Place, Race and Finance

Originally written as a letter to Barrie City Council, June 10, 2020

I am writing in the context of the increasing pressure for everyone, including place makers, to consider the deep social impacts of urban design and architecture on the well being of citizens. The recent #BlackLivesMatter protests demands across the board reforms that I wholeheartedly believe are not only possible, but necessary. I would urge anyone receiving and reading this to check out the recent Canadian Urban Institute’s panel discussion: – as the impulse to do better  should register with anyone that is listening to this candid conversation with young, black professionals. 

Equity starts with Acknowledgement:

Citizens, city staff, planners and architects need to appreciate a central fact around equity and acknowledging the territory we all share; I cite a statement from Barrie resident, Actor, Producer, Director, Writer and Activist Jennifer Podemski wrote for the Ontario Association of Architects to start Zoom meetings with; 

Thank you for providing space for this acknowledgement. I think it is important to understand that a traditional territory acknowledgement, although a lovely recognition, does not offer any real solutions to the division, intolerance and racism that we are faced with. If anything, it is more accurate to say that this, wherever you are in Canada, is stolen land. The land and territories on which we stand and thrive, were taken from the original inhabitants through violence and cultural genocide. Once this is recognized in a real and actionable way, we can begin to rebuild the relationship and move forward with the understanding that real reconciliation is about acknowledging your privilege and making best efforts to advocate for Indigenous rights and the supporting the narrative that Indigenous societies thrived for millennia prior to 1492, and that knowledge is an essential tool in the re-imagining of a new paradigm.

Jennifer Podemski

According to the Ontario Professional Planners Institute, the planners have taken a very good first step towards this sincere acknowledgement;

In June 2019 OPPI Council received the Indigenous Perspectives in Planning Task Force Report, and approved its recommendations in full. OPPI Council recommends that members make a priority of obtaining Indigenous competency training. Members should build knowledge and understanding of Indigenous perspectives, worldviews, histories, cultures, belief systems and the system of constitutionally protected Treaties that govern our relationships within Canada. Knowledge of the truth of our collective history and the injustices experienced by Indigenous Peoples is an essential step in the reconciliation process. Members should enhance their learning in this area and how it impacts planning processes and practice.

Ontario Professional Planners Institute, CPL Guide 2019

Architects, planners, city staff and anyone concerning themselves with the design of the city need to understand that First Nations are actual Nations occupying geographic and legally defined spaces, with legal rights enshrined in treaties and provincial and federal law (Williams Decision), that occupy and have occupied these territories for millennia, and that settler culture superimposed itself over these geographic territories in both elaborate swindles and violent displacements. Reconciliation begins with a sincere recognition of Indigenous rights.

On Residential Real Estate as the world’s largest Asset Class:

Global residential real estate is the largest asset class on Earth, at $220 trillion USD, which is more than double the value of all of the world’s stock markets combined.  Because of the highly lucrative nature of real estate, and because of the ability for this form of capital to be invested into ‘cash boxes in the sky’, some of the world’s largest finance companies can be found several layers beneath what appear to be ‘local’ developers, with housing units around the world serving firstly as financial instruments, essentially investment accounts, and only secondarily as homes for human beings. In the recent documentary film PUSH, the UN special rapporteur on adequate housing makes this abundantly clear. At the conclusion of the film, mayors from major cities worldwide band together to resist the trend through improved public ownership of rental housing projects, financed locally. But why?

Large developments of exclusively ‘affordable’ rental housing seem at first glance to be exactly what Barrie needs, but one needs to take a closer look. These developments effectively hollow out local economies as they keep marginalized populations poor decade after decade. Even if this is not an explicitly racist act, it results in a form of structural racism nevertheless as it forever keeps ownership and the building of equity out of reach.  Ever increasing rents cut into struggling families’ budgets to the point where social assistance is needed to make families whole. In the end, subsidized housing ultimately subsidizes the wealthy, and not the poor, through tax supplements. When reducing construction costs while maximizing rents is the driving force behind design and planning, buildings offering the least cost for the developer are the result. This approach can and most often does result in low quality housing, townhouses, and multi-unit residential structures. Poor build quality and low performance standards advantage the developer, who bears no responsibility for the consequences over the life of the building, while shifting the life cycle costs to tenants, condo funds, insurance claims and municipalities over the longer term.  The NAACP recognizes this problem, and to that end has published this report on Centering Equity in the Sustainable Building Sector: “Communities of color and low-income communities bear the brunt of the impacts of unhealthy, energy-inefficient, and disaster-vulnerable buildings.”

