Visualizing Succession

After my talk at the Vancouver Historical Society, I’ve been playing around with some of the old fire insurance maps for Vancouver. As it turns out, fire insurance maps are super-awesome resources for historical research. Here I want to explore ways of using them to visualize succession as an urban process.

Succession, meaning the gradual outward expansion of an urban core, was thought by many observers of the early 20th Century to be the key process driving neighbourhood change. For sociologists like Ernest Burgess and Roderick McKenzie, succession was a process of “invasion” from the centre outward through a series of concentrically organized ecological habitats. The central business district (Habitat I) was always attempting to move into the surrounding industrial and commercial areas (Habitat II), which in turn were always invading the areas of dense working class housing beyond (Habitat III), which were always trying to muscle in on the middle class and wealthy residential suburbs on the outskirts of the city (Habitat IV).*

“Succession” was a science-y and neutral sounding concept (having been drawn directly from plant ecology), while “invasion” was quite threatening, especially to the middle class and wealthy suburban neighbourhoods hoping to hold the urban core at bay (very much including its working class & minorities). With the invention, legalization and rapid spread of single-family detached zoning, the middle class managed to mostly surround and contain the urban core, as I describe in my recent talk and book. As a direct implication of halting the process of urban succession, constrained urban cores mostly grow up instead of out, and now we mostly talk about gentrification instead of succession as a key process affecting our cities.

But let’s go back to succession. Can we see it in action? Let’s start with an early residential development consisting of two blocks (subdivided by alleyways into six) on the outskirts of a rapidly growing city in the late 19th century.


The base layer here is an old fire insurance map from the Vancouver archives, though I’ve faded it out a bit to draw over top of it. Let’s highlight all of the houses.



We can see this is pretty much just a residential neighbourhood at this point, with the only non-residential use a church (lower-left). Most of the other buildings are sheds. But wait a minute, are these all single-family detached houses?



Trick question! Those weren’t invented yet! So nobody was recording whether or not single families lived in these houses, nor how they might have been subdivided. That said, it’s clear that four houses in the upper-left block were all connected to each other, making them recognizable as rowhouses. Meanwhile, there were at least two houses connected side-by-side on other lots, making them semi-detached houses (by modern Canadian census categories). Also notable: at least four lots had both houses fronting onto major streets and houses fronting onto alleyways – with the latter now identified as “laneway houses” in Vancouver. Lots of “missing middle” housing!

Importantly, these residential blocks were located on the outskirts of a growing urban core in 1889. What will become of them? Let’s jump ahead 25 years and see…



I’ve highlighted in red all of the buildings that disappear over the course of 25 years. Oh no! There goes our church! Over half of the houses are also gone. Devastation in Habitat IV! But at least the townhouses remain. Let’s fill in the neighbourhood…



Some of those old houses remain, and new ones have been added too, meaning that we don’t see a complete replacement of seemingly middle-class residential uses (Habitat IV). That said, for the most part torn-down houses have been replaced by much larger buildings that take up their lots and add abundant industrial, commercial, and office uses to the neighbourhood. At least three hotels (Alcazar, Cadillac, and Canada) join numerous rooming houses, with the latter being an especially important source of housing for the working class and poor (Habitat III). Industrial uses (machine shop, workshop, numerous printers, warehouse) also crowd the block, along with commercial uses and services (second-hand shop, steam laundry, tailor, restaurant). There’s even an undertaker with lodging above! Lots of what Burgess termed a zone in transition (Habitat II). And offices… so many offices. We can make a strong claim for central business district uses (Habitat I). In effect, the entire urban core has moved into a former middle-class residential district over the course of 25 years, give or take, without completely destroying it. On a first pass, pre-zoning urban succession looks more like urban mixing than invasion and replacement. But maybe we just didn’t give it enough time.

What does this marvelous neighbourhood look like now, some 100+ years later?**



It looks like the two blocks bounded by Pender, Hamilton, Dunsmuir & Richards, right smack in downtown Vancouver. The 19-story BC Hydro Centre Tower dominates these blocks. But remarkably, at least nine of the old buildings that replaced the original houses in the neighbourhood during the 1906-1914 era remain intact! Alas, the townhouses in the upper-left have been replaced by a parking lot. Overall, the neighbourhood still has a mix of low-income housing, commercial and service space, and office space, though probably not a lot in the way of middle class housing (have to seek out some condos nearby for that).

