We need to build ‘Gentle infill’ for affordable, healthy neighbourhoods

21 July 2021

Dr. Trevor Hancock

699 words

In Canada we are 80 percent urbanised and spend 90 percent of our time indoors, making the built environment one of the most important determinants of our health. As a leader in the creation of the modern Healthy Cities and Communities movement, I continue a long tradition of considering the public health implications of housing and urban design, which includes the ecological and social impacts of such development.

In the face of an ecological crisis that includes massive and rapid climate change, resource depletion and loss of biodiversity and a social crisis that includes heightened inequality, insecure work and social disconnection, how do we create living places that are affordable, sustainable and good for our physical, mental and social wellbeing?

The concept of sustainable community design has been around for many decades. Not coincidentally, one of the early books  – Calthorpe and Van der Ryn’s “Sustainable Communities” – came out in 1986, the same year the Healthy Cities project was launched in Europe. Several other urban movements are related to the theme of healthy and sustainable urban design, including Smart Growth, New Urbanism, Livable Cities, Happy Cities – the list goes on.

What they all have in common is what has more recently come to be called ‘gentle density’. Championed by Vancouver-based urban planner Brent Toderian, this approach is about “building smarter suburbs that are more mixed, compact, walkable, and transit friendly”, he wrote in 2013. 

However, gentle density is not just for suburbs; we need ‘gentle infill’ in the urban core. In her 2016 article on this topic, Kathleen McCormick quotes Peter Pollock of the Lincoln Institute of Land Policy in the USA, who described the approach as “trying to find ways to make infill compatible with surroundings to achieve urban design goals and enable production of more housing.”

A 2017 article by Katie Hyslop in The Tyee discussed examples of gentle infill (also, she noted, called ‘sensitive’ or ‘ground-oriented’ infill) in the Lower Mainland. These “can take many forms, from building in-house secondary suites, to adding laneway homes, town/row houses, duplexes, triplexes, and quadplexes to a single family home lot.” What characterises such an approach is that “nothing is higher than stacked townhouses”, she wrote.

Many ‘gentle density’ projects are multi-family dwellings, but on a human scale; not large, impersonal high-rises. Vancouver-based Charles Montgomery and his team at Happy City have been looking at how to design Happy Homes: “multi-family places where people are happier, healthier and more connected”. They found that “mixed-use neighbourhoods that encourage walking are most likely to be associated with positive social encounters and a strong sense of community” and that “access to nature is strongly linked to positive neighbourhood relationships and trust among community members”

But while the physical design is important, so too is the social design. Among the ten princiiples they identified are the need to create opportunities for people to participate in the design and management of their project and do meaningful and enjoyable things together.  

There are a number of environmental and social benefits to this approach. The environmental benefits include avoiding the need for further destructive urban sprawl; creating smaller and more energy efficient homes that require fewer resources to build and operate, and car-free or low car-dependency living that reduces greenhouse gas and other pollutant emissions.

The social benefits include more affordable housing which, if built in walkable, bikeable neighbourhoods, reduces the need for car ownership, as I discussed last week. This frees up income for other purposes. Other social benefits include less time spent commuting and more convenient access to daily necessities in a ‘15-minute neighbourhood’.

All of these environmental and social benefits result in health co-benefits. These include less air pollution and climate change, more physical activity and reduced obesity, and more social connection. The good news is that there are a growing number of small-scale ‘gentle infill’ projects being proposed and developed in the region’s core, with potential benefits both locally and regionally.

So it is time to consider the first recommendation of a recent Declaration endorsed by many leading Canadian urbanists that municipalities should update their current zoning policies to allow “gentle density to be built, as-of-right, alongside houses in low-rise residential neighbourhoods”.

© Trevor Hancock, 2021


Dr. Trevor Hancock is a retired professor and senior scholar at the

University of Victoria’s School of Public Health and Social Policy


The difference between social, supportive and affordable housing

14 July 2021

Dr. Trevor Hancock

702 words

From time to time fierce debates erupt over proposals to introduce more dense housing into residential neighbourhoods. I suspect that part of the problem is a failure to distinguish between housing that is affordable, social housing and supportive housing, as well as a related concern about loss of property values.

Particularly in the wake of reports of crime and violence linked to temporary accommodation for people who are homeless and have been moved into some form of congregate housing, I think when people hear the terms ‘affordable’ or ‘social’ housing, they assume this means that the ‘hard to house’ and criminal element are about to be dumped in the midst of their community.

This is far from the truth. So let’s distinguish between these various forms of housing.

Affordable housing means just what it says: housing that the average person can afford, be it ownership or rental, private or public. The Canada Mortgage and Housing Company (CMHC) says that for housing to be affordable, it must take less than 30% of a household’s pre-tax income. A 2020 CRD study, using 2016 Census data (the latest available then) found that beteeen 30 – 50 percent of tenant households in the CRD were spending 30 percent or more of their income on housing costs.

