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Gentrification: bourgeois, burgers, and burghers

22 Oct

This post is quite different from my previous posts; however occasionally I feel it important to explore some of the language commonly used in modern debates around urbanization and urban land policy. Words such as bourgeois, bourgeoisie, burghers, boroughs, gentrification, industrialization. All of these terms are regularly employed in the politics of urbanization; however, it is their etymology that is particularly interesting, as each of these words provides a window into the history of urbanization.

Karl Marx, and the more radical communists who followed him, railed against a class of urban inhabitants who were the financiers and entrepreneurs behind the industrial revolution in Europe, Canada, and the United States. This class or new establishment were known as the “Bourgeois” or the city “Burghers”, and they were critical to transforming Europe and North America from rural to urban societies in the 19th and 20th centuries . (1)

The word bourgeois means “inhabitants inside the city walls” and is from medieval french. (2) In medieval France they were the craftsmen and lenders who lived inside the city and served the royal court. The Bourgeoisie or burghers of 19th and 20th century Europe were neither the aristocracy nor the working and rural classes, they were the holders of land and industrial wealth who also inhabited areas inside the traditional city walls in boroughs, which adjoined the inner centres of the great cities of Europe. (3) Vienna is a classic example of this urban model, where prior to 1918, the aristocracy enjoyed almost exclusive control of the palaces and lands of the inner centre of the city. Outside of this node, in an enormous doughnut, a large bourgeoisie arose, and it was through their wealth that cities like Vienna rapidly grew under the expansive wealth of the bourgeois class. Further beyond the gentrified neighbourhoods of the bourgeois, extended the lesser boroughs, known in French as the “faubourges”, essentially meaning “outside the bourgeois”, or “outside the town walls”. (4) This enormous populace were the factory workers, cleaners, and scrubbers of the industrial age – the proletariat. These huge geographical areas extended outwards into the rural countryside, and had limited contact with the aristocracy and elite bourgeois located in the inner rings of the city. (5)

1918 changed all of this. The calamity of the Great War, which resulted in the end of Hapsburgs and many other aristocracies ushered in a new era, where the aristocracy were replaced by a new and powerful industrial class sprung out of the elite bourgeoisie. Europe underwent a great period of mixing and political instability as the world lurched from one “ism” to another. In Russia the aristocracy lost their heads, and the bourgeois were stripped of their wealth and status to become workers of the state, along with the former proletariat. In Central Europe the Nazi Holocaust slaughtered millions of urban workers through conflict and industrialized ethnic cleansing, in an attempt to create a Greater industrial Germany.

The political instability in Europe both in the 19th and 20th century lead to large numbers of German speaking peoples leaving central Europe to settle in the United States. This was a period of industrialization in German speaking Europe and the rise of German Unification, where in the 1860’s and 70’s Bismarck and the Kaisers of Prussia forced all German peoples outside of the Helvetic Confederacy and the Austro-Hungarian Empire to form a single empire of ethnic Germans. (6) German immigrants to America brought their language and customs, both of which had lasting and significant impacts on all aspects of American society. Including American cuisine, which today is known for the Hamburger, or burger for short, a meaty patty whose origin can be identified to the city of Hamburg, located in modern day Germany. (7)

The name Hamburg is most likely derived from the words town and forest or pastures, essentially a town or group of inhabitants in a forest or fields; however, the etymology of Ham is not entirely clear. What is clear is that burgher has the same origin and meaning as the french word bourgeois – both are expressions of inhabitants of urban centres inside the traditional town walls. Thus the pop culture modern burger served on plates worldwide and most commonly associated with American cuisine is in fact a German word for bourgeois, the very class of people so despised by both Marx and the communists.

Today bourgeois and bourgeoisie are associated with gentrification, a word whose etymology is equally fascinating. Gentrification derives from the word gentry, which is believed to mean of “gentle origins”, or those who have accumulated their wealth through gentlemanly ways free from the sweaty toils of manual labour associated with the proletariat or the rural class. (8)

Bourgeois, burgers, burghers, boroughs, gentrification. This exercise demonstrates the importance of words and their meaning in the daily discourse of politicians, academics, developers, and community leaders. Understanding their origin helps not only comprehend the current urban environment, it also provides a context to the great events and tragedies that shaped the cities of the world.









Notes: I consider Stefan Zweig to be one of the greatest biographers of modern times. For those seeking an insight into Europe from 1892 to 1941, there can be no better biography than “Le Monde d’Hier”


Building a Home in Vancouver

18 Oct

The bulk of my focus on this blog is on the urban issues here in Vancouver, specifically snapshots of bike lines, cycling, zoning, property development; however, more general themes related to urbanization as a global phenomenon, the urbanization of the Internet (clustering of activity around super sites such as facebook or google), and other not so Vancouver themes will occasionally pop up.