I grabbed the dates on all the buildings I could find from VanMap‘s Assessment data. Old Fire Insurance Maps can be found in the Vancouver Archives.

Here’s the Fire Insurance Map from 1889, with zoomed in panel below:


Here’s the Goad’s Atlas Map from 1910-1920, with zoomed in panel below:


This is a first-pass, of sorts, at drawing upon Vancouver’s old fire insurance maps to get at patterns of urban succession in the days before zoning. I’d welcome suggestions, collaborations, and better visualizations! (This was pretty much all done with powerpoint on the fly). In the meantime, here’s my cheap-o little animated gif of the slides above. Enjoy!




*- The Chicago School of Sociology modeled this process on Chicago itself – though McKenzie, it should be noted, also detoured to Seattle in describing “The Ecological Approach” to the study of The City (1925), in a volume for which Park & Burgess are usually given first billing.

**- The maps date from 1889 and somewhere between 1910 and 1920, which is why I say “give or take” in assessing the length of time that’s passed! Though the Goad’s Atlas dates itself as 1910, it was reproduced (with consolidated updates) in 1920, and includes buildings up to at least 1914, which is why I can narrow it down to around 25 years after 1889.



The Things I Teach

I’m archiving my syllabi for current and recent undergraduate courses here on the blog, both for (ungated) student use and for public consumption. My courses all combine interactive lectures with student-led reading group discussions and some form of sustained research or building project.

Built Environments (2018) UBC SOCI 364: Syllabus-BuiltEnv2018

Sociology of the Life Course (2018) UBC SOCI 324:  Syllabus-LifeCourse-2018

Urban Sociology (2017) UBC SOCI 425-A:  UrbanSoc-Syllabus-2017

In the recent past, I’ve also taught graduate level courses (especially in Urban Sociology) and our undergraduate course in Research Methods. For other teaching scholars out there, please send me any suggestions for improvement! I’m especially interested in keeping my readings updated and interesting.

A Little Army of Artisanal Landlords

A relatively recent Sightline Institute post by Margaret Morales explores a key difference between development patterns in Seattle and Vancouver. While Seattle tends to construct lots of purpose-built rental apartments, Vancouver tends to construct condominiums. Why? The post walks us through various explanations, many of which have to do with tax codes. Rental construction in Canada is burdened by bad tax policy, including, for instance, the application of GST to rental construction (many housing advocates were hoping the recent Canada National Housing Strategy would roll back these taxes, but no luck!) On the other side of the border, many Seattleites would actually like to see more condos! Morales provides guidance for what’s holding condo development there back – much of it having to do with insurance policy.

On the whole, Morales provides a nice little dive into cross-border policy differences*. Moreover, Sightline is a handy little organization to have around. I’ve been a fan ever since I first came across their old papers (here and here) comparing Vancouver and Seattle in terms of sprawl. I still teach with these sometimes!

But I wanted to provide a little more insight into Vancouver’s rental situation. Morales is absolutely right about Vancouver’s dearth of purpose-built rental construction (though more is in the pipeline!) Nevertheless, Metro Vancouver appears to have almost EXACTLY the same proportion of households renting as Metro Seattle: just a little over 36%. How does that happen? Enter Vancouver’s little army of “artisanal landlords.”**


What do I mean by “artisanal landlords”? Effectively I’m talking about people who own and rent out one or more properties beyond their principle residence, but probably don’t consider themselves professional landlords (I’m sure there’s a reasonable cut-off concerning how many units you might own before crossing over… maybe five?). These artisanal landlords are important for multiple reasons. First, to get back to that Sightline piece, while Vancouver’s mostly been building condos, about one in three condos ends up occupied by renters.*** Effectively, this means about a third of our condo stock is actually treated like rental stock, only controlled by artisanal landlords. Legally, these rentals are subject to both the residential tenancy act and local strata (condominium) by-laws (which in some cases do not allow rentals at all). This sometimes makes for confusing jurisdiction, especially since tenants are often forced to communicate with strata councils through their landlords, and vice-versa. As for the artisanal landlords themselves, they may have limited knowledge of their actual obligations, and if they contract management of their properties out, that adds another level of bureaucracy to an already tenuous relationship.

