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Death to the single family home for a more livable Vancouver says UBC professor

A neighbourhood full of single family homes near Vancouver's Queen Elizabeth Park in Vancouver.

A neighbourhood full of single family homes near Vancouver's Queen Elizabeth Park in Vancouver. (Rafferty Baker/CBC)

The coveted single family home is becoming less attainable for the average home buyer in Vancouver, but a UBC sociology professor says such homes are overrated and harmful to the health of the city.

Nathan Lauster is making the case that single family homes are bad for the environment, urban vitality and people's health in his forthcoming book, The Death and Life of the Single-Family House: Lessons from Vancouver on Building a Livable City.

Lauster says the negative impact on the environment comes from the large amount of land that is taken up to house a single family, which is not energy efficient and encourages residents to drive rather than walk, bike or take public transit to get around.

"It's bad for our health, in terms of not allowing us to walk to places that are interesting near by," Lauster told On The Coast host Stephen Quinn.

"And in many respects it's bad for democracy, in terms of actually encouraging us to get out and see people who are different from ourselves, which is something we should be encouraging in a multicultural society like Canada."

The rapid expansion of Vancouver in the late 19th Century posed the challenge of restricting where industrial developments could build so that they didn't pop up directly next to residential areas, Lauster said.

"So a new solution presented itself with the rising profession of planning across North America and that was zoning legislation," he said.

"These [neighbourhoods] don't tend to go away, and that's in part because [they] were put in place through these bylaws and they're very difficult to really gather the political will to overturn … and write new bylaws."

Cultural expectations keep single family homes alive

"It came in with the idea that we should, in particular, separate off the single family houses, which [was where] the middle class assumed everyone should be living," he said.

Those cultural priorities have the most impact over the preservation of these neighbourhoods, according to Lauster, but many residents can't meet those expectations in today's market.

"We really have this idea that if you want to consider yourself a success in life, you should be living in a single family house," Lauster said.

"So you have a lot of people feeling really bad that they can't afford that for their children, or for their families, they feel like they're failing at the job of being a good person or a good parent."

Development projects along the Cambie Corridor are an example of the direction the city is moving in terms of densification and the replacement of these old neighbourhoods, he said.

"I think Vancouver has been moving that way for a while and it's moved that way, if you look at history, faster and further than most other cities in North America. The Cambie Corridor, the densification of arterials in that sense, is part of that broader process," Lauster said.

Although the process up until this point has been slow, the increase in recent years is a move in the right direction, in the professor's opinion, for the livability and vitality of Vancouver.

With files from CBC Radio One's On The Coast

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