When I was in India in February, I stayed with a designer friend in Mumbai. He has lived for 20 years in a beautiful heritage building that was originally built as an orphanage. It is a great mixed-use building with flats housing different income classes, offices, and on the ground level a potted plant nursery. It sits in a former commercial/light industrial/lo-rise residential area, a neighbourhood that is a model of good mixed use. Sadly it is now quickly being overtaken by generic luxury condo towers. This has driven neighbourhood property values through the roof, and the orphanage is now to be torn down for a glass tower. My friend says when the buiding comes down he will leave Mumbai, the city where he grew up. A very successful designer, it’s not that he couldn’t afford to stay. It’s that he doesn’t feel like watching the city be destroyed by this process.
Mumbai was doing extremely well with heavy low-rise density, housing millions of people close to where they work. It is now dangerously unaffordable, and by unaffordable I don’t just mean by local Indian standards but by international standards. What will this mean for the city? My friend’s story is instructive. He grew up relatively poor in one of these dense lo-rise buildings. Because of the summer heat, residents of the building kept their flat doors open to allow a cross draft through the building. As a result, children ran freely from one flat to the next. My friend said he tended to eat dinner wherever the food looked interesting that day. He was effectively raised by the village that came into being via the design of that dense 4-storey building and its lack of air-conditioning. He credits some of his international success to growing up in this friendly, crowded but livable matrix, a matrix that will soon disappear.
Vancouver, while it’s the 2nd most unaffordable city in the world relative to median income, suffers from a problem that is clearly also global. And that problem is a housing problem created by lack of regulation and by developers perverting local civic processes. Like the person with a hammer to whom everything looks like a nail, real estate industry people see cities as nothing more than real estate operations. Their increasingly unimpeded control of city halls all over the globe, just another part of the last 30 disastrous years of deregulation, is having an extremely destructive effect on urban fabric, ruining cities and introducing speculation into a market that should only be for housing people, not homes-as-commodities.
When’s this going to stop? We need density. But we better pretty careful what building form of density we’re going to allow. Even with regulations, developers will be able to make money. They always do. But they can’t be allowed to make our cities unaffordable and unlivable.
Pedestrian-friendly, high density, low-rise neighbourhoods in Mumbai, the sort of urban fabric Jane Jacobs advocated for.