The Victoria Foundation’s 2020 Vital Signs report found that in 2019 someone working 35 hours per week for the then minimum wage of $14.60 per hour would spend 47 percent of their income to rent an average bachelor apartment (at $965 per month); they would need to work 55 hours per week to bring that down to the acceptable 30 percent level. And of course, when you spend that much on housing, you have less to spend on food and other daily necessities.

A very revealing map from a 2020 CRD report on housing and transportation costs shows that when the two costs are combined, the cheapest places to live are almost all clustered in the Core (Victoria, Esquimalt, Oak Bay and southern Saanich), as well as Sidney, with annual household costs ranging from $22,000 – $29,000; the highest costs are in the West Shore and Saanich Peninsula, ranging from $30,000 – 38,000.  

So the Core is where we should create more affordable housing, perhaps following local urbanist Todd Litman’s 2018 suggestion that every neighbourhood grow by 1.5 percent annually to match the growth rate for the Region. The aim must be to create the ‘15-minute neighbourhood’, where what you need on a daily basis is available within a 15 minute walk, bike or transit ride.

When it comes to social housing, the Canadian Observatory on Homelessness (COH) notes “While all social housing is affordable, the term ‘social housing’ refers more specifically to housing that is subsidized by a level of government”. It is just housing for ordinary people whose incomes are insufficient to afford market-price housing.

In large part we have a problem today because the federal social housing program was cancelled in 1993, resulting in “drastic reductions in the amount of affordable housing available”, as the COH notes. On top of that, we have created an income crisis; low income wages have stagnated, minimum wages do not deliver a living wage, jobs have become less secure and benefits have been reduced, all in the interests of low prices for most of us and profits for business.

It is important to note that social housing is not the same as supportive housing, although the latter usually requires government or NGO support. The COH describes supportive housing as housing that includes “individualized, flexible and voluntary support services for people with high needs related to physical or mental health, developmental disabilities or substance use” – people who could be members of our own family or those of our friends and neighbours.

In the end, perhaps the simplest test is this: Can your children or grandchildren live somewhere nearby? Probably not. If not, we need to fix it. We must encourage a serious investment in social housing, policies that increase higher wages and income supports, and the creation of  ‘gentle density’, car-free, low-rise in-fill in neighbourhoods that fills the ‘missing middle’ gap in housing while being is more ecologically sustainable. More on this next week.

© Trevor Hancock, 2021


Dr. Trevor Hancock is a retired professor and senior scholar at the

University of Victoria’s School of Public Health and Social Policy

Sorry about the Earth, but we need to make money

7 July 2021

Dr. Trevor Hancock

699 words

Two weeks ago, my column on why we need to stop subsidising industries that harm our planet and our health was published at the height of the heat emergency that affected BC, killing hundreds of people and setting off large and deadly forest fires. So why on Earth are we spending scarce public resources to prop up the fossil fuel industries that are the underlying cause of the climate emergency and that we need to wind down?

I could understand if the funds were being used to transition those industries and their employees into clean and renewable energy production. But too often they are used to support business as usual. The most recent example of this idiotic approach is a new report from the International Institute for Sustainable Development in Winnipeg.

Looking at three as yet uncompleted pipelines (Trans Mountain, Keystone XL – now cancelled – and Coastal GasLink), they found “cumulatively, Canadian governments have provided over CAD 23 billion in government support since 2018”. Much of that is in the form of loan guarantees rather than direct funding.

But as the report’s author, Vanessa Corkal, noted in a July 7th Times Colonist article, such loans and guarantees “encourage companies to make choices they wouldn’t otherwise make”. They may have some short-term benefits, but they mean other, wiser long-term choices are not made, making this a betrayal of future generations.

It’s not just the fossil fuel industry. There are many other examples of counter-productive uses of public money to prop up industries and practices that are harmful to people and the planet.

A January 2020 report on “Subsidising extinctions” by three UBC scientists in the journal Conservation Letters noted: “In 2010 world governments agreed to eliminate, phase out or reform incentives that harm biodiversity by 2020.”  Yet, they added, “few governments have even identified such incentives, never mind taking action on them.”

There is a local example of this right here in BC, noted Dr. Jessica Dempsey, the lead author for the UBC study noted above. They looked at three coal mines in northeastern BC that are located in the home of the threatened Central Mountain caribou. The mines benefit from the Mineral Exploration Tax Credit.

A December 2020 UBC news release quotes Dr. Dempsey: “Our research shows that not only do the costs of mining activity in northeastern BC outweigh the benefits, but the public is in fact helping to fund the extinction of caribou by subsidizing exploration and development.”

Then there are fisheries. Rashid Sumaila, a professor at UBC’s Institute for the Oceans and Fisheries and director of the Fisheries Economic Research Unit, co-authored a 2019 UBC study in the journal Marine Policy on the impact of subsidies on small scale fisheries. They found that in 2018, of the total $35.4 billion (U.S.) in subsidies, globally, $22.2 billion, or 62 percent, went to ‘capacity enhancing’ activities, which illogically seek to increase fishing capacity at a time when the world’s oceans are already heavily overfished.

