Posts Tagged ‘New Urbanism’

When I blog I try not to post simply a link. But tonight I came upon an article in the New York Times that is a great piece to accompany my take on Oak Park, the new urbanism suburb in north Oakville, Ontario.

A few years ago, my wife and I visited a small, mountain town above Nice, in Provence, which was completely free of cars. Founded in the middle ages, the streets were made for walking and only walking. They were narrow, twisty and even had a couple of steps now and then. Not even a Smart Car could invade that space.

But the residents still had cars; They parked them below the town in a large, communal garage. They also had bikes because the next town over was just a few kilometres, and a few minutes by bike but fifty kilometres and the better part of an hour by the switchback-plagued highway route.

Vauban Trolley

Vauban Trolley

Now, it’s not just the old towns in Europe that are car-free. Vauban, Germany, completed in 2006, like the little town in Provence, has large garages at the edge of the development, for cars.

Click on my NYT’s link and read the story or click on the picture to read the ABC News take on Vauban. While you’re reading, think about the importance of the MSM. We’ve got to work out a way to save the media, especially newspapers. Without the media, lots of bloggers wouldn’t have links; Without links, they wouldn’t have a blog.


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Cities are my favourite places to live. Small towns are nice to visit but I wouldn’t want to live there.

As a boy, I loved Detroit. If my friends and I wanted to visit an amusement park, we didn’t have to wait for the fall fair like the kids in small towns. We’d simply visit Edgewater Park in Detroit, and it was cheap. As the radio jingle said, pay one price and ride all day. What a deal! And, you didn’t need a car to get there. We took buses.

As I got older, I discovered Toronto. Another great city. We’d drive to a  friend’s in the westend, leave the car, and take the subway downtown. We’d shop all day, hitting Eaton’s, Sam the Record Man’s, Honest Ed’s and Robert Simpson’s. For dinner we’d head to Chinatown near city hall or take a quick subway ride to Greektown on Danforth.

At night, we went to the Hawk’s Nest, where we had memberships. This was the teen night club owned by Ronnie Hawkins, the famous transplanted Arkansas hillbilly rocker. When Hawkins played the Victoria Park bandshell in London, Ontario, on New Year’s Eve some years ago, it brought back fine memories.

Ljubljana-capital of Slovenia

Ljubljana-capital of Slovenia

As an adult I have come to love New York, Chicago, SanFrancisco, Paris, Rome and even smaller places like Ljubljana, the capital of Slovenia, and Tunis the capital of Tunisia. I have a hole in my heart left by the collapse of that once wonderful city Detroit.

When I read about the New Urbanism movement, I confess it left me cold. Who, in their right mind, wants to recreate small town living?

Well Sunday I visited Oak Park – a new urbanism community – on the northern edge of Oakville, Ontario. I have something to report: who wants to recreate small town living? Answer: not the new urbanists. Sadly, they are not recreating big city living either. It’s welcome to suburbia tight.

I had read a great deal about Oak Park, most of it good. It was a wonderful example of new urbanism in practice, or so I was told. I read in the Toronto papers how the famous Andres Duany even had a hand in the project.

I thought I would find a beautiful place to live, a suburban development with a Walt-Disney-Recalls-Small-Towns feel. I thought it would be hard to find fault with it, other than to grumble that hundreds of acres of valuable farmland were now buried under roadways, sidewalks and housing. I look to New York, Paris or Ljubljana for my urban inspiration and not to Essex or Exeter.

A garage facing the street?

A garage facing the street?

I was wrong. My first clue that all was not right was the sight of a garage door at the end of what appeared to be a street. This should not be, I thought, in a new urbanism development all garages are banished to laneways behind the homes.

I walked up for a look. The road bent sharply right, becoming an alley lined with garage doors.

An Oak Park alley viewed from a townhouse porch.

An Oak Park alley viewed from a townhouse porch.

I stood on one of the townhouse porches and took the above photo. This view was such a surprise. I intensely dislike the look of a street lined with garage-forward houses. I thought the new urbanists and I were on the same page when it came to this. Obviously not. This view simply should not exist – not from a front door or a back door.

Alleys are not liked by all.

Alleys are not liked by all.

My boyhood home in Windsor, Ontario, had an alley. Generally, we kept out of the alleys. Today, those alleys gone. The city found them expensive, dirty and dangerous. Whether or not Oak Park will eventually feel this way, time will tell.

I would like to get back to Oak Park after a major snowfall. How do they plow these narrow alleys? Where do they push the snow? They look like land gobblers and money munchers to me.

To be fair, many of the homes do look good when viewed from the front.

Semi-detached and single family units, most with porches, are intermixed.

Semi-detached and single family units, most with porches, are intermixed.

Peeling paint on a high maintenance porch.

Peeling paint on a high maintenance porch.

On the other hand, there’s lots of vinyl siding, lots of crude, factory-painted aluminum sheets, and lots of silly, fake shutters – a genuine suburban cliche. My suburban home in London, Ont., has them. My next-door-neighbour wisely removed his, improving  the look of his home immediately.

