Accidental Activist

Ten Steps to Strong Neighbourhoods

In the same way that we have a list of criteria for buying a house, so it is we need to create a list of criteria when planning and developing our neighbourhood.

By Ben Bull
Published June 07, 2007

In one of RTH writer Nicolas Kevlahan's earlier RTH pieces, he refers to himself as an amateur urbanist:

By amateur I mean that I am passionately interested and concerned about the urban environment but I don't claim any special knowledge or training in urban design. I am simply an interested and curious observer of urban life and design.

Sounds a lot like me. Like Nicholas, I observe the world around me - my city, my neighbours, my neighbourhood - and I try to understand how it all fits together.

I've been doing a lot of observing recently, especially around my new digs in Toronto's St Lawrence Market neighbourhood. I've looked at the strange mixed used buildings - is that a school in the middle of that apartment block? - and the multi-purpose green spaces that run along the esplanade.

I've wondered why it is, that after only a few months of living here, I now know twice as many folks as I ever did in Hamilton...

I'll be doing a neighbourhood tour soon and posting it on RTH, but for now I'd like to share a few insights from my wandering eye. In particular, I'd like to share my ideas on what I believe makes a good neighbourhood.

What Makes a Good Neighbourhood

Before I get into my good neighbourhood criteria, we should first agree on what one is. What makes a good neighbourhood? What are the success criteria we should use to measure if a neighbourhood is successful or not? Well, we could start by perusing RTH's first principles.

In fact, all of the factors I would choose are in there - somewhere. But for now let's summarize them here as follows:

A good neighbourhood is:

So, if that's what a good neighbourhood is, then how do we build one?

Building and Maintaining a Good Neighbourhood

In the same way that we have a list of criteria for buying a house, so it is we need to create a list of criteria when planning and developing our neighbourhood.

By sitting on a park bench all day and picking my nose, I've managed to come up with 10 key criteria on how to build a good neighbourhood. Regular RTH readers may recall that I have spent the better part of my life looking for a good neighbourhood.

In an earlier article I outlined the twists and turns, and cul-de-sacs, of this journey, and highlighted the four key neighbourhood building principles espoused by the late Jane Jacobs.

I'm not contradicting any of these - far from it. I am well aware that Jane Jacob's theories are now firmly embedded into the urban planning curriculum.

No, instead I want to look at neighbourhood design through a slightly different lens - i.e. my own - and see if there's a different approach we can take to understanding what makes a neighbourhood 'good'.

Good Neighbourhood Criteria

1. Location, Location, Location!

The real-estate agent's mantra for successful home buying is also highly relevant to successful neighbourhood development. In order to achieve our vibrant neighbourhood goals the location of our neighbourhood is key.

When we look at the definition of a good neighbourhood, listed above, we can see that it will be very hard to achieve some of these objectives, say, for example 'proximity to rapid transit', if our neighbourhood is out in the boonies. Whatever else we do to make it 'good' it's location will always be a factor.

To pick another example, it will be hard to achieve criteria, such as 'safety', if we are living next door to a row of halfway houses, a sex offender's clinic and a six lane highway.

It many cases it may be possible for your neighbourhood, your location, to evolve. Perhaps the highway can be buried, or the halfway houses spread out into other neighbourhoods. But if there are a significant number of non-optimal features in your location, this may be difficult or impossible to achieve.

It is clearly critical then, to locate your neighbourhood in an optimal location, taking into account the other success factors listed here.

2. Integrated Functions

Mixed uses create viable business opportunities as well as vibrant neighbourhoods. They are an essential ingredient to the development of a 'good' neighbourhood. Easier said than done, right?

Despite this, considering our current model of single purpose, segregated neighbourhood functions, and given what we now know about their negative impacts to our health and environment, it is imperative that we design our neighbourhood's in an integrated fashion so that they can accommodate our core needs of work, shopping, leisure activities, schools and of course living (i.e. our homes).

How do we do this? Well, selecting an optimal location is a good place to start (see accessibility and transit below) and building or retro fitting the neighbourhood to accommodate mixed uses is another approach.

Also, as stated in our first principles, throwing away - or at least simplifying - the municipal regulations will go a long way toward allowing a neighbourhood to evolve independently and organically - to respond to the changing economic and environmental climate on its own - rather than by the firm hand of an over-zealous town planner.

3. Accessibility and Transit

A good neighbourhood needs a balanced transportation network that provides lots of options for traveling quickly and safely by foot, bike, rollerblade, transit, car - whatever.

Critical to the success of this criteria are several other factors listed here (see how everything is linked...?!) including:

For example, there is little point is creating short blocks and a walkable neighbourhood if there's nothing to walk to. And there's no justification for extra highway links and regular transit if very few people are available to use them.

In many ways the objective of creating multiple modes of transit - bike lanes, walkable streets, road networks, rapid transit options - depend upon the success of other planning criteria.

However, as we have seen in Hamilton, Ottawa and elsewhere, once these criteria are in place it is not always a given that a balanced transportation network will magically appear.

4. Walkability

Although somewhat linked to the previous criteria walkability stands out on its own because it is so uniquely critical to the success of a neighbourhood. After all, as Jane Jacobs famously said, "The public life of the city is in its streets or it's nowhere."

Jacobs's recommendation for creating short-walkable blocks is obviously vital to fostering foot traffic, as is the need to link together the mixed functions we talked about earlier in a way that makes it easy - and pleasant - to reach on foot.

