Making Neighbourhoods Friendly (ii)

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:

Mintoland, 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:

Harrold Place, just off Carling Avenue is a fairly intimate, shared space

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. 

photo from Chapin, Pocket Neighborhoods

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.

Street runs across the bottom of the 1920's cluster, two larger houses face the street, the smaller ones are tucked behind (Chapin)

Some in SCal were done in Spanish style:

from Chapin, Pocket Neighborhoods

 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.


16 thoughts on “Making Neighbourhoods Friendly (ii)

  1. I grew up on a very busy four-lane street in an old house that had a verandah across the front. Even though we had a small usable (fenced in) back yard, we always seemed to end up sitting on the front porch watching the traffic go by. I have fond memories of sitting out there in the summer, especially after supper in the evenings, with my family. The cars never seemed to bother us (perhaps because we did have a bit of lawn between the house and the street), and now I dream of having a house with a verandah like that again. Our Centretown home has a small front porch and I’ll often sit out front and watch the kids drawing with chalk on the sidewalk or playing hopscotch, and my neighbour accross the street will often come out with her children so they can join in. We’re lucky that even though we live on a relatively busy street very close to Bronson, we still have a sense of community in our neighbourhood. I doubt it would be the same if we had an attached garage sticking out beyond the front of the house.

    1. I’m really intrigued by the pocket neighbourhoods that you mentioned in this post. I know there’s a couple of courtyard/pocket developmets that go back probably to the 1920s in Riverdale in Toronto, which seem to offer a nice take on the house unencumbered by the heavily paved approaches (driveway, sidewalk, etc.).

      What I wonder though is what the experience has been like in these neighbourhoods with regards to safety. It’s no secret that in Regent Park (a huge social housing project in Toronto), many o the houses were organized off-road, and the pathways and common areas were often perceived as being dangerous, because they were not as accessible. I think there are intelligent solutions to be found through design, but I’m curious how they’re perceived in other neighbourhoods.

  2. I think that how much a front porch gets used depends on the evolution of the neighbourhood. When we first moved to West Wellie there were 14 kids on our section of street under the age of 10. There were always adults out on the porches or the street and conversations took place all the time. As the average age of the kids increased and they became more interested in “somewhere else” that all changed. More younger children are moving on to the street again and the curbside mixing is beginning again.

    1. Erinn: there are a few similar bits around Ottawa too, mostly townhouses. As for Regent Park, I considered writing about public housing projects since so many of them use the superblock environment approach. I think the reason they dont work well is A) the removed too many streets, which are the ‘natural’ focus of action; B) the scales are wrong, with too many public spaces that dont feel like they belong to anyone. Note that in the pocket book recommendation they suggest there needs to be a gate (physical or symbolic) so that the shared space feels separate from the truly public spaces elsewhere, and to encourage oversight. I oft feel when walking on Beausoleil or Rochester St that the public housing has such good planning bones but … the execution was deficient. They are reparable, but the city isn’t likely to be interested.

      1. Shared parking can create a public space as well. I grew up in Bayshore and in hindsight it had a fair amount of public space.,-75.810605&spn=0.00288,0.003852&sll=45.351755,-75.810704&sspn=0.00144,0.001926&hnear=Woodridge+Crescent,+Ottawa,+Ottawa+Division,+Ontario&t=h&z=18

        Houses had private backyards (used for sheds, gardening and BBQ) and front yards facing sidewalks. The sidewalks weren’t appendages of the roads, because there weren’t many roads. The parking was in small or medium sized lots scattered throughout the area. During the day, those lots were mostly empty and great places for outdoor hard surface games (street hockey, basketball).

        There was shared greenspace of various shapes and sizes, suitable for different purposes.

        As a sign of the times, sometime in the late 70’s, the parking lots was expanded to account for the transition away from the standard “one car per family”.

  3. Ken – every successful cluster of homes has someone who makes a point of being out there, of greeting people, he’s the basis of the walmart greeter, the welcoming eyes, the garbage picker upper (more likely the litter-preventer !) and of course kids are that focus, there’s just gotta be some kids and parents who let them play.

  4. The Minto example looks like a ghastly concept. It looks like it has managed to devote even more space to roads than the leading contender (the suburban twisty-style neighbourhood). The Fused Grid concept, developed by CMHC researchers in Ottawa and first implemented in Alberta, claims to require much less space for roads, thus allowing the developer to devote more of the land to parkspace and houses, increasing the profitability.

