All things environmental

Musings about the environment and all it touches, from education to city planning

Willoughby and the missing middle

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The view from Willoughby.

The Willoughby neighbourhood, in the Township of Langley, is abuzz with construction.  There is something unexpected about what is being built there: a lot of townhouses and mid-rise condos.  In other words, the kind of density that is praised by urban planners and afficionados of smart growth.

It’s a bit unexpected: the township is at the furthest remote of Metro Vancouver.  This is where one would expect sprawling ranchers and large lots.  But maybe because land is cheaper this far away from downtown, these condos and townhouses  are more affordable than in Vancouver proper.  Townhomes are priced at about half a million, and condos start at a quarter million. It’s absurd that a quarter million dollars for a condo should be considered affordable, but that’s the crazy situation here; these new developments are a welcome addition to the housing stock.

New raingardens, new townhouses

And the construction is nicely integrated within the city’s fine plans for integrated stormwater management.  The Vesta development at Milner heights, for instance, has conspicuous raingardens and infiltration swales.

So what’s not to like?  Quite a bit, unfortunately.  I took a walk along 208th street.  Of course, there’s a lot of construction, and the street is a connector, so it’s not a bucolic environment.  But even where the condos are newly finished and occupied, it’s not very inviting.  I walked through a complex of three-story buildings, just across from the ambitiously named Willoughby Town Centre.  It is serviced by an access path that snakes around the buildings.  As a result every building is completely surrounded by pavement.  There is little green growth anywhere.  Adding to the sense of oppressiveness, all you see at ground level are garages.  Whatever happened to porches and flowered window sills?

A sea of pavement

This is precisely what problem is with these new developments: they are designed for cars.  They have to.  There is public transit, yes.  Since the development started, there is now a bus along 208th.  I use the singular because I have never seen it.  I have to believe that one can actually catch this 595 bus, and take it all the way to the Carvolth exchange, maybe, and have to wait there for another bus to somewhere.  It’s dispiriting.  No wonder that folks in Langley voted against a new tax to improve transit, if this is what their experience with transit is like.

Smart car, sure, but smart growth, not really




This is not to slight the Township.  But good development needs good transit, but that essential tool is not one the planners can wield.  It’s all decided in Victoria.  That’s the basic flaw in how Metro Vancouver is run: we have no say on transportation.

This is another form of the missing middle.  In urban planning, the expression usually refers to the lack of smaller houses and townhomes, in mid-density developments, that is typical of cities like Vancouver: a lack of availability for the middle of the market, between subsidized housing and million-dollar single-family homes.  But the missing middle could also refer to this Willoughby plan.  It may be a fine development, but it is in the wrong place, far from the centre, away from transit. It – or developments of a similar density – should be located much closer to the centre, to be useful to a larger number of people that should not have to depend on cars.

I went back to the Willoughby Town Centre.  It’s too new to have any charm, obviously, and there’s too much space for cars.  All the stores are the same chains you’d see everywhere, from Shopper’s Drug Mart down the line.  But at least there is an independent coffee shop with character, Mattu’s.  On a Monday morning, around 10:30, it was quite busy.  Locals seem to use it as a community focal point.  Maybe there’s hope after all.


Written by enviropaul

March 20, 2017 at 8:46 pm

2 Responses

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  1. Seems like any open space or older homes on acreage in Langley and South Surrey are just becoming one condo/townhouse development after another. I suspect they are built faster than the existing infrastructure is designed to handle, including transit. Planners need to look at the big picture and how the “components” work together and build accordingly.


    March 20, 2017 at 11:52 pm

  2. […] the current zoning produces: an empty middle of single-family houses in Vancouver surrounded by denser development in the suburbs (at the expense of decent transit), as well as the smaller-scale doughnut effect of higher density along the arterial streets but […]

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