Special Report: Walkable Streets

Designing Livable Cities: An Interview With Donald Schmitt

DSAI Principal Donald Schmitt talks about sprawl, two-way streets, and the role citizens play in ensuring good architecture.

By Ryan McGreal
Published November 28, 2005

Donald Schmitt, a Principal of Diamond and Schmitt Architects Inc. (http://www.dsai.ca), specializes in academic projects that cross-fertilize disciplines, bring people into contact, and integrate smoothly into their surroundings.

His firm is dedicated to sustainability, designing projects that manage their own rainwater, reduce lighting costs, and less energy-dependent air conditioning through architecture and the strategic use of trees and other plants.

Among his many projects, Schmitt is designing the new McMaster University Innovation Park at the former Camco property on the northeast corner of Longwood Rd. S. and Aberdeen Ave.

On November 9, 2005, Schmitt delivered a presentation on Imagining Hamilton's Future for the Friends of Red Hill Valley's first annual Spirit of Red Hill lecture. His theme concerned ways that architecture can facilitate interactions among people and contribute to the fabric of city life.

Schmitt kindly agreed to an email interview to elaborate on some of the points he raised during his lecture.

The Interview

Ryan McGreal, Raise the Hammer (RTH): In your presentation on Wednesday, you described people as "gregarious", seeking and enjoying the company of others. Yet nearly all of the building in the past fifty years has been, well, anti-gregarious. If people love lively streets, how do you explain sprawl?

Donald Schmitt, Diamond + Schmitt Architects Inc (DS): Sprawl is first and foremost a product of those developments and purchases not having to pay the full cost of extended road, sewer and power infrastructure.

The taxpayers of the Province subsidize sprawl. If the consumer paid the full cost of sprawl it would be curbed. In other words sprawl is the cheaper alternative. The taxpayer pays the balance.

RTH: During your presentation, I was reminded repeatedly of Jane Jacobs' seminal book The Death and Life of Great American Cities. She described the principles of urban streetlife over 40 years ago, but developments built according to those principles are still the exception. Why is that?

DS: The design of too many developments has been driven by marketing the image, not designing the community. I think people hunger after residential neighbourhoods which have the characteristics Jane Jacobs described in her books.

If developers followed those principles, their projects would only suffer the problems of success. Low interest rates have in recent years spurred lots of residential development. Good design will create a premium value on top of current sales prices. The evidence proves it.

RTH: Hamilton's advocates for a more sustainable city often ignore or neglect the suburbs. Is there any way advocates can reach out to suburban residents to explain how density and use mixing can improve quality of life?

DS: North American culture over the last 50 years focused on the convenient mobility of the automobile, the image of the single family house in a semi-rural landscape and individual consumerism.

What has been sacrificed is the community and support of neighbourhood, modest increases in density and a mix of uses combined with infill for additional residential units allow better use of existing service infrastructure investment and an expanded population. This will strengthen community and improve the quality of life.

The big hurdle still to overcome, however, will be to increase density to the point that transit is viable. This will reduce the isolation of teenagers and seniors. It will improve the quality of life for those families from whom the two car model is not sustainable.

RTH: What can be done to reverse the strongly-held notion among suburban residents that "density" connotes either the hypertrophied, gridlocked form of New York or the squalor and crushing poverty of Mumbai?

DS: Hamilton, with its population of 490,270, is in no imminent danger of becoming a world megalopolis!

However, a lively downtown as a great place to do business, to live, and to enjoy culture are what caused Paul Piggot to build the headquarters of his great construction enterprise downtown.

That's density. It's healthy, it's attractive and it builds community.

RTH: You are a strong advocate for two-way streets. Several years ago, a charette of Hamilton architects studying how to revitalize the city came to the same conclusion. What will two-way streets accomplish?

DS: Two way streets slow cars down. The environment on the sidewalk, particularly if they are widened with parallel parking and street trees becomes more protected from traffic and more conducive to window shopping, outdoor food and sidewalk life.

Pedestrians cross the street more safely and both sides of the street start to work together as a true retail strip.

RTH: If two-way streets are such a no-brainer, then why is there so much resistance?

DS: Perhaps it's simply a resistance to change, to the status quo. Clearly, however, while Hamilton's downtown is a quick, easy place to navigate in a car, it's not healthy in other respects.

