Moving Beyond Compatible Infill and Intensification (part i)

“It’s just not compatible with this neighborhood !” — so goes the cry heard every day in our fair city. It goes up whether the proposal is for a single infill house, or worse a semi, or even worse, a townhouse cluster or innovative pod of housing units. And then it becomes a banshee wail when the intensification is for an apartment building.

Strangely enough, the cries are usually preceded by a faux-conciliatory “I’m all in favour of intensification but …”  We all have no doubt that the objections have nothing to do with the purely coincidental proximity of the project to the complainant.

This is the start of a multipart series on intensification and infills. Or more accurately, on the “compatible” aspect of new building. Maybe its time we started desiring the opposite: infill and intensification that is designed to change the neighborhood. Deliberately change. And in a specific direction. Maybe we should shift our gaze from lot by lot development to block by block development.

So what’s wrong with compatibility?

The first problem is one of definition. To most residents, compatible means “very little different from what is here now”. It is the “no change” starting post. I continually hear residents at meetings claim something is incompatible because the side yards are less, or its one storey taller, or bigger, or of a modern style, or expensive, or has too much or too little parking. Sometimes it even gets down to guessing who will live there, and how well they will or won’t fit into the neighborhood.

I wonder why people feel that their established neighborhood, which reflected the planning norms and prices and values of a city that was maybe just a quarter of the current Ottawa population, should be continued on in perpetuity. Just because there was enough on-street parking when your condo was built in the 70’s, with a city half our current size, does that mean the city is obligated for the next 25? 50? 100? years to guarantee you on street parking? Are our urban values and priorities never to evolve? And why do people in 12-1400 sq ft houses built in the 50’s feel its OK for them to put on a 2000 sq ft addition but outrageous that someone should knock down a converted cottage to build a new 2500 sq ft house (or two?). And now that we live longer, why must we all have to live in single family homes on 40′ lots til the day we die?

Ottawa today is not the same place as it was in grandma’s day. The built form of our city is a picture of the forces acting at the time of growth. We aren’t in 1960 anymore, Dorothy.

Here’s an example of an infill that strives for those compatibility goals while intensifying. It aims to replace one four-plex with two tri-plexes. To be compatible, the councillor wants it to be clad in brick, like the rest of the neighborhood. Others want the top half floor knocked off. I kinda like these modern shoe-box styles, so I find it compatible.

The complainers are right though, when they complain that infills will change the neighborhood. Of course they will. One won’t change much. Or two. But add in dozens, and the look and feel of the neighborhood will change.

Do we know where we are going to when those dozens arrive? Uhh, gosh no, we prefer to avert our eyes, and focus on the short term, and emphasize the “compatible” nature of the project at hand.

Lets look at the site plan of the same two tri-plexes:

Two tri-plexes, separated by a paved laneway. Six parking spaces at the back. The front lot line actually runs through the middle of the front (nod to compatibility) “porch” steps. So the majority of the lot is actually devoted to car parking, with the leftover used for the housing, and a 3 or 4′ strip of grass or something along the perimeter. One tree in each front yard, on the city boulevard. No tree at the back. No greenery visible from the triplexes, or their neighbours.

This a pattern we see more and more of in our central neighborhoods. Pavement squeezes out greenery. There will be cars in front of every house, and in every back yard. There is no escaping the car, its radio, its occupants voices as they come and go.

And its not just the fault of infills. Existing houses get granny suites, or secondary suites, or divided up into apartments. Back yards become parking; trees get in the way and are removed. If the house is within six blocks of an employment centre (eg Tunney’s, or NRCan) then the property owner/landlord has every incentive to squeeze in another parking space at $150 a month.

Every year I see less greenery in the backyards. Houses get visually closer to their neighbours. Cars insert themselves everywhere. Here’s another infill, a triplex on a 23′ lot, that looks great but whose backyard is 100% parking:


The effect of time, by repeating the “compatible” infill, over and over, we end up with a vastly different neighborhood than we started out with. Green back yards get replaced with parking. Cars dominate every side of our housing. Lots of space gets used up with useless side yards. Curbside parking is lost to frequent driveways and front yard parking. Is this really our planning goal for our neighborhoods?

What if instead of focussing on the little steps, we instead looked at the goal, what the neighborhood would like 25 and 50 years out. That might mean less “compatible” infill and more of something else.

Maybe its time to stop looking at individual lots and plan for the whole block.

12 thoughts on “Moving Beyond Compatible Infill and Intensification (part i)

  1. Intensification is a value. So is preservation of the unique character of long established neighborhoods. Your argument is that you can’t really have both, and that we should choose the former. I would agree with you if there weren’t do many vast tracts of undeveloped land close to the downtown core.

    But for various reasons we have Lebreton Flats, the Experimental farm lands, the Bayview yards, and further out the green belt. There are other underused semi industrial tracts available. It would be very easy to dramatically “intensify” the city without encouraging the random building of higher density housing in a discordant fashion in older neighborhoods.

    Wouldn’t it make more sense to build vast neighborhoods of cool modern townhouses and condominiums, if that is your thing. If after all that development, we still want destroy our older neighborhoods lot by lot, so be it. But we may find that we can have the best of both worlds.

