Suburban sprawl, German style

Garage entrance and back yard, Brunsbüttel

On a trip to Europe this month, Vicki and I stayed with friends in Brunsbüttel, a town of 13,400 on the North Sea. The town’s most notable feature is the entrance to the mouth of the world’s busiest artificial waterway, the Kiel Canal. Ocean-going ships sail past the eastern end of the high street on an hourly basis.

This pedestrian-cycling pathway also provides local  vehicle access to garages and laneway housing. The home on the right has solar panels on the garage and on the main roof.

Our friends are from southern Germany, but they own a retirement home in a newish subdivision on the northern edge of Brunsbüttel. They were among the first to build here in about 2002. Like its counterparts in similar-sized towns in North America, the neighbourhood is laid out in a cunning pattern of nesting crescents and dead ends to discourage vehicle traffic.

Unlike most places in North America, pedestrians and cyclists are offered a network of pathways, providing quick access through the neighbourhood and out into the town. However, in frequent walks over a one-week period I saw few people on the pathways, except for children walking or cycling to school, and a few adults walking dogs.

This is an automobile-dependent suburb, testimony to the powerful appeal of the detached home and the private garden. A random handful of home-based service providers display signs on their properties — a potter, a cosmetician, a speech therapist — and the industrial streets nearby feature a furniture store and a catering business.  I also found a mean-looking pub sitting alongside one of the minor roads out of town, a discovery that was news to our hosts.The supermarket and banks are 20 minutes south by the most direct pedestrian route. That’s too far, in North America or this part of Europe, for most adults to bother with walking or cycling.

A rainy day at the entrance to the Kiel Canal in central Brunsbüttel, with a cruise ship approaching

An older home at the edge of the subdivision, overlooking the Braake River and wind turbines sited on farmland. There are close to 1,000 wind turbines in Dithmarschen County, of the almost 3,000 in the province of Schleswig-Holstein.

Germany’s governments are strict in protecting agricultural land, but they have opened up occasional tracts outside the towns where small detached homes are packed into clusters, most of them (to my eye) lacking any kind of services. Residents can make use of off-road cycling pathways to travel safely into the urban areas, but again, we saw few cyclists in the hundreds of kilometres that we drove along rural roads.

During one visit to the canal and Brunsbüttel’s high street, the Koogstrasse, our host remarked that small businesses in the town are failing. People are shopping increasingly at shopping plazas with abundant free parking, or online. As in Nanaimo or Maple Ridge in Canada, long-established family-run shops in the central core are giving way to downmarket chains, fast-food outlets, gift and trinket shops operated by hopeful novices, and empty space.

A typical suburban street layout with a narrow road surface 

The Anne-Frank-Weg, named for a prominent Jewish victim of Germany’s Nazi regime, is a pedestrian link from the subdivision to the high school and shopping

Duplex housing, post-2000

A residence with an industrial business attached, at the edge of the industrial zone

Transforming Metrotown

Paterson SkyTrain station, looking to new residential towers south of the Metrotown shopping complex

The older retail blocks on Kingsway near the mall have struggled over the years. Tenants include payday loan shops, tattoo parlours and porn outlets.

The City of Burnaby has adopted a new long-term development plan for the Metrotown district. By 2040, Metrotown is to be transformed by the redevelopment of its signature shopping malls into a “finergrained network of public streets, lanes, pedestrian connections, plazas, squares, parks, and open spaces.” Metrotown is to become a classic downtown core in a suburban city of 240,000 that has lacked a focus until now.

The July 2017 plan replaces a 1977 document that, visually at least, had a creepy, adopted-by-aliens vibe. The old plan facilitated the growth of the Metrotown shopping complex, Canada’s second-largest indoor shopping centre, along with a surrounding ring of apartment towers. The shopping centre is a busy place with an enormous variety of services, but it shows blank facades to the outside world. As I pointed out after my 2012 visit, the streets and concrete plazas around the mall lack life and colour.

