Smaller Homes, Smaller Lots

Written for a Langara College project in collaboration with City Studio, Vancouver, BC

People drive smaller cars nowadays to conserve resources.  According to the Higgins family of Delta, BC, we need to employ the same strategy when it comes to land and housing.

“Using residential land more efficiently, while still providing affordable, ground-oriented living, must become a priority, especially in Metro Vancouver,” says lawyer Kathleen Higgins.

“Organic and gentle densification has to occur without huge development fees, so that people with large lots who want to live in a smaller footprint, and make room for one or two other home owners, can easily do so.”

Kathleen has seen two of her seven children move away because they couldn’t afford to buy property in Delta.  According to an April 2010 report from the Delta Housing Task Force, a whopping annual household income of $113,000 is now required to purchase a single family home in Delta.  The situation is the same across the province, where real estate prices have risen 149 percent since 1976, as stated in this recent article in the Vancouver Sun.

“When the time comes for me to start a family, I want to be able to own a house,” says Kathleen’s second son James.

But the prospect does not look good.  In the November 2011 issue of Vancouver Magazine,Tyee Bridge reports extensively on how the housing shortage is forcing an entire generation of young adults to move out of the Lower Mainland, or even out of province — or stay in Vancouver and resign themselves to being permanent renters instead of homeowners.

One solution, the Higgins believe, is “Smaller Homes on Smaller Lots.”  Together with his father, John, who has a masters degree in architecture, James, a student of architectural technology and building science, has worked out a plan to turn their property into three smaller dwellings, each on its own lot.

John and James have created a short Youtube video to explain the plan in detail.  Their design provides for south-facing windows to take full advantage of solar heat, rooftop solar collectors, and rainwater collector systems.  One unit is designed specifically for seniors, with wheelchair access and a low-maintenance courtyard in lieu of a garden.

If more people could once again afford to live on their own property in or near urban centres, the advantages would not just be economic but environmental and social as well. Fewer people would clog up the highways trying to get to work from outlying areas. Communities of permanent homeowners, rather than permanent renters, will prove to be healthier and more stable in the long run.  Aging neighbourhoods would be revived by young families living in intelligently designed homes. And BC’s young workforce, our most valuable resource, would be able to stay in this province instead of taking their skills elsewhere.

“But first people need to see that it is possible,” says James, “and that there is more than one solution. This is only one idea – imagine what more other people could do.”

Nazanin Afshin-Jam uses beauty for a purpose


An international human rights activist, singer/songwriter, actor, former Miss World Canada, President and co-founder of the Stop Child Executions organization, Nazanin Afshin-Jam was born in Iran in 1979, the same year that the Shāh Pahlavi was exiled and the Ayatollah Khomeini came into power. At the time, Nazanin’s father was manager of the Sheraton Hotel in Tehran. In 1981, he was sentenced to death simply for conducting business as usual at the hotel, which was contrary to the Ayatollah’s oppressive theocratic and anti-Western regime.

Providentially, however, the man sent to carry out her father’s sentence got involved in a car accident, which bought her mother enough time to get her father out of the country and safely to Spain. Nazanin and her mother were able to join him shortly thereafter, and eventually the family settled in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada.

Even as a child, Nazanin says she never took freedom for granted. From an early age she also possessed a deep empathy for other people’s pain.

Once, after volunteering at a soup kitchen, Nazanin says she cried herself to sleep, overwhelmed by a sense of helplessness, unable to understand why some of the people in her affluent neighbourhood had four cars while others didn’t even have enough to eat.

It was in high school, Nazanin says, when she started to see that individuals can make a real difference. She formed a global issues club at her school, and went on to study International Relations and Political Science at the University of British Columbia, and later at the Sciences Po in Paris and at the International Study Center Herstmonceux Castle in England.

After graduation Nazanin worked as a Red Cross Global Youth Educator on the landmine crisis and children affected by war. However, she soon decided that she wanted to reach more than one “pocket of people” at a time. Observing that celebrities and sports stars wield more influence than politicians in today’s world, she decided it was time to “get a title” for herself.

The Miss World competition, whose motto is precisely “Beauty with a purpose”, seemed the most logical place for her to get recognized.

“At first, I resisted the idea of becoming part of the whole beauty pageant culture,” Nazanin admits. “But then I realized that beauty doesn’t have to be a dirty word. It is one of God’s blessings that can be used to advance humanity.” She also points out that the Miss World competition is not about finding the most beautiful woman, but the most well-rounded.

Nazanin won the title of Miss Canada in 2003 and went on to compete for the Miss World title in Sanya, China. She finished second after Miss Ireland, Rosanna Davison.

Winning second place in the Miss World competition gave Nazanin the platform she had been seeking to start promoting global issues. She traveled to various trouble spots around the world, helping victims of the tsunami in India and Sri Lanka, raising funds for the earthquake victims of Bam, and supporting fistula patients in Ethiopia, just to name a few.

Another of Nazanin’s gifts is a talent for singing and songwriting. “Music has no borders,” she says. “So I started setting some of my poems to music.”

While recording her debut album, Nazanin learned of a seventeen year old Iranian girl, also named Nazanin, who had been sentenced to death by hanging for killing a man in self-defense. Nazanin immediately started lobbying to save this girl’s life. A petition of more than three hundred thousand signatures led the United Nations to put pressure on the Iranian government to grant a stay of execution. Nazanin Fatehi was eventually exhonerated of murder charges and was released on January 31, 2007.