In addition to condo rentals, another huge chunk of Vancouver’s rental stock is made up of secondary suites. Many (though not all) of these secondary suites are carved up from buildings that were once, ostensibly, single-family detached houses. So we get the familiar basement apartments Vancouverites know and *ahem* love, often tucked away beneath their landlords above. Sometimes the above suites are rented out too, and even further subdivided. Pretty much all duplexes are owned by artisanal landlords, many of them on-site. Triplexes and other internally subdivided houses that might be owned by artisanal landlords are trickier to find (grouped in with the non-condo other and low-rise categories above).

Then, of course, there are the rented detached houses, which in most cases are likely also owned by artisanal landlords. Combining the three likely artisanal (or smallholding) landlord types, we see they make up the majority of rental situations in Vancouver (as well as in Calgary). Other rentals, especially low-rises (which may contain as few as three units) and townhouses, may also be run by smallholding landlords, but are more likely to have professional landlords.

The difference between artisanal and professional landlords matters for how well different rental units are run, how often discrimination occurs (see my past scholarly work on this here), how many protections renters receive, how stable tenancies are likely to be, and how well rental units can be tracked (the CMHC has only recently tried to get a handle on what they call the “secondary” rental market, and Metro Vancouver can only estimate a range for just how many secondary suites exist in the area, echoing my difficulty in pinning them down beyond “likely”).

So if we have some idea about how many rental units are likely controlled by artisanal landlords, can we estimate how many artisanal landlords there are? This is actually surprisingly tricky! It’s not a question asked in the Census. But there IS a question asked about ownership of real estate aside from one’s principle residence in Stats Canada’s Survey of Financial Security (tables here). There are caveats to using this measure as a proxy for how many artisanal landlords we’ve got in Metro Vancouver (lots of people own vacation properties elsewhere and non-residential real estate is also presumably included), but it gives us something to work with.

The data suggests that over 20% of Vancouver’s families own real estate aside from their principle residence.**** That’s approximately 216,000 families in all, potentially making for quite a few artisanal landlords (the number has more than doubled between 1999 and 2016). We also know the median value of these holdings, which is CAD$400,000 – about the price of many Vancouver condo units (this value doubles for Vancouverites in the wealthiest quintile). Of course, this probably doesn’t even include those artisanal landlords with basement suites below them, since it’s likely they’re considering their secondary suites as contained within their principle residences.

So even though Vancouver hasn’t built nearly as many purpose-built rental buildings as Seattle, we’ve still built lots of units that get rented out. Moreover, artisanal landlords are worth keeping an eye on, both because of what they imply for renters and rental markets, and because they’re likely a potent force in local politics. Considered as a class, they have plenty of plausible reasons to both oppose new purpose-built rentals (competition for tenants) and to cast blame on foreigners (competition for properties). It’s a group worth watching more closely.


*- minor note: I managed to rip only a teeny bit of my hair out over the mixing of terms for tenure arrangements (rental, condominium ownership, etc.) with terms for structure arrangements (apartment, rowhouse, etc.). But I suppose when I write a book describing how often people fail to make these distinctions – often justifiably – I really can’t complain.

**- I stole the “artisanal landlord” descriptor from Jens Von Bergmann, who may very well have stolen it from somewhere else.

***- notably, this does not include condos not occupied by usual residents, where we do not have data from the census.

****-Of note, the only other major metro area exceeding 20% of families reporting owning RE besides their principle residence is Calgary!

Losing my religion

From the start, sociologists have been fascinated with how city-living influenced morality, religion, and mental life. Even medieval proto-sociologists, like Ibn Khaldun, wrote about the “natural groups” of Bedouins and sedentary town folk, chastising the latter for the corrupt state of their souls:

Sedentary people are much concerned with all kinds of pleasures. They are accustomed to luxury and success in worldly occupations and to indulgence in worldly desires. Therefore, their souls are colored with all kinds of blameworthy and evil qualities. The more of them they possess, the more remote do the ways and means of goodness become to them. Eventually they lose all sense of restraint. [link]

Where Khaldun saw moral decay in the settled urban life, Simmel (1903) saw the rise of individualism and a blasé attitude.

