Editorial

Ersatz v. Real Urban Development

If we want to avoid more planning failures, we need to understand the nature of urban development before we lurch into the future.

By Ryan McGreal
Published September 20, 2006

In Hamilton, you have a few choices when looking for a place to live. You can choose an old house in an existing neighbourhood, either downtown or right at the edge of the escarpment; a new (or nearly new) house in a modern subdivision; or a condo in a high rise.

The much-ballyhooed but ultimately rudderless GRIDS planning exercise notwithstanding, nothing on the books today is going to expand these choices meaningfully. The new developments planned for the next few years are sprawlness as usual, and the GRIDS intensification timetable doesn't really kick in until near the end of its 25 year span.

Nevertheless, we can expect at least a few developers will jump on the bandwagon, especially if the Ontario government musters up some guts and confronts Hamilton about its failure to meet the minimum provincial intensification rules.

Urban Development

If we want to avoid more planning failures, we need to understand the nature of urban development before we lurch into the future.

Urban development is not about a particular architectural style; rather, it's about creating whole neighbourhoods where many kinds of people and many kinds of destinations are close together: rich and poor, young and old, homes and businesses, parks and civic amenities, apartments and houses, and so on.

Further, urban development eschews designs that push destinations apart, including parking lots, deep setbacks, median strips, and berms. Instead, buildings huddle close together and open directly onto the street. Sidewalks are wide enough to accommodate many people passing in different directions, and roads accommodate many different kinds of vehicles.

Finally, urban streets offer many paths from one place to another. Suburban streets, by contrast, are heirarchial, with lanes and crescents emptying into boulevards, which empty into main arteries that connect different areas. Those arteries are usually very wide, very fast, and prone to bottlenecks. Without a car, it becomes difficult to get from one place to another.

Some Considerations

In anticipation of the "new urbanist" and "smart growth" developments sure to come down the pipe, here are a few important considerations to keep in mind.

Is it sincere?

Many developers in other parts of Canada and the United States have begun capitalizing on the market appeal of "new urbanism" by developing what ammounts to conventional sprawl but tacking on a few ersatz "urbanist" accroutrements, like narrow lots, vestigial front porches or stapled-on, neo-Victorian flourishes. Urban design starts at the level of neighbourhoods and streets and informs the construction of individual buildings, not the other way around.

Is it realized?

Many architects try their best to create real urban neighbourhoods but are so compromised by local rules that their developments end up functioning pretty much like standard sprawl. Unless the city is willing to throw out much of our legacy of regressive zoning and building regulations, whatever "intensified" developments we build will end up looking like compressed sprawl rather than true urban places.

Is it proximal?

I've heard various reactions to the idea of "new urbanist" developments on rural greenfields far from existing cities, but my personal opinion is that a neighbourhood should be part of an urban quilt of neighbourhoods so that you can benefit from proximity to other districts as well as to local amenities.

Part of the concept of urban development is that many destinations are close by, and you have many choices in how to get there. If your neighbourhood has a convenience store and a nice pathway but is several miles along an arterial corridor from the nearest real shopping district, you will still have to drive to get anywhere.

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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