Making Neighborhoods Friendly (i)

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.

west village, narow streets plus detailed exteriors makes for an intimate space

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.

guest parking is clustered rather than along the street


10 thoughts on “Making Neighborhoods Friendly (i)

  1. Great article! I’m always excited when I wake up to an email letting me know you’ve posted something new and I really look forward to the rest of this series. =)

  2. Excellent start, Eric, to a conversation about the quality of our urban environment and how design is such a critical factor in creating healthy communities. As a resident of West Village, I can attest to your perceptions. I personally know all my neighbours in my multi-unit row and most of those who live across the street. The ‘pattern language’ (Google that phrase) of West Village’s design facilitates easy and regular neighbourly interactions (Admittedly less so when cooped-up in the winter) and fosters a sense of belonging to a community. I hope your series generates interest among those who occupy positions of influence on this matter (developers/ builders, architects, City staff & politicians), leading to enhanced awareness of what works, thereby improving our communities through good urban design. A community debate on this issue is long overdue — we have to stop making the same mistakes over and over again.

  3. Could I request in this new series you delve into the community building aspect of apartment building design? I’m genuinely curious. What is the community spirit of an apartment style condominium like? More and more downtown development is high rise apartments. Is there any sense of community inside these new buildings or is it mostly like the car centric low rise development where people come and go through the car/garage door and never meet their neighbours.

  4. I don’t mind West Village Private’s internal appearance, as it has much going for it, but I don’t much like its relationship to its surroundings. The Scott Street side for instance remains a chainlink fence around a watery woodlot (now with a frequently-flooded path through it) when that frontage could have easily become a three-four storey urban streetwall rather than retaining its rural highway cross section. The entire development (like others across the Transitway at the foot of the Metropole and between Lanark and Clearview) is elevated several feet above the surrounding area so it looks something like a Friso-Dutch terp without the historical raison d’être. The pathway connections to Patricia and Kirkwood, while desirable in their existence, have a needlessly hemmed-in appearance due to the narrowness and the fencing/hedging – why couldn’t the adjacent houses present a front face to them? The entrance on Scott has a left turn lane – why? How much traffic could this development present (in particular straight-ahead traffic from Lanark opposite) that it needs a third lane?

    As townhouse infill goes, WVP is better than average but I rather prefer the infill development at the west end of Clearview near the Jules Léger Centre (ex Champlain HS) with its courtyard-like layout as being preferable to the others in the area with the townhouse development around the base of the Metropole being my least favourite – that one has way too much asphalt and lacks any real character.

  5. DFG: I will keep apartments in mind … I don’t live in one, and have only briefly, but I do have friends that do, and we talk …
    David: I like to give some exemplars in my stories as they make them more real and less abstract, but this is always at the risk of over-generalizing something, hearing someone say “yes, but” or “not in ….”. I dont want to get going into the merits of WVP or other specific neighborhoods. I do want to get into what makes neighborhoods friendly.
    I really like imaging what that little pathway could look like if it had been the focus of attention rather than an alleyway between houses.
    I dunno what a frisco-dutch terp is.
    Developers have to do what they need to do to get approval to build. I vaguely recall that much of the WVP site was wooded, and leaving a band of trees along Scott is their parkland contribution. It makes a decent buffer for the houses from Scott and a nice treehouse view from the 2nd floor balconies. Yup, it does create a somewhat bizarre landscape along Scott.
    Scott is always doomed to be done in little pieces, there is never any planning done for the length of it. Bikewest was my attempt to get us looking at the cycling aspect of it, and while new cycling facilities are coming, the city doesn’t want a PAC on it or any input untill after all the major decisions have been made, and the driver there is the OLRT.
    City Watcher: I am always a bit baffled why WVP works so well, when planning theory tells us the walls of garage doors and focus on the street shouldn’t. The next posts will explore this more…

    1. A terp is village built atop a usually artificial mound to keep them high and dry during flooding and are found in the low-lying and historically Frisian-speaking parts of the Netherlands, hence “Friso-Dutch” (the word “terp” is of Frisian origin and used to mean just plain “village” like English “thorpe” and Dutch “dorp” but since most Frisian villages were built on mounds, the word came to have a more specific meaning). So WVP looks vaguely like a terp.

      I think I would have kept a portion of the woodlot within the development itself and made it the central focus (yes, “think of the children!”) rather than keeping a band of woodlot as something to buffer Scott.

      I understand what you’re getting at in looking at the internals of what makes a neighbourhood friendly, but at the same time it would have to be admitted that, from the outside, WVP is rather unwelcoming.

      As to why it does work, I’m going to go with:
      (1) Narrow streets, much narrower than the City allows for its own streets. Interestingly, no sidewalks, so the woonerf theory is working here – except at the entrance on Scott where I think the lack of sidewalks is a problem.
      (2) Three storey housing in which the garage does not dominate the façade and in which the third storey helps to make the street a more “intimate” place – I suspect that if it were only two storeys, the garage would be the dominating feature (i.e. ~40% of the façade vs ~25-30% on three storeys) of each dwelling and consequently the street.
      (3) Good architecture and landscaping (i.e. little or no vinyl, minimal grass, good numbers of trees).

  6. We live in an area that was developed in the 1960’s and it carries many of the same ideas of the 40’s & 50’s but the lots tend to be 50×100.

    Having lived in apartments, co-ops, condo townhomes and now this “urban surburban” area, I can say the community is built by the desire of people to get to know their neighbors. We have always known who lives next door, but have also always made a point of doing it. Sometimes it is easier and sometimes more challenging. The design of the houses and area does carry some part to it, but so does the will and desire of people living there.

  7. Eric: Here’s a few thoughts as to why WVP works despite the “walls of garage doors” syndrome. First, it’s a matter of spatial dimensions. WVP is a private road much narrower than normal City road allowances. With facing homes much closer to each other, you get to see/ encounter your neighbour on a more regular, close-up basis. One can easily chat across the street in a normal conversational tone without having to shout.
    Secondly, each home has only one, relatively small garage. It appears most residents park outside in their driveway; their garage used for other purposes (second vehicle… more likely stuff storage).
    Thirdly, WVP is in the midst of a walkable/ bikeable community so residents opt to drive less.
    Together, these factors result in a high degree of regular, yet random social interaction.

  8. I will put forth a different idea, just as in idea – what about the phased public/private space that WV promotes. So you move from public into private gradually rather than abruptly.

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