Addressing this lack of urban character is a big part of what the new plan is about. The City wants more streetfront retail in Metrotown, better connections for pedestrians and cyclists, and more attractive public space. After some well-deserved criticism for its approach to rental and affordable housing issues, the City states in the plan that it will welcome rental housing anywhere in Metrotown, and offer incentives for the development of non-market housing:

“All sites with a residential designation, including applicable mixed-use sites, have the potential to include nonmarket housing, which is inclusive of non-market rental housing (public housing, non-profit rental housing, and cooperative housing), housing with supports (community care facilities, assisted living, and supportive housing), and transitional housing.  (co-op, non-profit or government-sponsored).”

A detail from the 2017 Metrotown plan. The dotted streets in Metro Downtown show what might happen if today’s indoor malls are removed.

The area described in the 2017 plan goes well beyond the big shopping centres, running east to Royal Oak, west to the City of Vancouver boundary, and taking in the kilometre-square Central Park. This Metrotown district houses an estimated 27,700 people, 62 per cent of them immigrants. The new plan contemplates the addition of high-density housing in the new downtown as well as in Maywood, on top of improvements that will bring culture, education, social services and tourism interest to the new Burnaby downtown.

My co-tourist Bob Smarz and I started our walk at the mall, spiralled south through Maywood and along the edge of Central Park to Central Park North. We returned along the Kingsway to lunch at the Firefighters Public House, which I have visited many times and always enjoy. The pub is owned by the International Association of Firefighters, and the servers receive the benefits of belonging to their own union.

Cafe umbrellas on the north side of Kingsway near Willingdon, August 2017

The Old Orchard Mall on Kingsway has valuable and accessible services as well as a valuable swath of pavement. The City plan fingers Old Orchard for redevelopment.

A 1950s duplex on Metrotown’s northern perimeter. 97 per cent of the households in the area live in apartments, 2 per cent in attached homes and 1 per cent in detached homes.


A landscaped 1970s apartment tower in the Central Park East precinct, a zone consisting entirely of high-rise apartments.

A pathway in Central Park, near Paterson Avenue

Holding for development on the north side of Kingsway near Paterson. Cash only please.

Maywood: as noted in a previous post, many walkup apartment buildings in this precinct are slated for demolition.

Firefighters Public House, just outside the mall

Winnipeg, summer 2017

By six p.m., they’ll be lined up 15 deep.

“I don’t think Winnipeg is underrated,” says my brother Brian. “I don’t think it’s rated at all.”

He moved here about 10 years ago after an extended time in Canada’s far north. He and his wife Lorraine (she grew up in Winnipeg) decided that living the south would be better for the kids. They traded a three-bedroom house on the permafrost for a five-bedroom house on a quiet, shady crescent, and they made money in the process. Continue reading

Pedaling on the Central Valley Greenway

Under the SkyTrain guideway just east of Rupert station, Vancouver.

It would be nice, perhaps, if cycling was the dominant mode of transportation in our West Coast urban world. We’ll never know. In reality, most people cringe at the idea of riding side-by-side with cars and trucks.

Winston Street through industrial Burnaby, 11:30 a.m. Saturday

When I told a 60-something friend about my plan to pedal across Vancouver and Burnaby for fun, she said, “That’s dangerous!” I said, “No, we’ll be riding an off-road trail. Local governments built a safe route from downtown Vancouver to New West.” Continue reading

The Lower Mainland’s “best places”, crime and taxes

Oak Bay, British Columbia, rated #3 in the 2017 “best places in Canada” rankings

Our 2015 review of the “best places to live in Canada” rankings from has consistently been our most-visited page.

The rankings, now updated for 2017, emerge from a complicated formula that combines weather, local employment and incomes, crime rates, tax rates and much else. Continue reading

A development surge in Vancouver’s River District

The River District, in Vancouver’s extreme southeast corner, offers a quiet riverside walk, lunch at a good pub restaurant overlooking the water, and a feeling of imminent transformation.

The area was identified for conversion from industrial to residential use at least as early as 2004. At that time, residential development was already proceeding in a former industrial area to the west, in a two-block-wide band between Marine Drive and the Fraser River. Continue reading

Home ownership in the Lower Mainland: a diminishing prospect

Central Pitt Meadows, 2017

A report on housing from VanCity, a member-owned financial institution, finds a continuing decline in housing affordability in the B.C. Lower Mainland.

Home ownership costs are rising across the region as buyers look beyond the City of Vancouver. In the background, the report suggests that home ownership is a lost cause for an increasing number of British Columbians. Continue reading