One of the reasons I returned to blogging was an interest in the micro process of property development. What happens on the ground? How hard is to build or renovate a house in Vancouver? What is like working with City Hall? The best way to do this is to actually blog about a project from its inception to its conclusion, which is what I intend to do.

The current project I am working on was originally intended to be a demolition and new multi-unit development; however, that objective has evolved quite radically into a restoration project. The motives behind this are that the city has imposed very strict rules on what homes can be demolished. While the property in question has limited redeeming features (what I thought when I wrote the offer), the residents in the neighbourhood have pushed City Hall to favour restoration over density. The initial work with the architect and consultations with the city planning department have confirmed this, which means the end product will be mostly a completely refurbished old house containing two, rather than one single home. In all honesty I tend to prefer the restoration option, primarily because less waste goes to the landfill, but also our company is a master in the area of home renovations and restoration.

At this point it is still uncertain as to whether I will hire a full service builder or end up building the house myself and hire services to fill in what is outside of my area of specialization. Increasingly the cost game is forcing my hand in one direction; however time will tell. One of the areas I have no expertise in is raising a home of its foundations. This procedure is increasingly common in Vancouver, as the City of Vancouver balances a push towards medium density outside of the downtown, with the demands of local residents to retain the existing neighbourhood feel.

Regardless of the option I choose, the aspect of jacking the house up, laying the new foundation, drainage, services, and framing infill will outsourced. One thing I have learnt in business is to focus on what you know, do it well, and outsource what you don’t know to strategic partners. The world’s most successful companies do this – Apple, Adidas, Bombardier. The less successful companies try to do it all – think HP, Target Canada, RIM (now called Blackberry).

Vancouver Developing a Duplex in an RT7 Zone

19 Sep

As I’ve alluded to on multiple occasions, Vancouver suffers from a housing crisis of sorts, not uncommon to many desirable cities around the world. I am not as instructed on the complexities of cities such as Paris, Rome, or Barcelona, which are part of Europe’s “museum” cities – city centres devoid of permanent residents and almost entirely inhabited by tourists, or San Francisco, New York, or Hong Kong – city centres occupied by the creative and entrepreneurial classes, where everyone else lives on the periphery, or for that matter London (arguably the most exclusive of them all). Vancouver’s housing crisis is different to these cities because it is neither a museum city, nor is it a global alpha city with a large creative and entrepreneurial class.

In Vancouver the problem is the juxtaposition of zoning and the BANANA (1), as is evident in my employer’s most recent property development project. In the past our company has always built and renovated in North and West Vancouver, nearby upper middle class suburbs with a mixture of density and suburban development, with pockets of early 20th century Queen Anne and Edwardian period homes. Zoning in these suburbs, as well as community amiability to development has enabled the North Shore to develop some very successful mixed neighbourhoods. Despite this, I decided to make a strategic shift towards the City of Vancouver because of a better values fit – cycling, bike lanes, public transit, pre-automobile city grids – all sadly lacking in the suburbs of North and West Vancouver.

I digress, back to zoning and the BANANA. The City of Vancouver’s zoning is approximately 80% single family or commercial and condominium development, with the remainder open to duplex and other smaller medium density projects. For those not familiar with the City of Vancouver, I like to call these zones places where one can build the kinds of medium density flats and town houses typically seen in the inner cities of Chicago, Boston, London, Montreal, and Toronto – not more than 5 stories high, and everyone has street access without an elevator.

Since these zones cover such a tiny area of the city, the prices are exorbitantly high, which means developers have to charge top dollar on completed product in order to cover costs and turn a profit for the next project. In my blog I have repeatedly called from the end to single family zoning, so I’ll avoid dwelling on it here. More importantly, this is where the BANANA part of the problem comes into the equation. Residents in these zones often fight back on proposed new density, as they do not want to see their neighbourhoods undergo any significant change. They argue schools will become too crowded, street parking more scarce, libraries overused, and privacy diminished. Yet what the BANANAs fail to understand, is that the very density they fight is the density that allowed them to get into the neighbourhood in the first place. Put simply, if houses could not be converted into duplexes, triplexes, and small apartments, no one other than high income earners and those with rich parents would be able to live in these zones. One only need look at the pricing in the single family zones to see the evidence. Density brings the price per square foot down, which allows more people access to housing.