Where do the residents of this ideal community walk to shop? They don’t. Walk that is. They drive, and they drive to the stores familiar to all suburbanites – Walmart, Loblaws Superstore, and big box stores surrounded by acres of  blacktop.

This mall won't kill a downtown. Oak Park doesn't have one.

This mall won't kill a downtown. Oak Park doesn't have one.

When it comes to shopping I’m a mallrat. I want my developer to put out some money for a sunlight-bright, cool in the summer, warm in the winter modern mall. I stopped trudging through slushy, salt-laden snow to hike from store to store back in the ’60s.

Welcome to your new urbanism Walmart.

Welcome to your new urbanism Walmart.

I do like to walk and when I do it’s to my small, neighbourhood library or to one of the family-owned restaurants in my neighbourhood. Sorry Keg, the restaurant of choice in Oak Park, but I don’t eat at big chain eateries. My subdivision offers a number of nice, inexpensive, family-owned restaurants. Why is no one writing articles about my neighbourhood?

Oak Park? Well, to quote one resident who said, when asked about the new urbanist approach to dense housing, “It sucks.”

And, on second thought, maybe someone should tell Andre about Exeter. It’s cool.

For a real small town experience, try a real small town like Exter, Ontario.

For a real small town experience, try a real small town like Exeter, Ontario.

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Please note there have been two good comments added to my previous post on new urbanism.

One comment contained a link to a New York Times article on shrinking cities. Planned shrinkage “is moving from an idea to a fact,” said Karina Pallagst, director of the Shrinking Cities in a Global Perspective Program at the University of California, Berkeley. For confirmation, look no farther than the communities of Indianapolis and Little Rock.

Other cities, like Flint, Michigan, do not have a choice. Community leaders in Flint are talking about demolishing entire blocks and even whole neighbourhoods. (Read the article in the NY Times.)


The other comment was a recommendation of Last Harvest, a book by Witold Rybczynski, an architect and professor at the University of Pennsylvania School of Design. The London, Ontario, library system has three copies. (I borrowed one.) The title, Last Harvest, refers to the last cash crop a farmer harvests from his land: the cash reaped from the sale of the land to a developer.


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The home icon marks the location of my childhood home, situated in what was a walker's paradise in the '50s.

The home icon marks the location of my childhood home, situated in what was a walker's paradise in the '50s.

Buzzword of the day: New Urbanism

New Urbanism is the buzzword used today to promote suburban sprawl. I don’t mean to imply that New Urbanism doesn’t contain some fine ideas; it does. (Click on the link and read the background article.) New Urbanism becomes an odious buzzword when used to champion suburban development sprawling over valuable land such as the Class 1 farmland that makes up so much of southern Ontario – fully half of the the very best farmland in Canada is found in southern Ontario. This land is irreplaceable.

Right from the start, let’s make one thing clear. I consider urban sprawl to be the expansion of the urban landscape over the adjacent farmland. Period. I don’t care if it is a controlled, carefully planned expansion or even a compact development following the New Urbanism model – controlled sprawl, planned sprawl, New Urbanism sprawl. It is all sprawl.

Each day it’s conservatively estimated more than a square kilometer of Canada’s most dependable agricultural land – Classes 1, 2, and 3 – is lost to urbanization.

I was raised in a Windsor, Ontario, neighbourhood built immediately after the Second World War. Amazingly, it followed many of the strictures of New Urbanism. This was done before the term had even been coined. The homes, all with small porches, were built on streets laid out in a perfect grid – no courts, places or crescents here. The garage-forward look had not yet been invented and therefore not one garage fronted a street. And the neighbourhood had alleyways, another touch from the New Urbanism approach.

It was, as they say today, a walker’s paradise with four grocery stores – all complete with a butcher’s counter – and all within walking distance of our home, three drugstores, one public library, five churches, clothing stores, at least five restaurants, a corner bar, two banks, two dry cleaners, a five and dime, two or three public schools – depending upon where you drew the neighbourhood boundaries – and a beautiful high school complete with an indoor pool. Above many of the stores, there were apartments.

I never saw a school bus in my neighbourhood. School buses were for kids living on family farms out in the county. I walked to school – first public school and then high school.

Being a city kid didn’t mean I didn’t have open spaces – I did. There were parks both large and small. One, near my home, was Optimist-Memorial Park – almost 52 acres of parkland fitted comfortably into the city.

It  had the usual swings and slides plus a cone-shaped, push-powered, merry-go-round, and a large circular wading pool. In winter there was a large, outdoor rink. With cooling pipes in the concrete pad, the rink was open all winter. One end of the immense park held a magnificent stand of towering, historic oaks plus enough other tree species to fill a small nature book.

Then there was Lansdowne Park with its full-sized pool, large gazebo for summer concerts and acres of open space for baseball and soccer. And then there was the Park Theatre, a bit of a walk but as kids we didn’t mind, and, and, and . . . you get the idea. It was a rich, diverse neighbourhood offering everything within strolling distance.