There are many ways to reduce the social, financial and environmental impact of architecture. One way is by reduction of unit sizes, as shown above with the miniHome project. However, we have built buildings ten times the size, for the same cost.
Above: One of our research projects that imagine the ‘suburb of the future’ consisting of natural landscaping and organically arrayed, super-energy efficient tiny homes designed for year-round living.

Low cost rental apartment towers can also result in monotonous, cookie-cutter designs with their repetitive floor plates, low-quality envelope enclosures and code-minimum thermal performance. In other words, these cost savings for the developer result in a transfer of cost into the future.  The community ultimately ‘pays’ for these cost savings to the developer through a lack of quality social fabric and green space through lifeless site design, which has in many studies led to isolation, depression, entrenched poverty and crime, but also lowered property values culminating in the very definition of slums over the longer term. Tenants and owners are left facing high energy bills due to poor building performance, while the most effective carbon reduction potential through net zero design is a missed opportunity, with dire global consequences. High maintenance costs due to poor construction assemblies mean that after initial profits leave the local economy, adding to the already disproportionate wealth of the 1%, the long term costs of such structures are transferred to tenants and owners, and ultimately the local taxpayers through increased rent subsidies and even to increased policing. This is the inverse financial funnel that hoovers up human capital to offshore accounts, while depleting even municipal budgets, and we have not even touched on derivatives trading!

Rather than designing what will inevitably become the ghettos of the future, perversely justifying ever increasing police budgets, and worsening mental health among its citizens, Barrie has an opportunity to mandate higher quality and healthier social spaces through design – designing to higher standards, and lower costs over the life of buildings. The few times I have witnessed developer presentations at Barrie’s council chamber, the hired suits presenting their designs routinely use the right words; ‘quality’, ’green space’, ‘public realm’, ‘streetscape’, and ‘affordability’ – but the designs they show do not match the meaning of these words. I have sat in council chambers in Berkeley and San Francisco, Toronto and Stuttgart and in all of these cities, councillors hold developers to a higher standard, the very standard that is established in their Official Plan and their own performance standards, such as the Toronto Green Standard. In Barrie, the seeming eagerness to embrace any and all developments, no matter how sad, ugly or cheap looking they are, means Barrie will never achieve the standard of development that it has envisioned for itself, to the detriment of the entire community. People that aren’t from Barrie often ask why we appear to have such a disproportionately high number of marginalized people. We need to understand that a large part of the answer is because that is the result of the urban spaces, and the buildings we have designed.

The doomed social experiment that was the Pruitt-Igoe public housing complex in St Louis, shortly after its completion in 1956. Photograph: Bettmann/Corbis From The Guardian

Cities worldwide have created affordable housing precincts as social experiments to ‘solve’ this problem, only to realize over decades that communities of concentrated social classes actually worsened all of the social ills they had sought to alleviate, and many had to be demolished. Pruitt-Igoe in St. Louis may be the most famous example, but Ontario had its own version at Regent Park in Toronto


In re-imagining Regent Park, the solutions consisted of creating a connected city grid and a complete community, with parks, amenity spaces, walkable shops at grade and most importantly a mix of incomes even in the same buildings. I had the honour of being the winning team’s sustainability lead for the first tower in this $14bn city-scale redevelopment competition. In that first tower were a mix of market-rate townhouse units, rent-geared-to-income units, family 3br units and seniors housing. Providing social variety in terms of race, culture, income and age in neighbourhoods is what makes them vital. The old can enjoy the young and vice-versa. Variety truly is the spice of life. 

But it appears from the recent proposed YMCA precinct, or the proposed rental towers at Georgian College, Barrie is re-creating the same mistakes already learned elsewhere in the world at tremendous social and economic cost. Offloading the life-cycle costs of buildings onto those who can least afford them further oppresses Barrie’s most vulnerable citizens.