Here in Canada, they reported, 45 percent of the $853 million (U.S.) in subsidies in 2018 went to beneficial actions, but 22 percent went to capacity-enhancing actions, while the rest was ’ambiguous’. But why would we spend a single penny on capacity-enhancing subsidies, never mind $194 million (U.S.).

Fisheries subsidies pale in comparison with farming subsidies. A September 2019 report from the International Food Policy Research Institute found that governments around the world shelled out over $700 billion of support for agriculture, but that “only around 15 percent of this support is for public goods”, by which they mean better nutrition and environmental outcomes. In fact, they observed, subsidies “are rarely being deployed to drive sustainable outcomes, and more often pull in the opposite direction.”

The overall  attitude that emanates from many of these industries and the governments that support them seems to be ‘Sorry about harming the Earth, but you have to undertand that we need to make money, and this is the price we have to pay for progress’. And of course, by ‘we’ they really mean you, not themselves; they are not the ones who are harmed by their practices. This is a deeply immoral economy driving a deeply immoral society.

© Trevor Hancock, 2021


Dr. Trevor Hancock is a retired professor and senior scholar at the

University of Victoria’s School of Public Health and Social Policy

Oh Kanata: Time for a new flag and a new name?

28 June 2021

 Dr. Trevor Hancock

701 words

Last week the Times Colonist announced that for Canada Day it would be running a full-page pull-out of the Canadian Indigenous Flag. Designed by the late Curtis Wilson (Malizdas) of the Wei Wai Kum First Nation near Campbell River, it is a revised Maple Leaf Flag with swimming salmon in the side-bars and orca in the maple leaf.

Dave Obee, Times Colonist’s Editor and publisher, commented that this flag “reflects the times we are in”, adding “Canada, as we know it, could not exist without the Indigenous presence.” While recognising that this is not the official flag, he said, “this year it seems like the right one.”

I agree. But why only this year, I thought. Why not adopt it as Canada’s flag? And while we are at it, why not change the name of this land we call Canada to Kanata? After all, the Government of Canada website tells us that “the name Canada likely comes from the Huron-Iroquois word “kanata,” meaning “village” or “settlement””, so it is an Indigenous name already.

Such an idea is not without precedent. Increasingly, the country we used to call New Zealand is re-naming itself Aotearoa New Zealand, Aotearoa being the original Maori name for the land, often translated as “the land of the long white cloud”.

Go to the government’s website and you will find it is headlined Government of New Zealand/ Te Kawanatanga o Aotearoa, and you are greeted with ‘Kia ora’, which means ‘hello’ and has come to be the common greeting in Aotearoa New Zealand these days.

The Maori arrived in Aotearoa around the 13th century, populating the country – until then free of humans – only 500 years before the first Europeans arrived. As a result, and because they all came from various eastern Polynesian islands with related languages and cultures, there is only one Maori language across the entire country, although with many local dialects, as is true of English.

In 1985 Maori was recognised as “a taonga (treasure) that the Crown (government) was obliged to protect under the Treaty of Waitangi” and in 1987 became one of the three official languages of Aotearoa New Zealand, alongside English and New Zealand Sign Language.

So it was wonderful, when I attended a large global health promotion conference in Aotearoa New Zealand in 2019 to hear the Maori elders greet delegates from around the world in Maori, with no English translation available. They were in effect proclaiming with pride ‘this is our language, this is our culture, this is our land’ – and so they should.

Here of course, things are more complex. There are three main groups of Indigenous people in Canada. The First Nations (often still called “Indians”) were the first to arrive, starting some 20,000 years ago and now comprise more than 50 Indigenous Nations and languages and over 600 communities.

According to the Canadian Encyclopedia (CE) the Inuit arrived about 1,000 years ago – well before the first Europeans arrived 500 years ago – moving east across what is now their homeland in the Arctic from the Bering Strait all the way to Labrador (and beyond, to Greenland). There are eight main Inuit ethnic groups and five main dialects in Inuktitut, the Inuit language.

Finally, the CE states the “Métis are people of mixed European and Indigenous ancestry” and possess “a singular cultural heritage of dual origins” that first emerged in the 18th century, west of Sault Ste Marie (although much of this is still much debated).

So as far as I know there is no single agreed upon Indigenous term for the land we today call Canada. But the term Kanata has an historic relationship to the modern word for the country and is an Eastern Canada Indigenous term, nicely balancing the western Canada imagery on the Canadian Indigenous Flag.

I put this idea forward not as a definitive answer – for one thing, it has not had any input from Indigenous people themselves, who would be key to any such change – but in the spirit of reconciliation. So why not start the discussion here: How should the name and flag of the country we call Canada be changed to reflect and honour the Indigenous people of this land?

© Trevor Hancock, 2021


Dr. Trevor Hancock is a retired professor and senior scholar at the University of Victoria’s School of Public Health and Social Policy