So the developer has to bend to the demands of BANANAs, who through lobbying impose all sorts of restrictions on the sorts of development that can be done in these limited medium density zones. These restrictions are reflected in the City of Vancouver’s building legislation, where blanket restrictions on demolitions force builders to restore homes of questionable heritage value, often sacrificing both housing density and neighbourhood restoration.

I am currently going through this very situation at the moment. The architect we’ve engaged has been told by city hall that the house we are planning to convert is stamped as heritage, so to demolish it would mean we would sacrifice 850 square feet of living space. Agreed, the house was built in the 1920’s; however, it has suffered from so many “renovations” inflicted on it prior to the zoning restrictions, that today it nothing more than a neglected cement block with aluminium widows, a car port addition, and a concrete front stairway.

Yet the legislation is clear, the city, directed by voters and lobbying, placed blanket measures to encourage housing retention and discourage the development of the horrid MacMansions that were built during the 1980’s and 1990’s, when waves of Chinese immigrants fled Hong Kong and Macau to park their money offshore in giant pink stucco homes devoid of any garden space. The pushback from local residents was reasonable at the time; however, the city now faces a housing challenge that can only be resolved by relaxing zoning and standing up to the BANANA.

A more practical solution to fit today’s needs would be to offer the developer the option to demolish the unit and retain the allowable building space, if they integrated a minimum amount of salvaged heritage material. This salvaged material can come from other homes or from secondary resale markets. Square feet could be rewarded to the developer for installing restored timber beams, salvaged lighting, hardwood flooring, gables, stained windows, etc. Naturally even more square feet would be given to developers who retain the house; however, at least this more versatile option would ensure heritage is retained in the neighbourhood, but not by just “saving” a building that has lost all the “heritage” value it had, apart from the year it was originally built in.

For us the next step is negotiations with city. There is a four month backlog at City Hall, so this project has a long way to go before breaking ground.

 (1) BANANA – An acronym for Build Absolutely Nothing Anywhere Near Anything, also known as the NIMBY – Not In My Back Yard.

ZIM, or צים

11 Sep

I was on my home from work this afternoon when I happened to cycle past this container.

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It is being used by the Ministry of Highways as a storage shed during the Lion’s Gate Bridge upgrade. At first I thought some enterprising graffiti artist from Florentine had jumped the fence to make their tag, but then I realized it was the name of a large shipping company by the name of ZIM (1).


Understanding Zoning and Heritage Classifications

4 Sep

The City of Vancouver planning department and Vision administration are both remarkably efficient and transparent. Online searches yield a wealth of information, which in most other cities around the world one would require making phone calls and visits to obscure city departments to gain access to information.

This level of transparency means the City of Vancouver is a relatively easy city to do real estate transactions in. Apart from the zoning issues, which afflict most North American cities, Vancouver benefits from established institutions with high levels of trust, a clean environment and stable climate, and a relatively effective transit network. Many Vancouverites who have not spent time abroad are quick to criticize the city administration; however, they do not realize how fortunate we are here. 

Below is a little of the information I have dug up in my research:





Frances Bula and Gordon Price are also a wealth of information for anyone wanting to understand Vancouver from a broader urbanist’s perspective.

Vancouver’s 2nd Narrows Bridge by Bike

25 Aug
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I’ve lived in Vancouver on and off since 1988, of which most of that time has involved either living on the North Shore, or working there. Despite this, I have embarrassingly never ridden or walked across the Iron Workers Memorial Bridge, also known as the 2nd Narrows Bridge. So earlier in June I decided to take the plunge and bike east, rather than west, to get from Lower Lonsdale to a meeting in East Vancouver.

Getting to the 2nd Narrows Bridge by bicycle has a decidedly retro feel to it, reminiscent of how it was to ride a bike in a North American city in the 1990’s. Most of the ride involves either riding steep uphills to bypass extensive road works, or navigating a minefield of roads filled with belching cars and trucks. The section below is part of a enormous road configuration that will eventually move vehicle traffic away from the rail yards up to the hillside – a much needed upgrade, which will move motorists off a roadway that runs dangerously in the shadow of passing rail cars.
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The bike lane through this area is non-existent; however, I do have the impression that one will be in place once the road works are completed later this autumn.

East of this area one is forced to ride on the sidewalk, or share crammed roads with commercial vehicle traffic.

Access to the bridge is via a narrow onramp sidewalk.