Now, the odd thing about my New-Urbanism- before-its-time neighbourhood is that it’s gone. It didn’t last four decades. It died gradually, naturally, year by year. Almost all the stores closed, one by one, as the residents shopped more and more at a mall but a short drive away. The three family-owned drugstores closed and a large chain outlet took their place. All the grocery stores closed, even the one that offered free delivery. Service did not translate into sales.

The alleyways, where possible, were abandoned, closed, and the land divided  among the adjacent homeowners. The city contended alleys were too expensive to maintain and I understand a bylaw was passed forbidding future alleyways.

Today, my hometown flirts with the idea of erecting a New Urbanist community smack dab in the middle of some of the best farmland in Canada. So far, the town has stopped at the flirting stage but this has not stopped the suburban expansion and the resultant land loss. The town is sprawling. It seems unstoppable.

People have a single-family dwelling mindset; a mindset that can only be satisfied by sprawl, be it New Urbanist or post-war curvilinear sprawl.

My old neighbourhood was built as part of the Canadian government’s Wartime Housing initiative of the ’40s. The homes were  built simply, cheaply, and their demolition today is worth consideration. A better location for building housing today is in the same place housing was built yesterday. This time let’s use creative architects with imaginative designs to build for both increased density and improved quality.

Marina City towers in Chicago are in a Walker's Paradise.

Marina City towers in Chicago are in a Walker's Paradise.

Using Walk Score my nephew, an architect, assessed his neighbourhood. He lives some sixty  floors above Chicago. His neighbourhood score – 100 out of 100 – a Walker’s Paradise. And all without a porch, an alley-fronting garage, or small front yard in sight.

Image by Sugarmonster


It must be noted that since the Wartime Housing homes in my blog were constructed in the late ’40s many have been lovingly renovated by their owners. The nailheads, hammer marks and joint-tape have all been plastered over and sanded smooth. Many a kitchen has been remodelled, a small porch rebuilt, improvements abound. I would be open to the argument that these homes should not be demolished. Fine.

But, something in our cities may have to come down in order to make room for something else to go up. If not, we will be forced to live with sprawl.

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This will be another continuing topic – new urbanism. But, as to-day is Saturday, I will not be blogging. Hey, I have a wife with whom to do stuff on the weekends.

So, I will leave this with you and get back to this topic at a later date.

The other day I saw retweet of a Richard Florida, author of The Rise of the Creative Class, tweet in which he tweets about a website called Walk Score. He tweeted that this was “a cool tool . . . ”

I tried it out. It works for neighbourhoods in Canada as well as the States, so I plugged in my neighbourhood. It scored car dependent.

Then, just for fun, I went on Google Maps and found a couple of addresses. One was in the new urbanist subdivision Cornell in Markham, Ontario, and the other in the famous new urbanist community of Seaside in Florida. I ran these through Walk Score and both were judged car dependent.

I have decided that Florida is right. Walk Score is cool.

Have a good weekend,
Rockin’ On

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Kadie Ward, Director of Marketing & Communications at the London Chamber of Commerce, writes in today’s The London Free Press about the city’s new placemaking initiative. Placemaking? Oh, it’s another buzzword of New Urbanism – a buzzword all on its own.

She tells us the city has discovered that high-quality public spaces, variety, diversity, and distinct character are the important elements to building a successful community.

Wow! Did the city pay for this eureka moment?

Don’t get me wrong. I am not advocating poor-quality public spaces, lack of diversity and yadda yadda yadda. What riles me is the way concepts like placemaking quickly become an us against them concept. Ward writes, “older neighbourhoods, like the core, optimize these traits . . .”

But she cannot stop there. She must take the mandatory swipe at the suburbs – and this is where I get my back up. I lived in downtown London – I lived there for more than a decade. I now live in Byron, in the newer part of the southwest London suburb.

I can assure Ward that I became more of a walk-a-billy, not less of one, with my move to Byron. When I need groceries, I walk to the A&P. When I needed snow tires, I left my car at the shop for the day and walked home. When I met a friend for lunch recently, I walked to the Cafe Milagros. Wine? Beer? I walk.

I have not one but two library branches within walking distance of my Byron home – and yes, I do walk to them. A month ago, I put on my ski mask and ski gloves, pulled my toque down over my ears and walked to the library.

Speaking of skiing – there is a ski hill within walking distance of my home. If tobogganing or sledding is more your style, take my toboggan and walk across my court – more on that later. One of the best sledding hills in London is right at my door.

Now, the court – despised in so much anti-suburbia writing – the court in front of my home has been a mind-expander for me. When I
moved here, I would have said it was a silly thing to have in front of one’s home.

Now, I see it as similar to the neighbourhood piazzas I enjoyed so much on my visits to Italy. My wife and I love to sit on our very small, simple concrete porch to enjoy a couple of capacinos with homemade biscotti while taking pleasure from the sights and sounds of the neighbourhood children playing in the court.

If Kadie Ward should happen to read this, please don’t get your knickers in a knot. This is not a defence of suburbia. Suburban development could be better. You will get no argument from me. But, please don’t fling New Urbanist suburban myths about and expect everyone to accept these on face value. I am sure downtown is becoming a more exciting community but there is no need to tear down my London in order to write about yours.

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