Complementarity: That’s the Key Principle for Siting New Central Library

Note on Process: I attended yesterday’s earlier session to help the Library Board and its consultants to find the best location for the new Central Library.  It was very participatory, but I forget to mention something, something that, during the summarizing session at the end, was raised by no one else.  I will do so now . . . Here, because in using the OPL website I could not find the way to register it there (and, had I found it, I would probably have been offered too little space.

What evokes this is the writing of Jane Jacobs.  She is mostly known for her first book, The Death and Life of Great American Cities (1961).  But I didn’t read that first; I read Cities and the Wealth of Nations (1984).  (In between she wrote The Economy of Cities, 1969, which I still haven’t read, despite owning a copy.)

Yesterday, while reading the many essays proffered by those who knew and loved her on the occasion of her 100th birthday, I came across one by Lawrence Solomon, founder of Energy Probe Research Foundation in Toronto, and someone who has come to be a bit of a contrarian.  [His foundation published a great study in the 1980s, Why Ontarians Walk; Why Ontarians Don’t Walk More, that I found so useful in forming Ottawalk.]  He pointed out that Jane was a member of the board of this institution – and of a spin off, the Consumer Policy Institute, for two decades.  He also emphasized that she has been used by many “Lefties” to justify city favouring high-rises, which is not a position she took.

He explained that she used the involvement with his foundation and institute to articulate her economic ideas about the proper role of government, which in Death she had excoriated so much, especially for its role in creating the terrible form of public housing and for demolishing whole viable communities that were labelled “slums.”  I am certain that this involvement formed the basis of her fourth book, almost never quoted, Systems of Survival (1992), a Socratic dialogue that explored two states of mind, traders (the commercial mindset) and guardians (those who seek control of a different nature, through monopolies).   She suggested that mankind needed both, but had to learn how to divvy our responsibilities so as to not get a mess.

That brings me around to the quality of place of my title: complementarity.  Soon after I retired in 1996, I read Death for the first time.  I saw in it the powerful idea of complementarity in land uses and human activity that both books described.  I also read “Holly” Whyte’s City: Rediscovering the Center (1989) and Christopher Alexander’s, A New Theory of Urban Design (1987).  All clearly describe the power (synergy) of similar-but-not-alike businesses located near each other has on the growth of each of them.

These writers had grown up in an urban world organized by complementarity, but now beginning to yield to rule by land-use zoning.  They found it a tool that could help and harm at the same time.  Zoning is based on being able to enjoy one’s property without being affected by another, different land use next door, or at least nearby, whose noises, or smells, or vibrations, or visitors, or outdoor storage would be objectionable by you or your guests.  It was at this time that roads, too, began to be categorized as having a role that could be differentiated, usually by volume, but also by type of vehicle.  But roads were public, not private, and the City didn’t want to subject itself to its own rules, a clear problem visited in Systems of Survival.

In the end, land-use zoning and street-hierarchies were controlled in the name of making the middle-class residence a sacred place where the owner could invest his money and not be, later, beset with bad impacts, emanating either from an adjacent property or from the roadway in front (the latter has been tackled in older -pre-zoning, pre-automobile parts of town through “traffic calming” and, more recently, “tactical urbanism”).  That usually also meant that housing should not sit above commercial uses, something Jane cherished, after she realized about the value of such shops to the normal activities of living.

As I suggested in my “walkability” essay in Beyond the Car (1995, on this site), not having shops nearby meant having to buy provisions less frequently and therefore in greater quantity, turning one’s home into a warehouse, and why houses with high Walkscores are more valuable, but also more likely are smaller.

She also, along with Whyte, understood that the travel to and from nearby stores – as well as one’s nearby jobsite – was made by walking and thus made for not just good social ties, but also important creative and commercial liaisons that often developed into to great collaborations or companies that produced that products or services that would replace those imported from further away, growing the local economy and reducing travel by people and transport by large vehicles (“import replacement” is as important a Jacobs’s concept as “eyes on the street”.)

Whereas zoning and road classification emphasized compatibility, the real rules of cities, the one that traders respond to and depend on, was complementarity: did adjacent uses mutually support each other, not just not conflict with them?  “Location, Location, Location” means to a suburbanite being far from negative land uses, while to the true urbanite, it means being close to positive ones.  The much maligned threats of city centres — fire, disease, vermin, crime — either no longer exist or, with wise application of complementarity, can be greatly diminished.

The suburbs have been built to provide families the safety they need to rear the ‘younguns’ in a  “nest” of safety and nurturing.  Zoning was invented by the guardians to sell the virtues of the suburbs that lacked so much complementarity, but could ensure that disease, crime, fire, and poor people could, in fact, be barred forever – or so they promised.  The downtown areas of cities were deemed hopeless at offering these, except for upper-class enclaves that too often sought and received separate town or village status and could shut out the same forces from their tiny kingdom.  A good example of the problem of compatibility is the newer suburb, whose homes are built at pretty much the same time and whose buyers are mostly young families: parents have to drive quite a distance to older neighbourhoods towards the city centre to find babysitters.  Compatibility too easily morphs into conformity.

Suburbs have required the invention of new forms of living (big setbacks from the street, garages dominating the streetfront) and formalized the system of movement (the private car) between them and the unique and less-than-copasetic downtown that has – or had –  the unique destinations that tend to congregate there, including entertainment, industry, culture, etc. (how did Canadian Tire Place — and its ever changing names — get located far away in the west end — a decision that is finally being reversed) also became “prisons” for the young adults and older adults, both groups that have grown in their share of the population as those periods of one’s life have increased in years, now lasting longer, in total, than the child-rearing years.  This is just being discovered now.

So, when we site the new library, a unique institution best provided by the guardians in the city’s central area, we need to find out what trips to and from the current library – albeit it being too small and somewhat outdated, compared to other city’s libraries – are going to and from.  What other land uses depend on the library being close by to survive?  (For instance, last night, I recounted the many years I used my lunch hour to walk from my workplace at Bank & Queen to spend a very pleasant 45 minutes browsing at the Central Library – so having many workplaces nearby is important.)  That will require a study, not a public meeting with 100 people, none of whom came up with this very important principle, even a week after 50 local Jane’s Walks were conducted (two of them by me).



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