In our practice, the cost of achieving design excellence and net zero energy  does not need to result in increased capital costs. In fact we have met Passive House-level standards at less than half the capital cost of standard SFR construction.

There are actually myriad ways to reduce costs, while increasing the connective tissue of social spaces at grade and between units. We can radically reduce the quantity of materials, labour and carbon costs of new construction, through smarter design techniques, but the direction needs to be given to designers and developers first, or it won’t happen.  Architectural and planning excellence costs between 5-8% on a wide range of residential construction, and the value that design excellence provides for the quality of the overall city should never be underestimated.  

As Philadelphia Architect and developer Tim Macdonald has demonstrated with his own innovative and attractive Multi Unit Residential (MURB) developments, Passive House level performance can be built for less than the cost of code-minimum buildings, resulting in low operating costs and attainable rents. Barrie would do well to study these lessons learned and apply them to infill developments.

 I will conclude with some suggestions;

  1. Recognize the rights of First Nations in this Territory in formal planning decisions, and consult with traditional knowledge keepers to guide Barrie to a sustainable future.
  2. Demand a better quality of architecture and planning in terms of durability, performance and site design.
  3. Make all social housing units in Barrie publicly owned.
  4. Affordable housing starts with affordable buildings, demand higher performance at lower costs through innovation in the structure and geometry of architecture – these need not cost more and we can prove it!
  5. Publicly-owned land and/or alternative land tenure (ie. vacant land condominiums) can substantially reduce the cost of housing, consider expanding these approaches in the City of Barrie. 
  6. Finance social housing with local equity to keep wealth in the community (ie. Meridian CU).
  7. Do not allow rental developments to short-circuit Tarion warranties by converting rental buildings to condos after 5 years, to ensure build quality over the longer term.
  8. Ensure that architects are involved at the planning stage when proposals involve building design as required by law, and as a measure of quality assurance, and requisite experience.
  9. Ensure greater public participation in Official Plan deliberations, and especially consider involving the current and future demographic groups moving to this city.
  10. De-stratify and de-segregate income levels in residential developments. Demand a mix of incomes and unit types in any proposed MURB designs. 
  11. Aim for a green standard such as Toronto’s TGS and Whitby’s proposed Green Standard to target Net Zero.
  12. Consider dense, low-rise construction based on the model of European cities that offer walkable communities, pedestrian access, safety through a well developed social fabric, and lower embodied carbon due to what is known as the inverse square law of structural design, as well as reduced operational emissions due to an increased area to volume ratio. “38.7% of (Barrie OP Survey) respondents indicated they want to see more low-rise mixed use buildings that are 2-5 storeys with ground-floor commercial, cultural, entertainment or institutional uses.” As architect Tim Macdonald has shown, it is almost impossible to do net zero residential buildings if taller than 5 stories – there is just not enough area for the solar systems to offset the energy required.
  13. Improvements in Equity, Climate, Ecosystem and Human health all result from a balanced consideration of the deep impacts design and planning will have on the future of Barrie and should be observed in every submission for development.
  14. Consider the addition of community hubs with a diverse range of services including social and health and dental services, community food centres, CSA depots, and affordable/free community spaces to enhance community participation in city life and economic viability. 
  15. Provide for adequate DCC’s to cover these services and bonus DCC’s only if an established criteria for Equity and Climate goals are met, as with the TGS. 
  16. Consider hiring diversity and equity consultants with a history of working in urban planning, that have both the lived experience of being racialized or marginalized, and that are also experts in their profession.
  17. Demand that all proposed developments meet the vision set by the City of Barrie’s Planners and ensure councillors are well educated on the goals of these plans, and vote accordingly. 

I, and others from the allied design professions and developer community, including designers and place-makers from the Black, Indigenous and People of Colour community would welcome the opportunity to meet with your planning teams to demonstrate effective solutions and case studies from all over the world, because Barrie deserves better than the projects that enter the council chambers, and exit unchallenged, permits in hand. 

Reading list: If the connection between systemic racism and urban planning seems unclear (as it was unclear to me at first) this is a reading list was compiled by the professional community and may help:



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