    The other advantage of the fused grid model is that it actually makes walking competitive. To get between any two points in the neighbourhood, it’s almost always more direct to walk than to drive. By contrast, the examples in your post with pedestrian entrances on the front and driveways/garages in the back make for fewer interactions, because now people arriving home are not all coming in on the same side, and those who drive have much less incentive to stay out on the all-concrete-and-asphalt rear lane. More importantly, it doesn’t matter how you arrange the residential area if there aren’t any walkable amenities nearby to walk to. Call it a “front door” all you want, but it won’t function as one.

  5. The fused grid is interesting, but most interesting is the reluctance of people to live in one. Houses are most people’s largest single expense (taxes and transportation may be larger over a lifetime, but they are not single expenses) and they seem to stick with beige. Despite the land savings and increased developer profits, I dont see developers rushing to build fused grids. The Rocliffe miltary base PMQ were built on the radburn plan, and didn’t work well. I suspect one cause is that low density + diversity of routes = everyplace looking lonely, without a critical mass to be lively. The city is now insisting new suburban crescents have pedestrian connectors, so a form of the fused grid may evolve…

    1. Eric,

      What evidence do you have to support the claim that people are reluctant to live in a fused grid?

      The evidence, such as its lead proponent presents, is that many older neighbourhoods in the gridded parts of cities have implemented the core fused grid concept of “filtered permeability” by introducing road blocks that cut off car traffic but not pedestrian and bicycle traffic (e.g. like the streets west of Preston / north of Somerset). It’s these ad-hoc interventions that led to the development of the broader concept of the fused grid itself, which is something akin to culs-de-sac for cars but grids for peds and cyclists.

      There is a neighbourhood in Calgary* that is being built on a fused grid pattern, but as you can see below, it doesn’t yet exist…,+AB&hl=en&ll=51.129599,-113.928223&spn=0.010275,0.01929&sll=49.891235,-97.15369&sspn=43.469176,79.013672&oq=Calgary&hnear=Calgary,+Division+No.+6,+Alberta&t=h&z=16

      *There is a certain irony that an idea developed in Ottawa ends up being implemented somewhere else that happens to be more open to new ideas, like Calgary. There are a lot of creative people in Ottawa; they just don’t get to see the products of their creativity go any further here.

      1. David: I agree that interrupted grids in neighborhoods like Dalhousie are pretty convenient for residents and thwart maze running motorists, without the need for special barriers like on Clemow or Echo Drive. In our case, instead of planters, we got a railway track in a ditch. Or the Nanny Goat cliff. And the neighborhood connectivity will be better when the Hickory ped overpass opens and (in the long term) Laurel overpass gets built.
        My evidence for people being reluctant is simple. Look at the Wikipedia article Charles linked us. Scads of positive saleman-like praise of the grid … yet only two implementations. And none of the benefits included improved profitability except for a passing allusion to getting more houses per acre. If it was such a winning design, why won’t builders risk building it? It’s rather like the radburn plan, milton keynes, or swedish new towns that employ these nifty new layouts, but they seldom breakout of the test phase. Do you think Alta Vista homeowners will welcome someone trying to put 8-10 houses infilled in some back yards (assuming he could assemble the lot?).Heck, most neighborhoods squawk at a semi or a third floor, let alone a bunch of small homes. Naah, people are hyper-conservative when it comes to protecting their largest expenditure. Someday, I hope to see more pocket neighborhoods, but I think they will come only when we smash our current hyper-specific zoning regulations and go back to really simple ones like “residential, up to 5 stories” and then let the neighborhood evolve naturally. Current zoning is a vain attempt to stop the tides of progress and change, to freeze our city as a diagram of the forces acting 30, 50, and 100 years ago.

      2. Well it’s not like developers are ever too fond of design or planning ideas that result in more people-friendly communities but at the cost of lower profitability. So there remains a difference between what people would be quite willing to live in versus what developers are prepared to build for people to live in; developer reluctance to build on a particular pattern does not necessarily equate to reluctance on the part of people to live there. Frankly, the entire model of having developers buy up overpriced rural land, then engaging in some kind of ridiculous charade to justify having it added to the urban boundary rather than some other developer’s land, and then trying to push through the most profit-maximizing build-out possible complete with asinine street names while fighting all municipal planning attempts to secure just about anything to make the place more livable or even functional is an absurd one, but unfortunately it’s the model we’ve got.

        Retrofitting existing neighbourhoods I consider to be a quite different issue than design options for new build neighbourhoods. One can seldom retrofit on anything more than a block-by-block basis, whereas concepts like the fused grid really have to be applied at a scale of at least a quarter section to really make any sense or to demonstrate how they will work in practise. With some infill projects with enough land, like WVP, one might be able to apply a few of the principles but their application is really going to be one or two one-offs.

