“Feet Follow Fabric: Travel-Reducing Development” (1998)

by Chris Bradshaw,
published in ORSA (Ottawa Royal Society of Architects) Quarterly, Summer 1998

The official plan of the Region is moving toward provincial approval.  It is a document of our times, marrying savings for the future capital projects with the promise to reduce the environmental “footprint” of the region.  “Grow in, not out,” the strategy summaries, referring to the plan’s commitment to accommodate another decade of population-jobs-housing growth without an expansion of the urban boundary.

The compact region makes sense, but it is achievable?  Yes, but it will take more effort than the planners have acknowledged.  Although I believe the steps will be comomonplace in a couple decades, there is great value to taking a leadership role; delays will cost more in the long run.

There are three trends that must be reversed:

*    trip lengths and car-ownership are both still growing;
*    retailing and government are still amalgamating outlets and abandoning neighbourhood centres and main streets; and
*    citizens are pessimistic that safe and convivial civic spaces are achievable.

The plan calls for not only increased densities, but “community cores,” realizing that shifts in travel to the green alternatives will require dispersal of services to within walking distance of
all residents; it is not enough to exhort people to drive their cars less.

How will planners create the sea change to reverse the three trends and avoid the costly road expansions to accommodate car travel that has been growing about twice as fast as the population for decades, with local trips more and more occurring on regional roads.

I suggest that they way to do this is to change the basis of zoning.  This will be hard since residents are just as supportive of its approach as are planners and the institutions and
companies which deliver goods and services.

Zoning is based on the principle of compatibility: that land uses that are different usually fight with each other and should be segregated.  That is somewhat true, but different land uses also
provide complementarity. Although it is the job of planners to deal with both, the infatuation with car-ownership has been used to pretty much ignore the latter; walking propinquity has been
superseded by automobile propinquity, as if they are the same thing.

But for the half of the population without continuous car access, the PED-CIVs (poor, elderly, disabled, children, ill/infirm, and visitors), such a shift in propinquity is a serious problem.  The
shift has shown the blind side of the other half of the population   the AAAs, the active, affluent adults that does the planning and spending.  The result is that our civic places, including streets and parks, are dying and unsafe, and AAAs have become chauffeurs and unwilling subsidizers of programs that partially compensate the PED-CIVs for the loss of walking propinquity.

Zoning does not consider the land use in the context of its scale and the nature of the locale it will serve.  A dress store of 100 square meters will require the same amount of parking regardless
of its location.  Nearby residents in the latter area tend to agree, since they are very touchy about “strangers” parking on “their’ street, even if each parking spot induces increased traffic, the bane of all neighbourhoods.

What I propose is a kind of neighbourhood-context zoning that distinguishes between a business that is of a scale and nature to meet the needs of customers living within walking distance
without attracting additional customers from further way, from those that draw just a small percentage of its customers from nearby.  It is does, it will be embraced by the community and
should be given much lower parking requirements, a major economic advantage, along with reduced property taxes, since it will not generate as much road use or air pollution as another kind of store in that location.  This review will occur whenever the store or office changes its function of operation significantly.  Also, non-conforming rights should fully legalized.  And finally, renting parking on one’s premises will not be a zoning violation, unless the parking spaces were not required as needed (maximum parking requirement will be explored by the Region).  This allows for parking spaces to serve several businesses that have complementary time-demand  curves (e.g., office workers during the day; cinema patrons at night).

The effect of these changes will be that businesses will be rewarded for meeting local needs.  In turn, they will save on not only parking but expansive interiors, large outdoor signs, and using more local advertising (community newspapers, bulletin boards, and the old standby, “word-of-mouth).  The community will, in return, have the services they need, without the car traffic generated by themselves heading to other neighbourhoods for items lacked locally, and those from other neighbourhoods coming into theirs for items missing there.  This is a point Australian  writer, David Engwicht, made in Ottawa during his 1994 visit.

The name I have given this is simply: travel-reducing development: TRD.

This is part of the framework that is being promoted by a new non-profit initiative I have started with Andrew Love.  Initiatives for Neighbourhood Integrity (inneigri@ties.ottawa.on.ca) website by June) [non-existent in 2013] promotes ways to increase the self-sufficiency and sense of responsibility of neighbourhoods.  The first such initiative is the May 20th workshop on Neighbourhood Governance at the University of Ottawa for representatives of community associations and local business groups.  Another will be a study of corner stores and neighbourhood retailing trends to find ways to strengthen local services.  And car-sharing will be explored as a way to reduce car-use and ownership by making hourly car-rental available on a  club-coop bases from within 500 meters of all residents and businesses (five clubs are now operating in Canada).  [author co-founded Vrtucar in early 2000].

If neighbourhoods were assigned lower-tier planning powers and if regional tax rates for each neighbourhood were set according to each neighbourhood’s ability to achieve more self-sufficiency and thus less reliance on regional services, TRD would probably emerge naturally.  The 1995 RMOC “Community Vision” (subtitled, appropriately, “A Region of Communities”) reflects the population’s desire to find a way to make the city more local
(and “lo-cal”) and we would rediscover our walking-scale “fabric.”  Maybe there needs to be a new slogan for planners and architects: “Feet follow fabric.”


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