In an era when Canadian downtowns in Montreal, Vancouver and Toronto are bursting with vitality, Hamilton has too many abandoned buildings, too many narrow sidewalks, too few trees on the street.

Take a couple of traffic lanes, widen the sidewalks, give more comfort to the pedestrian. If people linger, low rents will attract small businesses, small galleries, shops and cafes.

The energy of those small business people will begin to restore vitality to the street.

RTH: How can Hamilton accommodate those people who simply want to rush across the city as quickly as possible? Should the city even try?

DS: A city is the form for community life, for the exchange of ideas, for cultural activity and the production of goods and services. To flourish it needs an effective network of transit and streets to connect places.

The key is to create a network which links the fabric of the city, not a conduit which bypasses city life. Towns where the road network bypasses the centre literally have the life drawn out of them over time.

RTH: London, England has instituted stiff tolls for drivers entering the city. Paris, France plans to ban non-local cars entirely from a five square kilometre stretch of the Left Bank. Should Hamilton consider restricting car access downtown or even establishing a pedestrian-only area?

DS: London and Paris are enormous cities which, at their centre particularly, are very healthy. Their vitality has benefited from congestion which, over time, has made them more desirable. They are controlling congestion, lopping the top off the activity, not eliminating it.

Clearly, Hamilton has not approached the threshold of lively urban excitement that are the success of London and Paris. Hamilton has no need to restrict car access.

The pendulum needs to swing away from the dominance of the car and pedestrian showing a lively street, with greater emphasis given to the pedestrian. I certainly do not think that the pendulum should swing to the opposite extreme of pedestrian only environments, vehicles and pedestrians can and should co-exist in lively urban neighbourhoods.

RTH: Your firm takes sustainability seriously, finding ways for signature buildings to manage their own stormwater ecologically and regulate air temperature with less energy inputs. Why on earth isn't every architect and builder doing this?

DS: Our culture has come to the widely held realization in the last decade that our consumption of energy and resources is simply not sustainable at the rates to which we became accustomed. The many warnings of far sighted community thinkers and scientists did not register sufficiently.

Now, however, the crisis has registered and architects, engineers and the whole design profession is beginning to take sustainable design seriously. Our collective input can and will be enormous.

No doubt the innovations and new strategies that will emerge for green design will, over the next twenty years, represent a complete revolution in the built world. The future is very exciting.

RTH: Architecture is an extremely important part of city life, but most people know very little about it, leaving it to others to worry about. Do you see a value in better public education about architectural principles? If so, what's the best way to spread the word?

DS: It is very important that individuals and the community challenge architects and planners to build appropriately, to exercise common sense and to demonstrate how their design ideas will benefit the built environment.

To do so effectively, people don't need an education in architectural principles. They need to take an interest in the built world around them, they need to observe what works and what doesn't and they need to ask questions and engage in a debate with those who build the city.

Jane Jacobs is a great model for us all. She is not an architect or planner; she is a writer with keen powers of observation. She observed how people occupied neighbourhoods, what worked and what didn't, and she wrote about what she saw in a clear way, unencumbered by architectural jargon.

She is a great model of how to spread the word.

Donald Schmitt is an architect and principal of Diamond and Schmitt Architects Incorporated. He is a graduate of the University of Toronto Schools and the Faculty of Architecture, University of Toronto, where he was awarded the Royal Architectural Institute of Canada medal for design in his thesis year.

He was adjunct professor at the Faculty of Architecture, University of Toronto, from 1986 to 1993 and at the School of Architecture, Dalhousie University. He has also taught at the University of Texas, University of Pennsylvania, University of Waterloo, and University of British Columbia.

Donald's notable project include the Metro Central YMCA, Toronto, and the Earth Sciences Centre, University of Toronto, both recipients of the Governor General's Medal, Orchestra Hall, Detroit, and the Bahen Centre for Information Technology, University of Toronto.

Ryan McGreal, the editor of Raise the Hammer, lives in Hamilton with his family and works as a programmer, writer and consultant. Ryan volunteers with Hamilton Light Rail, a citizen group dedicated to bringing light rail transit to Hamilton. Ryan writes a city affairs column in Hamilton Magazine, and several of his articles have been published in the Hamilton Spectator. He also maintains a personal website and has been known to post passing thoughts on Twitter @RyanMcGreal. Recently, he took the plunge and finally joined Facebook.

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