  6. I’ve seen the early skeleton of one of the new Fused Grid model neighbourhoods in NE Stratford – which is near my sister’s house. And while I see that pedestrian connections are better, you can see here ( that it’s still just big detached homes on tiny lots. That is, too-low density with no commercial / urban activity nearby, basically just a smarter variation in the key suburban sprawl.

    The other end of the scale – but also flawed – is the Toronto Woodbine development you mention (which I’m assuming is this development in the Beaches on Woodbine Ave S of Queen, not the suburban fantasy land they’re building out near the new Woodbine Race Track). And while I like the stacked townhouse density and the mix of non-beige facades, the outward face of development is not friendly at all to the public street. It comes across as a bit of a high-income fortress you may drive by (but not enter) as opposed to an integral welcoming part of the neighbourhood.

    The ideal urban neighbourhood should be high density enough to support a lot of activity, inward facing enough to get the eyes on the street effect, but also open to the broader neighbourhood, with a street / pedestrian grid porous enough to invite exploration on foot.

    It’s a tall order, and none of the new developments in urban Ottawa I’ve seen (including West Village – which also circles its wagons a bit too much for me) are good models. Yet.

    1. Denis: thanks for your comments. Could you resend the stratford map references, maybe a larger string, as my link would never open up and remained totally pixilated. The link you sent of the (old) Woodbine development near the Beaches shows the high houses located along an arterial on the south side of the project. The houses are high to get the views, and they don’t relate well to the street as the road is an arterial; they have their local road behind the units shown. Google Northern Dancer street and see some of the ones just east of that to see the “inside” neighborhood located on narrowish streets, with bulbouts, no driveways, nice variety of facades, although many of them have “fake” roof dormers that don’t get enough maintenance and now look a bit theme-park tacky. Then browse the lanes behind them or see an aerial view and be shocked by how much space is taken up by cars.

    2. There aren’t a lot of options for higher density ground-oriented residential while providing for car stowage, when you get down to it.

      One option and probably the most common is single-loaded housing (i.e. no back lane), but with a garage and sufficiently narrow houses the garage will dominate the façade at the ground floor, even if it doesn’t dominate the overall façade. There’d be no room for porches on the ground floor. WVP is basically like this (one of the better designs), as are most suburban townhouse developments (which tend to have long driveways). Then there are the semi-McMansions that are popping up like weeds in Westboro in which there isn’t even a ground floor door (other than the garage door) but rather a front door that requires climbing an entire storey first.

      A variation on the above is “turn the houses around” and in effect put the “back” facing the street/lane, complete with garage whether detached or integral, with the other face of the house (“the front”) fronting onto a pedestrian street. Porches and the like are viable options, but there is little in the way of private outdoor space. There’s a bad example of this variation in the development around the Metropole where they put the porches above the garages on the asphalt-intensive lane side of the houses while the pedestrian “street” ends up being rather sterile.

      Another option is double-loaded development, with the fronts of the houses facing a street and the back facing a rear service lane complete with detached garages, like the Beaches in Toronto and what you find in a number of Western Canadian cities. This allows for a small private space between the houses and the garages. A variation on this arrangement, which usually seems to be associated with big houses, is for the garage to be on the ground floor of the house, with effectively no private outdoor space. We can see this on some of the houses that front onto Centrepointe Drive.

      A further option is to have some kind of shared underground garage for cars, again like on Centrepointe Drive.

      The last three options all split traffic in and out of the houses between front and back doors.

      About the only other option left is some kind of off-property parking, whether onstreet or in designated parking areas. The Dutch tend to employ this a fair bit when they build rowhouses.

      1. I am not 100% convinced by this – the old streetcar suburbs feature the majority of houses with some form of parking and maintain a density of 10 – 15 dwelling units per acre (as opposed to suburban standards of 4 -5). For example a 40 foot frontage with a semi-detached will have parking for one of the units (but, obviously not the other). So where we fall down is that we require parking in every single unit we build, without recognising that Orleans and Golden Triangle are different.

        On the subject of the streetcar suburbs, I have been meaning to read Patrick Condon’s latest book where he argues for a return to that style of building. For a city of Ottawa’s size, I think that density is perfectly fine, and it encourages high streets and pedestrians.

  7. Chris: on my street, and its pretty common around this 1902 neighborhood, the single houses are usually on 33′ lots (mine happens to be 29′) which leaves room for an 18′ wide house, which gives a very usable shotgun interior (stairs & corridor down one side of house, rooms lined up down the other) and a 10-12′ driveway, just right for a medium or small car. The driveway is narrow, so usually people park in the short space between the house and street (ie, on the driveway) but some go into the back yard. But when there are clusters of townhouses along the street, parking becomes harder to handle: sometimes there is a rear lane, sometimes not.

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