    1. In a perfect world, yes, things would be built on Lebreton Flats, perhaps the western section of the Experimental Farm, etc. But, you realize that’s federal land, right? And there’s not much the city can do with that, right? Do you propose we sit and wait for the Feds to buy into modern city building approaches in Ottawa? And until then…what? I was at the community meeting where the city presented it’s vision for Bayview — and part of is trendy townhomes,..and lots of people, to which I say: “hurry up”.

      But, most of the vast open tracts of land in the capital region are federally controlled land and will not be built on anytime soon. Proposing that building on land that we can’t actually build on is how the residents and city council of Ottawa should handle growth, is no different from saying “I’m all for intensification, but (insert fatuous reason to oppose a particular project here)…”

  2. Excellent article. I feel that there should be some incentive to minimize the amount of paving that occurs. In your example, putting parking behind the house meant there is a long driveway plus the extra turning area to get in and out of the parking spots. If instead one of the triplexes had been pushed to the back of the lot to allow the parking in the front, the backyard of one of them could have been saved for a place for little kids to play safely away from the street and cars. In the current design, there is no child safe spot.

  3. MaggiesFarmboy is on to something, but I would expand it a bit further. Developers play this faux-conciliatory game as well: they’re all for intensification, but only in places that are already attractive. They only want to intensify in areas that already have some character, and the cumulative effect may well be to change the very character that was attractive in the first place.

    The same developers who go around infilling and intensifying in inner area residential areas are loathe to build anything taller than two storeys in new suburbs or on even on older suburban greyfields (odd isn’t it that Fairlawn Plaza can be redeveloped with more single-storey boxstores while out on Baseline and Greenbank developers are trying to put in taller residential in residential areas?). Is there something about suburban commercial greyfields that rules out any meaningful intensification? And good luck with getting any mixed use in new suburbs – another one of those faux-conciliatories that developers proclaim to support. The notion of actually creating built environments with the kind of character that people like and developers love to infill in is apparently beyond our cadre of lacklustre developers.

    And this relates back to infill and intensification: perhaps if people in existing areas could actually see some evidence of developers taking their commitments to intensification and mixed-use walkable communities seriously in *ALL* their developments, then perhaps residents would be a bit more accommodating. But it is very hard to be accommodating towards someone who is one day praising the virtues of intensification in your neck of the woods and the next is busy plowing under acres of farmland for more sprawl.

  4. MaggiesFarmboy should take a long walk around the Central Park development (Merivale and Baseline) and then see if he/she wants to revise her comment.
    This “development” was once part of the Experimental Farm and the same developer doing 111 Richmond and the adjacent Convent in Westboro put this project together. If I remember correctly there was some kind of conflict in that they promised to do one thing and then delivered another after getting approval on the initial proposal. Sort of similar to what has taken place with the extra floors at 111 Richmond.

    My sense is that much of the friction derives from the fact that prior generations took cognizance of the neighbourhood and spent money on “eye candy” such as ornate fretwork and detailing plus an attractive front yard. The owners were “street sensitive.”

    The current cube designs focus exclusively on the interior space and there is zero consideration for the street. Not to be too harsh, I think it also true that the “metro-box” also employs low maintenance exterior finishes and likely has a much higher R value than the building it displaces. In the final analysis the metro-box delivers more to the occupant at a lower operating cost than any competing design.

      1. Because most of the dwellings are pretty ugly? Because there are no dwellings, just mammoth 2 door garages fronting the steet with a small side entrance for the humans to enter by? Because of the cookie cutter designs, sort of early Bronx-in-a-box?

      2. Yes, but so what?

        First, it doesn’t have to be that way and second, even if this kind of neighbourhood was all we’re capable of, that’s preferable to building those same cheap structures as infill, and destroying the beautiful, old stock, central neighbourhoods that we have now.

  5. Re: cars insert themselives everywhere. Of course they do – when we still have developers, planners and zoning bylaws fixated on the increasingly outmoded premise that everyone owns a car and therefore wants & needs a dedicated parking spot 24/7/365. The rate of car ownership among Millennials is dropping ( and there is growing evidence that, in developed countries like Canada, “peak car” has arrived (

  6. It bears noting that the absence of trees in the landscaping of any of these properties is, of course, merely temporary. Within two years at the outside Manitoba Maples will begin to establish themselves and five years in they will have grown to about 15 feet; by 15 years they will have taken over pretty much all the yardage available, at which point the City bylaws on cutting trees on private property will prevent removal of all but the most seriously distorted of the crop.

    As to the various developers currently buggering up Ottawa’s neighbourhoods with pathetically- considered, drearily-realized, but profit-maximizing buildings, I’ll admit to just a brief and indefensible but oh-so compelling fantasy that a Claridge, Richcraft or Ashcroft principle had been crossing the street in front of me the day last year when my brakeline ruptured and I needed something solid but somewhat resilient in order to come to a stop.

  7. I keep hearing people talk about intensification destroying neighbourhoods, but I haven’t seen one of the new developments blow up. Why would anyone buy a condo in a building make from dynamite?

    Intensification changes neighbourhoods. Some of the effects are positive. Some are negative. Anyone who proclaims them universally bad can probably be safely ignored.

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