Posted by: Rob | March 16, 2009

Thoughts on Urban Housing

One of the many paradoxes confronting western societies today is the subject of suburban sprawl.  Jim Kunstler has been a vocal critic of the zoning regulations put into place at the end of World War II that have resulted in the propogation of surburban neighbourhoods and a heavy dependence upon personal transportation.

I have visited a few European cities and have seen firsthand how higher density residential zoning can work effectively in urban environments.  I have often wondered why we in North America have not embraced this concept more widely.  The Europeans seem to be able to construct residential buildings that achieve reasonably high levels of density without resorting to the ugliness of sky scrapers.

However, there can be downsides to the increased density afforded by attached row housing or even duplexes or triplexes that are owner occupied.

I was in Germany in 2000 on business and had occasion to be in a few of the cities in what was the former DDR (East Germany).  Cities like Leipzig, Merseburg and Halle.  Driving about I noticed a discontinuity.  By 2000 a lot of the reconstruction underwritten by the west Germans was well underway; some housing restorations were even complete.   And yet, one could drive down a street and see that amongst the fully restored and colourfully painted rowhouse units, there were units still clad in the grey grime of the Soviet occupation era.  Window glass was non-existent and, in some cases, tattered drapes fluttered in the breezes.

I asked a German colleague why there were these seemingly unoccupied units that no one was taking care of.  The answer was that the titles on these properties was in dispute or doubt.  Most of these units had, apparently, belonged to Jewish owners who had been rounded up during the war years, property confiscated, and who may have died or been killed in concentration or death camps.  After the partition of Germany and the occupation of the east by the Soviets, squatters’ rights ruled.  People needing a home simply moved into the vacant houses, but since there was no property ownership, no had a vested interest in doing any upkeep or routine maintenance.

Now that Germany is reunified, the search to identify property owners and/or their heirs is underway, but the process is labourious.  No one is willing to invest a penny in one of these units without clear title.  In the meantime, the vacant units sit unattended.

I was reminded of that visit by a recent piece on Slate entitled “When the house next door is abandoned: a photo essay” by Camilo Jose Vergara.

…paired houses: two dwellings, side by side, one occupied, the other empty. Those living in the occupied home often have their lives made more difficult by what happens on the other side of a shared wall. If I see a neighbor or meet the resident of one of the occupied houses, I ask how they’re coping. They tell me that people throw trash in the front and back yards of the vacant unit, causing foul smells and attracting rats. Physical problems in the empty shell cause accelerated decay in the occupied house. Water may be left running in the unoccupied unit, causing moisture to migrate next door. In cold weather, pipes burst. Joists rot and collapse, tearing bricks out of the shared wall. And if the empty dwelling is not properly sealed, prostitutes and drug addicts may break in and start fires.

I’d encourage you to read the brief piece but, more importantly, look at the photo slide show.  Admittedly, these photos are from Camden, NJ, by all accounts, a very poor municipality.  Still, the images do make clear the level of commitment required by all parties – owners, residents, and municipality – to make this sort of housing work for everyone involved.  More commitment, certainly, than simply looking out for your very own standalone McMansion.

One thing about the German example:  I worked with a German colleague for a while who was on assignment here in Canada.  He was amazed and appalled when he observed our construction techniques.  “You use wood lumber for your structure frame?  That will never last.  In Germany we use stone and concrete and it lasts for millenia.”

Perhaps there are lessons here that we should be learning.


  1. Further proof that the town planners have it in for us.

  2. I am afraid this is something we will see more of with the foreclosure crisis. It pays to keep people in their houses, however you can. Not enough has been done for the homeowners caught in the subprime mess and too much has been done for the banks who caused it in the first place.

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