In the first part of this story, last week, I divided existing neighborhoods into several broad types. Within them, there are some places that promote neighborliness, and some that don’t. While there are many causes, not least among them the nature of the individuals residing there, the shape of the buildings and how they relate to the street is a key factor. We need to build friendly neighborhoods.
A key factor is usable front space. I think pre-1945 neighbourhoods have this by virtue of their front verandahs. In that pre-central-air-conditioning era, hot humid weather encouraged moving outdoors. My house has both a front door verandah running across the house, and a smaller one upstairs off the main bedroom. It’s easy to sit out.
We used to use it more often than we do now. We find it gets dirtier, faster, than it used to. And we have an ever-expanding collection of blue bins and black bins fighting for space amongst the bin of road hockey sticks, the basketballs box, and the rocker. Back when the kids were younger we used it more often. Eating spaghetti dinner out front on rainy days. Bedtime reading in ‘jammies. But the main reason we use it less is central air makes it easy to stay indoors.
At Seaside, one of the early New Urban Towns built in the US, all the houses have front verandahs but they are conspicuously unused in the humid Florida heat. I have friends in a “Victorian-style” home here in Stittsville; they have chairs on their narrow front verandah, and confess they just can’t see what is supposed to be so attractive about sitting there. Honestly, I don’t either, unless one is constructing a taxonomy of vehicles. Right idea, poorly executed, in the wrong place.
The contemporary-style townhouses across the street from me have front verandahs in a raised-deck format, above the carports. But they are high above the street and it is difficult to talk to anyone there. The main street level view is the automobile derrieres. Their back yards are a maze of unpleasant private spaces fenced in tightly — the fences are up to 15 feet high (!!). So much potential, so little realized.
In the other direction, townhouses have front garden spaces between their garages or sheds and the house entrance. Many are dead space; some are gardens. A very very few have been turned into usable sitting out spaces. The six foot privacy fences between the gardens and the shared driveway might be a reason. After 30 years, some of these fences are rotting out; owners are taking them down and leaving them down. Some parallel private walkways previously separated by fences are being combined into tiny courtyard entries that are shared between two neighbors. Most people know a dozen neighbours by name, occupation, or habits, and a dozen more are recognized as living “over there”. There’s even a resident lunatic to greet warily.
These newly opened spaces reveal formal gardens for show, and open sight lines from the front windows to the shared space, but as yet no one has put out a proper front patio or deck where they can sit and read or have a coffee and chose to interact with people walking by.
And walking by is a key. You can’t have a conversation with a car scooting by on its way to being parked in its box. By time you see the car, recognize who is driving, the opportunity to greet has passed by. Once beyond the fences that separate the private from the common space, the shared courtyard/driveway, everyone but everyone keeps an apprehensive eye for cars since two of the kids out there are autistic (as is their therapy dog) and no one wants them pancaked. Shared purpose unites…
Conclusion: for those areas of the city where walking is still common, and car ownership less than universal (let alone multiple car ownership), there can be steps taken to design in friendliness (viz WestVillage Private) or modify existing street-focussed places to promote friendly neighbourhoods.
Further out from the core, and further set back from traditional main streets, the residential areas remain car-focussed. The sheer volume of traffic deters social interaction, unless the street is unusually intimate.
That of course is the appeal of the cul de sac. But when visiting friends in Centrepointe, the cul de sac still generates huge amounts of traffic, amounts that astound me as I watch the sidewalk-free street. Every house has two to five parking spaces (garage, often double; two cars in driveway, driveways always widened to intrude on side or front yards). The volume of traffic, coupled with the rear-facing houses, kills human interaction. Pedestrians are left to walk the street dodging parked cars and vehicles backing out of driveways. It doesn’t feel safe; and it isn’t. And it’s all within spitting distance of the Baseline Station.
In these suburban areas it will take a lot of effort to transform the built environment to be more friendly. For now, we may have to start from scratch. Some local builders are experimenting with neighbourhoods, where houses face a shared space. Minto built one such cluster in Orleans:
Cobourg, along the 401 to Toronto has another one worth “driving through”. But both of these separate the houses from the shared space by a local road, adding a strong sense of remove or barrier to accessing the space. I felt sceptical that Cobourg’s new urban neighbourhood would work. In contrast, this one in Ottawa does:
In Toronto, a very attractive higher-density infill project built in this format called Woodbine is a delight to walk through. The residents seem to be into competitive gardening. The back lanes, though, are ugly and any air photo reveals the huge spaces devoted to car movement and storage. I wonder if the combination of laneway garages and formal streets really promotes social interaction.
Particularly on the West Coast, some developers are working on pocket neighbourhoods wherein a small number of houses — 16-20 — share a common “front lawn”. Here the focus is on a non-street, that is a green space. Houses have parking clustered around the perimeter. Especially if there are large porches at the front, there becomes a hierarchy of social spaces: private indoor space, semi-private flexible verandah space, some private garden buffer, the sidewalk, then the shared space.
The most significant precedent for pocket neighborhoods was in Southern California. Called Bungalow Courts, they became popular in the early 1900’s. They had two “normal” houses facing the street, and eight or ten small bungalows behind. See pic. This made the courts inoffensive intensification projects that blended into the neighborhood. I can picture something similar being done on large lot neighborhoods like Alta Vista but alas, our zoning forbids it. I can’t imagine the nearby residents jumping for joy either.
Some in SCal were done in Spanish style:
A variation on the bungalow courts were “walk streets”, whereby a large lot between two vehicular streets was developed with a 15’ wide pedestrian street running from one vehicular street to the other; the houses were close to this street; a vehicle lane and garages was in the back. This gives fire and emergency access to every house but eliminates wide road allowances and makes for intimate safe spaces.
Contemporary pocket neighborhoods are spring up from their base on the west coast. Tested in Seattle, Portland, Victoria and other cities. Some still give up too much land for garages and parking, an unfortunate reality in NA life. But at least they corral the cars.
Ross Chapin, in his book Pocket Neighorhoods, identifies the key design features for making a street into a neighborhood commons:
- Close connection of each house to the common space, but with some sort of gateway feature to each private space and to the common space as a whole
- Each house must have its own active space facing the common space – a living room, kitchen, or at least a porch; there must be “eyes on the common space” at all times
- Layers of personal and public space transition from private areas to open areas to shared public areas
- The common space must have a sense of enclosure, of intimacy. Most suburban and planned spaces in NA are too big. Need a sense of entry, or separateness
- Think of streets as rooms with different purposes, same way as we now design outdoor spaces around our homes
Next: remediating urban streets to promote neighbourhood friendliness.