with their two young children. They have 1,260 square feet, a garage, and small yards, front and back.

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"It feels like a house," he said, and that's the main thing they wanted, along with still being close to transit. Sometimes, he admits, "it's a little bit close for comfort – I can hear the neighbours going up and down the stairs."

In the end, he and his wife like the feel of the complex. There are a lot of other families with children. Because everyone has a ground-level entrance and some space outside, people see each other and socialize more easily. There's a private Facebook group for the complex where everyone trades news about recent bear sightings, holiday party plans or break-ins.

Mr. Wong and Ms. Hage-Moussa live in a townhouse complex at Heritage Woods in Port Moody, where they have 1,260 square feet, a garage, and small yards.

Increasingly, families are feeling more comfortable even in big high-rise towers or large multi-unit buildings in neighbourhoods that would never have been considered family-friendly a few decades ago.

Gerry and Pamela Findling live on the 27th floor of their building, which sits above the New Westminster SkyTrain station and adjoining mall, with their 12-year-old son. Like Mr. Wong, Mr. Findling, 48, grew up in a standard-issue single-family neighbourhood, his in Edmonton.

"I feel like the stereotype of the close-knit family neighbourhood hasn't happened in 40 years," he said. Kids are scheduled into activities or not allowed to roam the streets the way they used to, so those neighbourhoods, even when they have children in them, seem empty. He doesn't miss that at all. "I love living in a condo. I don't have the yard work. I can spend more time taking my son to soccer."

The Findlings feel like they have a real sense of community in their building, even though it has 239 units and a mix of owners and renters. There are garden plots on the roof, something that attracts the building's older residents. And people organized a camp-out on the building's large, grassy ninth-floor terrace one night last summer, complete with camp songs and a propane-fueled fire.

Denser housing is often less expensive, closer to transit and activities and friendlier to the environment. But there's the issue of getting along in close quarters. Not everyone feels positive about multi-family living. Some likely won't get there ever. Single-family homes remain hugely popular in the region, but that has also pushed prices out of reach for many. Strata ownership – and more specifically, strata councils – is a perpetual thorn in the side of many who live in denser communities. Mr. Wong in Port Moody said that is the one thing he wishes he could change about his strata complex.

The downtown skyline and cranes at Port Metro Vancouver are seen in the distance behind houses on Sept. 23, 2015. Vancouver is becoming a city where many of its residents are shuffling in together and squeezing in at a steady pace.

There's also a stigma associated with density.

For decades, there's been a persistent image that people who live in areas of apartment buildings and towers are lonely, unhappy and deprived. At Vancouver's city council a couple of years ago, residents opposing new towers at the Oakridge shopping mall in the southern area of the city made the argument that building that type of housing would produce a neighbourhood of depressed and alienated people.

Vancouver's best-known density planner, Larry Beasley, said new dense cities will only work if builders and planners ensure they create a high-quality environment.

Most people around the world think they hate density, said Mr. Beasley, who oversaw much of the development in Vancouver's new downtown residential neighbourhoods, such as north False Creek and Coal Harbour, in the 1990s and early 2000s before going on to consulting work in Rotterdam in the Netherlands, Dallas, Abu Dhabi, Moscow and more. "It's usually because they find a dense environment very brutal. They associate density with losing in life."

Apartment builders in earlier years created projects they thought were for just a couple of demographics: seniors and young people who were often transient. So there was little effort made to build in the kinds of things families wanted or that would create connected-feeling neighbourhoods.

During his time as the city's planning director, Mr. Beasley pushed for design elements such as townhouses at the base of large buildings, so there would be a sense of people living along the street, or more storage space in multi-family buildings for the many things that families need to find a place for. He and other planners in Vancouver also insisted on building attractive neighbourhoods around the towers and townhouses complexes so that there were all kinds of activities for people right outside their doors.

"We tried in Vancouver," Mr. Beasley says, "to make density delicious."

But not every city has made that a priority, leaving future residents more conflicted than ever. Is compact housing shared with many others something they will only tolerate as a second choice? Or something that can be a first choice?

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