This will be a series of posts on how we design our neighborhoods and whether this design is friendly to urban life. It is inspired by a book recently read: Pocket Neighborhoods, by Ross Chapin. You can get it from your bookmonger or reserve it at the OPL.
Three neighborhood styles
From 1900 to the 1950’s most agglomerations of housing in Ottawa were built in rows along public streets. As time went on, the set back of the house from the street grew larger, oft as a City requirement. In 1900-1940 neighborhoods such as the west side neighborhood I live in, the set backs are shallow, six to ten feet. Commonly built on 30’x100′ lots, these houses are typically narrow-front to the street with a side driveway for parking, and maybe a backyard garage. Singles and row houses are intermixed in a fine pattern, and occasional apartment buildings sit comfortably along the block.
By the 40’s, these narrow lot homes are found intermixed with wider lot “square” homes that look more substantial. Still, the garages are subservient, the principle windows face the public street, which take on an element of shared space (“our street”) with concern about what goes on. Unfortunately arranged in a grid pattern, the through streets are easily abused by maze-running commuters, too often directed to do so by our own city traffic engineers.
My grandmother moved from her Bronson Avenue home in ’59 because of the road widenings, dirt, and noise. The City fathers were clearly favouring suburban commuters over city residents. The neighbours were moving away, fleeing really. They moved to Champlain Park, then mostly small houses and converted cottages, where the streets were quieter and houses still had gardens.
Post World War II the lots got even wider, the set backs deeper. But many of the same features remain from the first half of the century, just at a lower density. Concomitantly, streets got busier with faster vehicles; and playing on the street becomes less safe, less acceptable. We see street life atrophying. When streets are repaved, they tend to look wider, flatter, overlit … with a further decay in street life.
Since the 70’s, North American neighborhood planning focuses on privacy: houses have garages (often protruding) at the front, and maybe a formal parlor/living room window, but seldom principle spaces. There is nothing to see out front as the street is large, the driveways frequent, and all asphalt spaces have an abundance of vehicles. Living areas and windows face the rear, usually fenced yard. Privacy is ensured, just as informal interaction with neighbours is inadvertently discouraged by the design. Basement or ground floor rec rooms become the focus of family life. The street is merely for coming and going by car, as there is usually no place within walking distance, and sidewalks are rare. All activity is focussed on coming and going by car.
Streets take up a lot of space, which raises house prices. Developers more and more often now favour private streets. Usually townhouses are arranged in cul-de-sac clusters. Their fronts, along a private shared street, are all garage doors. People can come and go for years and never know anyone, even though they “share” space and have a condo corporation as an interaction mechanism.
I have a gregarious friend that lives at Centrepoint in such a cluster, for 25 years, and knows only one person, by the first name only. She doesn’t even know anyone well enough to take in her paper if she is away. She wouldn’t recognize a neighbor, they come and go from house to garage via internal doors, then in cars and minivans with tinted windows. While there are some kids around, she doesn’t know their names, which houses they belong to, or anything else about them. The townhouse cluster abuts Centrepoint park, but is separated from it by a chain link fence, no gate, to prevent “others” from cutting through their private street to get to the park, and incidentally closing it off the residents too. It is totally anonymous living. The “public” side of the house is a garage door, a solid front door, a frosted bathroom window facing onto a shallow, useless-except-as-decoration “front porch”. A stoop, really.
While scads of contemporary housing follows the basic model of street / service side of house / house facing to the rear yard, there are exceptions. West Village off Lanark is higher density cluster mostly of semi’s and towns, tightly arranged on a private street, but with house exteriors well detailed and attractive to buyers that could easily have afforded to live elsewhere. I cycle through it often, as it has a path connection to Loblaws. There are always kids out playing on the street; it doesn’t feel weird if I stop to compliment someone on their front garden. Making eye contact is easy.
I am aware of a very similar development in a much more western suburb. It also produced houses at a much lower price point. Gone are all the exterior details, replaced by uniform facades of white siding. It looks bleak and crowded. Householders feel free to creep their driveways wider and wider to squeeze in that extra car. Gardens are non-existant; there is only grass between the driveways because the builder sodded the space. There were kids playing in their street, but it felt more like playing in a parking lot. When a jacked-up pickup truck with black windows went by it didn’t slow down.
It’s not my intent to provide a comprehensive catalogue of neighborhood types. And there are always exceptional spots. In the next few stories I intend to wander my way through some self-reflection on how these basic housing types influence the degree of interaction, the “friendliness” of a neighborhood. Come along for the tour.