If one asks for the historical position of the two forms of individualism which are nourished by the quantitative relation of the metropolis, namely, individual independence and the elaboration of individuality itself, then the metropolis assumes an entirely new rank order in the world history of the spirit. The eighteenth century found the individual in oppressive bonds which had become meaningless-bonds of a political, agrarian, guild, and religious character. They were restraints which, so to speak, forced upon man an unnatural form and outmoded, unjust inequalities.

Put differently, Khaldun and Simmel roughly agree on the underlying urban dynamics, if not on their desirability. Left to its own devices, city-living reduces the hold of organized religion upon the soul. And yet, the very organization of religion demands a certain gathering together of like-minded people. In effect, organized religion requires the kind of density only really found in cities. Bit of a conundrum.

At any rate, this is really just setting up my curiosity over how religion is distributed by metropolitan area in Canada. Unlike in the US, we’ve got Census data (or in the case of 2011, National Housing Survey Data) on religious affiliation. It’s definitely not the same as religiosity or fervor or spiritual life. But it does tell us something about the reach of organized religion. As it turns out, all across Canada, most Canadians still have some religious affiliation.



Quebec remains decidedly Catholic, even if in many cases this marks more of a cultural affiliation than any belief or strict adherence to dogma. The vast majority of Quebecois still identify as Catholic, even in Montreal (64%), the Canadian capital of all things blasé. Nevertheless, Montreal, like other big (one million plus) metros, is far more diverse in the kinds of religion people practice than the rest of Quebec, with vibrant Jewish and Muslim communities. Metro Toronto adds large Hindu, Sikh, and Buddhist constituencies to the mix, and is also (no surprise) decidedly less Catholic than Montreal.

In general, moving westward from Toronto, metropolitan residents are more and more likely to have no religious affiliation whatsoever. At the far western edge of Canada, little Victoria is the least religious of all, with fewer than half of its residents declaring any affiliation! Of note, Vancouver remains the least religious of the big metro areas, beating out Calgary, Edmonton, Toronto, Ottawa, and Montreal in roughly that order and following a West to East trajectory. Kind of interesting!

Yet Vancouver is also the most Sikh and most Buddhist part of Canada. Here the gateway status of Vancouver mixes in interesting fashion with its history of immigration. This leaves open an interesting question. As different immigrant groups arrive in Vancouver, are they making it more religious? Does Vancouver’s overwhelming secularism affect minority communities the same way it does everyone else? Or are new religious communities expanding in Vancouver as different groups gain density and the ability to organize more effectively?

Here I’ll just use visible minority status as an (imperfect) shortcut for different groups in Vancouver, breaking down religious affiliation accordingly, and comparing to the distribution we see across Canada.


The figure above really demonstrates the assortment of religious tradition by different minority groups (as well as non-minorities). South Asians in Metro Vancouver are much more Sikh than in the rest of Canada. Arabs and West Asians are mostly – but not entirely – Muslim just about everywhere you go. South Asians, Filipinos, and Arabs are the most religious minority groups, despite their differing religious profiles. By contrast, Chinese and Japanese minority groups are the least religious (in marked contrast to Koreans – see the research of Judy Han on this, or just watch Kim’s Convenience).

Vancouver as a big metro area really is less religious, across nearly every visible minority group, than we see for Canada as a whole. The proportion of people identifying as having “No Religious Affiliation” averages almost 50% higher across visible minority categories in Vancouver, as compared to Canada.

Why? Good question. Has Vancouver led us to become too “accustomed to luxury and success in worldly occupations and to indulgence in worldly desires,” As Khaldun might have it? Or maybe Vancouver is just the Canadian epicentre of, “individual independence and the elaboration of individuality itself,” as suggested by Simmel. That western gradient might suggest a potent mixture of frontier-mythologizing, migrant self-selection, and Simmel-style urbanism at work. But I have to admit, I’ve got no problem going with Khaldun if it means I can pit local churches, mosques, and temples against the sheer ubiquity of Vancouver’s fancy sports cars.

Ok, here’s REM:



A Tale of Three Cities

Canada is a BIG country, with a lot of land. But it’s also an urban country, with most of its residents sticking to cities and towns (and suburbs) hovering just over the border from the United States. Over one third of Canadians live in Canada’s three big cities: Toronto, Montreal, and Vancouver.

