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'When you bring young people, they bring businesses'

Known around the world as Canada’s guru on housing innovation and urban design, architect Avi Friedman was named by international design magazine, Wallpaper, as one of the top 10 people “most likely to change the way we live,” along
Avi Friedman
Avi Friedman

Known around the world as Canada’s guru on housing innovation and urban design, architect Avi Friedman was named by international design magazine, Wallpaper, as one of the top 10 people “most likely to change the way we live,” along with Ingvar Kamprad, founder of IKEA, and Sven Mattison, inventor of the Bluetooth computer chip.

A professor and the founder and director of the Affordable Homes Research Group at McGill University in Montreal, his research focuses on the design and implementation of affordable and sustainable housing and community planning.

The author of several books and trade magazine articles and an avid speaker, Friedman was invited to address guests of the 7th annual St. Albert Homestyle Breakfast Benefit Tuesday morning.

Before he jetted back to Montreal that same day, the Gazette spoke to him about the importance of affordable housing and how it can be achieved in cities like St. Albert.

What is the biggest challenge for St. Albert in terms of creating more affordable housing?

The challenge that a community faces is that if you were to build low-density, this is regular suburban housing, you will not get affordable housing. Affordable housing is only achieved when people can build denser types of developments and if they can stay away from the single family and build more townhouses and apartment buildings.

The question for St. Albert is whether they would like to accept this type of home. In other words: large single family can never be affordable, so you need to build something else.

There is a desire in many small towns to see themselves continuing along an established path of building large single family homes. The notion is if you build single family homes you’ll get more taxes and so on. I believe that this has changed. In my view, St. Albert or any other community needs to catch up with changing how we will develop communities in the future.

You can’t have a store where they sell one size of jeans. You need to have different sizes and different models.

St. Albert is currently restrictive when it comes to higher density housing. It is looking at changing that, but at the same time people here really value the suburban concept of boulevards. Can you see those two philosophies working together?

It can. If places are designed next to the boulevard there is a taller building, let’s say four- to six-storey apartment buildings or maybe a row of townhouses, first they will make the boulevard in my view more appealing. They are known to introduce what is called human scale.

This does not mean that all of St. Albert needs to have these higher density types of homes. I believe that if affordable housing is to be achieved is if this housing can be built in some areas.

The other issue has to do with the perception of what affordable housing is. People tend to think that affordable housing customers are people on social assistance and so on. I believe that this is also the wrong perception. People need to understand that there is a change in today’s environment. There are many young, highly educated, motivated people who cannot find homes.

What do cities like St. Albert risk losing if they don’t offer this type of home?

The danger is that if you don’t provide housing for young families or young people, they might leave. That’s not good to the social makeup of the city.

So it takes away some of your work force and creates a bit of a brain drain?

That’s right.

How do you combat the negative connotations associated with affordable housing?

I believe first we may want to change the term. If you build housing and call it affordable housing it will immediately be stigmatized; if you call them townhouses they will be looked upon differently.

We need to, second, launch an education campaign and explain that there are people who are young, who just graduated from university that would like to live in the community but cannot find housing.

The third aspect has to do with trying to build housing that is nice. In many places when we attempt to build lower cost housing, we build badly looking housing. They become eyesores; and I believe this needs to change.

So you’re saying that we are constructing for a society that no longer exists?

Exactly. In the past few years we’ve been building Cadillacs. When you drive through a typical development today you can see homes with two or three bathrooms with Jacuzzis. Who can afford that?

What happens when you build affordable housing: first you don’t build a two-tier society, which is important because everybody has a chance. How can a young person start his life when he doesn’t have a chance?

Second, when you have young people many of them begin their enterprising career from home. When you bring young people, they bring businesses. People tend to forget that affordable housing helps with creating better communities.

Human scale is an architectural concept that describes the scale that feels comfortable to people.