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The bridge crossing itself is terrifying. Sidewalks are fortunately being upgraded, but in the interim, for the next two years cyclists and pedestrians are forced to share 1.25m of space, with minimal railings on each side. The space is so tight that I could not take any photos when bikes were around, as everyone would have to stop and wait while I took pictures. It also meant cyclists coming from opposite directions had to dismount in order to pass each other, unless they felt comfortable enough balancing between a terrifying drop to the bay below and the murderous freeway traffic on the other side. It was also rush hour and there were as many as 50 bikes on the bridge deck during my crossing. Some of the bikers seemed to be seasoned pros who had no problem passing each other without dismounting, I felt I should have been wearing a “I’m new, please don’t yell at me” shirt.

Yes, as much as I dislike cars, cyclists can be just as impatient and nasty as the worst of motorists. Just because someone is peddling two wheels doesn’t mean they suddenly become all honey and love. Some of the prickliest of commuters I have met have been cyclists wearing way too much spandex littered with expensive bicycle adverts.

The bride affords some stunning views, some of them so exposed that I got a good rush of vertigo just around midspan.

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On the south end of the bridge there is a tiny memorial to the Iron Workers who died when the bridge collapsed during construction. Most people will never visit the memorial or even know where it is, as the platform is jammed beside the sidewalk and the freeway curb.

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Leaving the bridge, one descends a steep series of switchback turns, down into a quiet industrial zone behind the grain towers and the Vancouver Shipyards. Traffic here is light, with numerous bikes passing on their way up to the bridge to the North Shore. A lovely separated bikeway takes one past Brighton Pool, where I stopped for a brief break. I’d never visited there before, and while the pool is nothing in comparison to Kits or 2nd Beach pools, it does have a stunning setting and gorgeous views.
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The ride up the Vancouver hillside is a surprisingly steep one, indeed I often forget how much of an elevation change there is between the water and the communities up at 1st avenue and further south. On my way to my destination I spent a good 20 minutes meandering through leafy streets lined with the finest of East Vancouver’s Queen Anne era homes, stopping occasionally for photos and to catch my breath.

A lovely ride indeed, but I will hold off doing it again until the new bike infrastructure is in place on the 2nd Narrows Bridge and in North Vancouver.

My Vision is not a Laneway House

21 Aug

In 2004 I moved from Montreal to London with the intention of making a career transition from sales to marketing, while setting up a life on the European continent – it was a well executed plan built on 7 years of undergraduate and graduate education. In the end it did not work out. I had made the move too late in life, I didn’t hold a EU passport at the time, and London was never a place I aspired to live in, rather a city I enjoyed to visit, a stepping stone for moving to the European continent.

2005 was a reset, a return to the Westcoast. The objective was to build a property business, which would in time marry well with the construction company our family had established. It has been a battle, the details of which are not worth repeating here. At a global level, big changes of this sort often involve deep questions, they also lead to conflict, as different parties try to marry together often incongruent visions and expectations. Nonetheless, there has been success, as what was once a tiny holding of a one bedroom condo in the suburbs has taken fruit into something considerably more substantial. My hopes and aspirations are that the upward trajectory will continue and our property business will make the next big step in becoming an important contributor to the development of beautiful, smaller, more efficient housing in this fair and so beautiful place, “The Land of the Lotus Eaters”. 

I continue to devote considerable time and thought to this endeavour, as I believe it to be a worthwhile one. People need homes to live in, just as they need hospitals for care, and schools for learning. So why not make these homes beautiful? Why not make them just the right size for a Vancouver family – one or two people a room and not two or three rooms a person? Yes, how novel, small efficient beautiful homes that don’t waste space.

The latest challenge we are finding to executing our vision is the availablity of housing stock that can be developed into duplexes. For a city that is awash in condos and single family homes, the “everything in between” is neglected. It is as if the consumer and the smaller developers are channeled to one of two options: buy a condo in a tower developed by a large developer, or demolish a single family home and build a bigger single family home to recoupe the costs. Neither of these options is particulary appealing, and neither applies to our vision. Condos don’t build communities, rather they isolate people from each other and the street scape; bigger houses house less people and are an inefficient use of space and energy.

Lane houses have been pushed as the answer to this conundrum; however, I believe they are a misguided solution for two reasons. Firstly they are short sighted, as once the infill investment is made, the lot becomes indivisible should zoning change in the future. This means the land becomes locked in with a big house and a small house, when it could have been built as a triplex or fourplex – units that in turn could be owner occupied or rental stock. Secondly, lanehouses do not increase the supply of land stock for sale, as they cannot be sold separately from the principal house, which means that one of the residents will always be in a landlord position, while the other will in perpetuity be in the more precarious role of the tenant. The reality is that most people don’t want to rent, and most people do not want to be landlords, most people just want to own their own home that they can do with as they please. 

In Vancouver there is little hope the city will abolish the single family zoning in the forseeable future. This remains the biggest obstacle to delivering our business’ vision.