We have written in the past, here on RTH, about pedestrian habits and the influence of streetwalls, wide sidewalks, quiet roads and aesthetically pleasing surroundings on our willingness to walk from A to B. We have also made many a disparaging remark about ground floor parking lots and six-lane highways, noting their destructive influence on foot traffic.

Obviously, unless we have something we want to walk to (see Integrated functions above) then we are not going to leave our houses or our cars. However, it is vitally important to complement the availability of these services with a pleasant and practical walkable environment.

5. Density

This is the no-brainer of the bunch ... or so you'd think. Density is the first word on an urban planner's lips when you ask them about a successful neighbourhood development. Yet we are still sprawling.

The North American concept of density, and our response to it is, I believe still evolving. 'Over here' we have nothing like the density they have in Europe.

I asked a German work colleague of mine a few weeks back how he enjoyed living in Toronto. He explained how difficult it was to get around and meet his friends for a drink.

"Where do you live?" I asked him.


"Where do you friends live?"



Hans explained how, in Germany, he and his friends would meet up for a beer on their bikes. They lived no more than 20 minutes away from each other.

"Over here you have to get the subway or the bus," he complained.

He went on to explain how his hometown's core did not integrate neighbourhoods like Toronto's Annex, with its rows and rows of single family detached homes, just ten minutes from the city centre.

"You don't understand density in North America," he told me. "Toronto is not practical."

The 'D' word is clearly critical to facilitating the success of all the other neighbourhood success criteria discussed here, but one thing we should consider, here in North America, is that we still have a long way to go to optimizing our understanding and implementation of this important urban planning principal.

6. Mixed Use Buildings and Housing

The St Lawrence Market neighbourhood in Toronto provides plenty of examples of this fundamental planning principal. Urban planning students are regularly brought onto my streets to see this concept at work.

Jane Jacobs advocated a mix of old and new buildings to promote a vibrant mixture of Mom and Pop retail stores and chain store outlets. St Lawrence Market achieves this, and a lot more besides. Here's a few examples of what my neighbourhood has incorporated to help achieve this:

7. Maintenance and Safety

Our ability to maintain the municipal services essential to the maintenance of the neighbourhood is obviously critical to a neighbourhood's success. After all, nobody wants to wait three weeks to have a bust water pipe fixed, and nobody wants to endure the scourges of litter louts and abandoned flower beds day after day. In a good neighbourhood, you don't have to.

In many ways this success criteria is a by-product of the other criteria listed here. This is because, good street design, mixed use and density creates the economies of scale essential for facilitating the efficient delivery of municipal services.

One water pipe under the Esplanade is a hell of a lot cheaper to maintain than a pipe running under Subdivision B in Scarborough.

The Esplanade has a full-time street sweeper. Parks and Rec staff are out daily, tending to our parks spaces, trees and flowers.

51 Division regularly tours the streets by car, bike or foot, keeping an eye out for trouble, and fostering the police and community ties essential for developing trust and preventing crime.

How is this possible? Well, because it's cost-effective. In our newly conscious environmental way of life our ability to live efficiently is more critical than ever.

Clearly the most effective way to get first-rate municipal services is to reside in a dense neighbourhood where economies of scale make the provision of these services more practical and cost-effective to deliver.

8. Architecture and Aesthetics

How we look is always important. And how your neighborhood looks equates very directly to how it feels. And this, in turn, equates to how much time you will choose to spend enjoying it.

Sadly, I feel that St Lawrence Market fails a little in this respect. The 1970's condo structures which predominate along the Esplanade, are too imposing and mundane for my tastes.

However, they do at least respect the sense of scale that is critical to a neighbourhood's 'look and feel' (see below).

The beautiful Market and Distillery, and the abundance of green spaces dotted around the extended sidewalk which runs along the Esplanade, go a long way to make up for this shortcoming.

9. Sense of Scale and Place

Density does not necessarily mean building 30 story tower blocks. If I had my way it never would. But while there may be an argument for building tall structures in a neighbourhood, the environment should always ensure that a consistent approach is taken as the neighbourhood evolves.

30 story blocks standing next to rows of little cottages do not fit and so, as we continue to infill our existing neighbourhood's we need to be cognizant of the impact we are making to our built environment so that new structures integrate, rather than impose.

Equally important is the sense of place a neighbourhood provides us. Neighbourhoods should have meeting places, public spaces (see below) and, ideally, a focal point which helps to define the unique nature of the area. This creates pride and fosters the creation of the community.

In keeping with these theme, and others discussed earlier, the integration and linkages of the streets and buildings should enhance the 'mood' and 'tone' of the neighbourhood so that there is a continuity.

One way to do this is to create consistent structures, as mentioned above, another is to manage the traffic flows so that a neighbourhood does not start and stop with every major highway that runs through it (note that the St Lawrence Market neighbourhood is segregated from the Market in the west by Jarvis, and the Distillery in the east by Parliament).

Streetwalls are another effective way to provide neighbourhood continuity.

10. Green Spaces, Public Places

Trees, parks, flower beds and 'somewhere to hang out' all contribute immensely to the success of a neighbourhood. Fundamentally, everything we are advocating here is for the sole purpose of getting people out on the street.

This is, after all, how people meet, how communities are built and how safe, successful neighbourhoods are defined. Anything a neighbourhood can do to get people out on the street - from residents and visitors alike - should be factored into the neighbourhood design.

Ben Bull lives in downtown Toronto. He's been working on a book of short stories for about 10 years now and hopes to be finished tomorrow. He also has a movie blog.

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By Locke (registered) | Posted June 08, 2007 at 13:03:23

Some amateur urbanist readers may be interested in a conference taking place June 14-16th at the Design Exchange in Toronto:

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