While working to save her namesake, Nazanin discovered that no organization yet existed to lobby against child executions, a practice contrary to international law but still done in a handful of countries. This led her to found Stop Child Executions, which lobbies world governments to put pressure on those countries where minors can still be sentenced and put to death.

“Activism can come in many different forms,” Afshin-Jam says. “You don’t have to be a politician or a hippie to change the world and work for peace.”

We should also be careful to avoid stereotypes and not let other people’s opinions or actions dictate our own behaviour, she says. As an example, she brings up the recent controversy over the provocative Miss USA photos. “Those photos were the idea of (owner) Donald Trump,” Nazanin says. “They profit nobody but him.

“What you wear should be a reflection of what’s inside. It shouldn’t be anybody’s choice but yours.”

When asked about her biggest challenges and fears, and how she overcomes them, Nazanin says, “My biggest challenge has been people telling me I couldn’t. What helps me overcome this is the encouragement and love of my family, especially my mother.” She urges all mothers to support their daughters and foster their talents. “As for overcoming fear, I just think of the courage of the people being oppressed in Iran. If I don’t stand up, the person next to me won’t stand up.” She says this thought spurs her to take action instead of giving in to a defeatist attitude.

Nazanin has this advice for educators who want to help students become aware of world issues: “Help them make connections with young people in other countries. Use technology: the internet, social media, Skype, you name it. Make cross cultural exchange part of the curriculum.”

A young girl asks Nazanin wistfully, “When you were younger, did you know you were going to do all these things?”

This is Nazanin’s reply to her and to young women everywhere: “I honestly didn’t know I was going to be Miss Canada, travel around the world and form a group called Stop Child Executions. After volunteering at that soup kitchen, I just knew I wanted to help people for the rest of my life. But I have strong faith in God and pray a lot for guidance. I believe that he has guided me all along. So if you have a dream, make it a goal. I think that when you are doing something you are passionate about, you are always led to the next step.”

My conversation with an Olympic athlete

I will never cease to be amazed by the wonders of modern technology, which has put me in contact with so many friends, both old and new. I connected with Katya Antaniuk via research on the internet, then email, and finally a conversation on Skype. She is an amazing woman with an incredible story.


Imagine a place covered with snow for eight months of the year, and you’ll have the Russia of Katya Antaniuk’s childhood. “I was five years old when I first put on skis,” she says. “At ten, I started to train in cross-country skiing.”

She became a member of the regional team and participated in various competitions, at the local and then at the national level. After high school she was offered the chance to either join the Russian national ski team, or to study elsewhere. Antaniuk opted to go to university in Belarus, and joined the national team there.

It was about this time, when life was going very well for her and she thought she didn’t need anything else, that Antaniuk had her first encounter with the Bible.

“I visited another skier, and saw that she had a Bible. Coming from a Communist background, I had never seen one before. We were taught in school that the Bible contained only myths. She offered to lend it me. I was skeptical, so I said no.”

After about a year, she started to train with the same girl. “I visited her at Christmas, and she invited me to church. I was surprised to find that there were more than just old ladies…there were all kinds of people. Men, women, children. Young people. And they didn’t look crazy. They looked normal.”

She agreed to attend a Bible study. “It was very strange at first to hear all this talk about Jesus. There were many people, and I was straining to hear the pastor. The next time, I came early. I listened, and I started to realize that the Bible is not something out of this world. It’s a story about people who existed here on earth, and about a God who is real.

“It was so touching to me, this new discovery. I started to read the Bible and other books. I had no chance to go to church – the team was travelling all the time – so it was just me and the Bible, and God leading me. My life, my priorities started to change. I started to see the world from a different perspective.”

The Bible opened her not only to God, but also to history, archaeology, and other cultures and languages. “When you are in sports, you need to stay so focused on one area, with no time to explore other things,” she notes. “Reading the Bible inspired me to learn and study more.” In addition to her degree in physical education, Antaniuk did a major in English and a minor in religion at a theological seminary. Later she completed a Master of Arts in theology at a Christian college in England.

A special moment for Antaniuk during the 2002 Nagano Olympics was encountering the world of sports ministry. For her, it was another first.

“I didn’t know that sports chaplains existed. Some teams, like the Americans, even bring their own chaplains,” she says, noting that the care of a ‘spiritual coach’ is just as important and necessary as that of a medical doctor or physical trainer. “For the first time I saw that it was possible to combine my athletic abilities with my faith.”

When the Olympics came to Turin in 2006, Antaniuk was there as a sports chaplain. 2010 will find her in Vancouver, not to compete, but to minister and counsel as she did in Turin, as part of a multilingual pastoral team at the service of all the athletes.

Being a sports chaplain is an experience Antaniuk says she finds very rewarding and fulfilling. “I can help the other athletes because I understand them, I can speak their language, and I know the pressures and difficulties they are going through, so I can share their worries. I help them to trust, and to pray.

“And when things are going well, success can open another door to have a conversation with athletes,” she notes. “I congratulate them, tell them I’m happy for them, that I prayed for them.”

One other thing Antaniuk will be praying for during this Olympiad is the weather. “I visited in Vancouver three years ago, and it rained all the time!” she says with a laugh. A nice balance of sun and snow? Amen to that.