This is interesting for all sorts of reasons, but especially so for a housing scholar, because of the differing routes to urbanization taken by these cities. Their housing stocks, and correspondingly the way people live, are all quite distinct from the rest of Canada, and also distinct from one another. Here I’m just going to look at housing stocks in terms of dwelling types – i.e., what kind of building do you live in? Of note, I’ll also be treating the term “city” as inclusive of “metropolitan areas” as a whole, which is what we’re generally talking about when we say “Canada’s three big cities” (this is important, of course, because the City of Vancouver as a municipality, for instance, contains less than a third of its metropolitan population).

So how do people live differently in Toronto, Montreal, and Vancouver from the rest of Canada and from one another? Let’s look at some data from Statistics Canada.


The big difference compared to the rest of Canada is that the big three cities have far fewer residents living in single-detached houses. Less than half of residents live in houses in each of our major metropolitan areas, compared to well over two-thirds in the rest of Canada.

But how has each metropolis managed its move away from the house?

Montreal has developed a LOT of low-rise apartment buildings (up to four storeys tall) all throughout its old urban core. The rest of its housing stock looks a lot like the rest of Canada. On the whole, its a charmingly low-rise metropolis.

Toronto has developed a LOT of high-rise apartment buildings (five stories and above), all throughout its old urban core. The rest of the its housing stock looks a lot like the rest of Canada. On the whole, its different mainly in its promotion of big, bustling high-rises.

Vancouver lies somewhere inbetween Montreal and Toronto, insofar as it’s filled its urban core(s) with a combination of low-rise (often older) and high-rise apartment buildings. But it’s also distinct from either city in renovating and re-developing such a large proportion of its stock of single-detached houses, so that a LOT of them contain two or more dwellings (e.g. basement suites).

To some extent, this last strategy speaks to Vancouver’s late-comer status. Montreal and Toronto are both relatively old cities, each having developed a sizable urban core before getting choked off by heavily protected single-family (RS) zoning in the twentieth century. Vancouver didn’t have that much of an older urban core to work with before most of its residential landscape became locked up by zoning. So many municipalities across Metro Vancouver have sneakily re-worked the definition of a “single-family residential” in their zoning by-laws to include a secondary suite – and often a laneway house too – enabling a very “gentle” form of baby-step densification. This is only part of the story of how the big three cities of Canada provide very different models for density and accommodating the move away from single-family detached modes of living.

A related question we can ask is how housing gets distributed across the life course and history. I’ve been playing around with this from a descriptive standpoint, using age-graded distribution of housing.


This is basically the same chart above, but played out across five-year age categories (except for under 15 and over 85, because these are the categories Stats Can gives me). It’s very clearly visible that outside of the Big Three Cities, single-detached houses are the statistical norm in Canada. They become a little less the norm during young adulthood (20-34) and for post-retirement ages (65+), but even so, more than half of the young and old alike live in houses.

For Montreal, the house is not normative – less than half of people in any age category live in a single-detached house. Nevertheless, Montreal demonstrates the same general age-related pattern of house acquisition as we see in the rest of Canada. Young adults and older adults are especially unlikely to live in a house, turning instead to the plentiful low-rise housing (in the case of the young) or newer high-rise housing (for the old).

What about Toronto and Vancouver? In Toronto, just over half of people live in houses across most age groups, but this figure drops sharply for young adults. Strikingly, there’s hardly any decline at all in this figure for older adults. In Vancouver, the figure overall is lower (<40% of people live in houses across most age groups). Nevertheless, the same age-related pattern pertains: though the young move out into alternatives, older age groups tend to hold onto living in single-family detached dwellings. What’s going on? In large part I suspect this is the result of generational shifts. Post-retirees in Toronto and Vancouver are probably transitioning out of single-detached houses like post-retirees elsewhere (Montreal and the rest of Canada) BUT they began their lives with much higher proportions living in single-detached houses than we see for later generations. (Perhaps you’ve heard that houses in Toronto and Vancouver used to be cheaper than they are now?) As a result, older residents in these cities continue to live in a much higher proportion of the detached housing stock than we’d otherwise expect. This also helps account for why many single-family residential neighbourhoods are shrinking!