Revitalization

Performance Codes and Neighbourhood Development

By Ryan McGreal
Published December 07, 2006

At the risk of taxing the patience of RTH readers by flogging a dead horse yet again, here's one more blog on sprawl and its discontents.

An insightful comment posted the other day made a case that intensification evangelists like us can easily forget in our rush to tar opponents of infill projects as NIMBYs:

When us folks in long-established mountain neighbourhoods are complaining about "in-filling", it's because [former Mayor Larry] Di Iannni and [Councillor Tom] Jackson orchestrated selling off schoolyards and greenspaces that we all thought were public park space. ...

Don't worry, we don't need those little neighbourhood schools or that open space, future kids will just run around in X-Box/Nintendo Land, and be warehoused in a mega-school. If it was stupid for downtown, it's stupid for the mountain as well.

I read this, sat back for a moment, and then recalled that I, too, live in the suburbs, in a house built in 1914 on what was, at that time, the very edge of the city.

The density of my neighbourhood is pretty high for mostly single-family houses, since they're uniformly tall, narrow, and set close together not far from the sidewalk. Only about half the houses have driveways, so parking is mainly at the curbside.

However, the density may, in fact, be lower than some of the new subdivisions of what we might call 'compressed sprawl': twisting blocks of prefab townhouse condos in semi-private lanes, turned inward away from the roaring thoroughfares that surround them and walled off from the adjacent strip plazas and box stores.

There's something else at work here, other than the oversimple urban BMI of people per hectare. To quote again from the comment, which rails against the hulking design and comparatively low quality of the infill:

[E]xactly how much north-end industrial brownspace has been recovered and turned to mixed medium density housing/retail/light commercial? Not nearly the space that has been turned from school/greenspace into McMonster homes in the established mountain neighbourhoods.

In response, I'd like to offer an extended quote from the mighty Jane Jacobs' last book, Dark Age Ahead (Vintage Canada, 2005). As usual, Jacobs explains better than I can what's wrong with the current development model and how infill can actually improve neighbourhoods if done correctly, which is to say organically, according to sound principles.

Zoning rules and tools [that mandate sprawl] neglect performances that outrage people. What are actually needed are prohibitions of destructive performances. To attend hearings on zoning and planning conflicts is to learn that feared changes are not actually about land uses, densities, and ground coverage but rather about dreaded side effects. The fears fall chiefly in the following categories:

  1. Noise from mechanical sources
  2. Bad smells and other forms of air pollution; also water pollution and toxic pollution of soil
  3. Heavy automotive through-traffic and heavy local truck traffic
  4. Destruction of parks, loved buildings, views, woodlands, and access to sun and sky [emphasis added]
  5. Blighting signs and illumination
  6. Transgressions against harmonious street scales.

Any enforceable code depends upon specific standards; an effective performance code must, too. ... A chief advantage of performance codes ... will be the incentive they offer to solve practical problems that traditional zoning tried to "solve" merely by banishing offenders to poor or politically disregarded parts of town or, recently, to politically feeble parts of the globe.

Jacobs cites a number of examples of specific problems and how practical performance codes may address them. A particularly instructive example concerns building heights, the bogeyman of the sprawl homebuilding industry.

Building heights and - even more important - length of unbroken street frontages can be specified, with standards varying from streets with varying existing scales of height and frontages. Scale is not merely a matter of esthetics and taste, although how things look is important. Scale connects with many other aspects of performance; these connections are often really at issue in conflicts ostensibly about uses, densities, or ground coverage.

For example, height affects the access of streets or neighbouring buildings to sun, sky, and views. Big buildings cast big shadows. They also commonly require demolition of historic or other loved buildings [to which, for the purpose of this post, we may also add the destruction of neighbourhood schools and parklands]. Maximum horizontal street frontage allowable for an enterprise could accommodate a cabintmaker's or carpenter's shop, but not a large furniture factory with its heavy and noisy truck traffic.

Jacobs argues that the goal of a performance code "should be to combine the greatest degree of flexibility and adaptability possible with the most germane and direct protections needed in the close-up view".

At the very least, this removes both the artificial constraint of single-use zoning and the inevitable vagaries of influence peddling, in which politically connected developers angle for exemptions and variances for their projects over the objections of neighbours.

Jacobs goes on, explaining how a performance code might work in practice, and why investors as well as existing residents might come to support it:

Agreement to meet provisions of a performance code that has been adopted should be a condition of leasing, renting, buying, or building in a densifying suburb. Enforcement should not be ensured by criminal fines but more directly, by civil court orders requiring noncomplying and noncorrecting offenders to halt outlawed performances forthwith or vacate the premises.

The reward for complying is freedom to locate in a popular, performance-protected district and the advantage of being protected too. Another advantage is easy convertibility of premises from one use to another, a process that can take years and incur huge legal costs under traditional zoning codes.

Performance codes through the city might scare off some investors and developers, specifically those who are more comfortable shoehorning compartmentalized single-use abstractions than in integrating their projects into existing neighbourhoods.

However, it may might attract just as many of the kinds of architects, investors, and developers we need to improve neighbourhoods by listening to residents and finding creative ways to balance continuity with diversity. It also gives an advantage to smaller, more independent projects rather than monolithic subdivisions, which is good for diversity and a unique character.

The Lister Block saga, still unfinished, is instructive here. The corporate property owner and developer, LIUNA and Hi-Rise Group, in collusion with the Mayor, tried to force an outrageous ultimatum on the city: Pay us double the market rate to destroy a city landmark and replace it with an ersatz box, or we'll pick up our toys and go home.

They insisted that it was all-or-nothing, that there was no alternative, and that our choice was to accept their plan and move forward, or remain mired in decay. It was classic bullying behaviour: opponents to the plan were against progress, naive, partisan, even delusional.

Amazingly, through the heroic efforts of preservationists, architects, some neighbouring businesses, urban activists, LACAC, two city councillors, and the last-minute intervention of the provincial government, the demolition order was stayed and an ad hoc committee of the involved parties was set up to try and resolve the conflict.

The committee came up with a new plan that preserves the building, lets the developer restore it for adaptive reuse at a profit, and even saves Hamilton taxpayers some money. It turns out that all the threats and bullying were really just boorishness and intolerance dressed up as "realism".

If LIUNA and H-Rise had taken a community-based approach to begin with, instead of trying to short-cut democracy in a backroom deal with an entangled mayor, they could have saved a lot of time and a lot of face.

A performance code that prohibits clearly undesirable performances, eschews politically charged zones and variances, and encourages a community-centric approach could have prevented the debacle and generated a mutually acceptable, community-enhancing plan at the outset.

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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By nobrainer (registered) | Posted December 07, 2006 at 22:03:18

RIP Jane Jacobs. She saw more clearly than a hundred city planners and traffic engineers.

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By A reader (anonymous) | Posted December 08, 2006 at 19:41:04

Thank you for a kind reading and a well-researched response.

I have not yet read Jane Jacobs' work. When I do, I believe I will find a kindred spirit. It would be interesting to know whether Ms. Jacobs ever had the opportunity to visit Europe, and see how the ancient dovetails so neatly with the present under a patient and long-viewed community hand. The hill towns of Toscano as well as the measured hurly-burly of Paris and Roma attest to the fact that we humans instinctively know what works and what doesn't. As long as we don't let the money-mongers spoil our space.

There is room in Hamilton for our most antique structures and for the ultra-modern visions of future innovators. Not as only museums and municipal offices, but as places where Hamiltonians live, work and shop. Don't forget that the Lister Block was once a tour-de-force of modernity.

But sprawl saps our resources, creativity and community spirit.

Stop sprawl now.

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