Remaking the Suburbs for All Seasons (1999)

by Chris Bradshaw, published in the Ottawa Regional Society of Architects Quarterly, Summer 1999

The suburbs have always been knocked for being bland, but that
never started a movement as strong as New Urbanism to improve
them. But New Urbanism has provided a lesson that the suburbs can
be urbane.  All suburban cities in our region are working on
urbanizing their town centres, and builders are experimenting
with more intimate streetscapes with front verandas and less
visible garages.  Also, the built-in-not-out regional official
plan calls for “community cores” to reduce the need to drive.

But this still leaves fifty-plus years of older suburbs
untouched.  Are changes to them necessary or even possible?

In my opinion, the answer to both questions is yes.  Their
dependency on car-access is probably their most important
drawback.  That has made them toxic to teenagers, to the elderly,
and to the environment.  And with the recent spate of high school
violence, mostly in suburbs and smaller towns, there are serious
questions about how nurturing they are.  Even the suburb’s target
population, the young family, is realizing that fear of  stranger
danger’ and traffic collisions results in the growth of
chauffeuring of children to most functions, a serious drain on
their energy and patience.

Are changes possible?  Yes, but only if one of the suburb’s most
pious characteristics is reversed.  What is that?  It is the
suburb’s immutable, non-participatory character.  As Joel Garreau
said in Edge Cities, the suburbs may not be so bad after they are
allowed to mature, as the urban areas have.  He neglects to
mention that city centres changed because zoning didn’t exist
then.  Zoning codes are not just hard to change, by the residents
like that fact.

As a community relations specialist, it has been my job to work
with community groups who, for the most part, are groups that
pressure local government to not make changes to land uses or to
their streets.  The residents assume that any change would only
make their developer-created environment worse.  Maturation is
not in their vocabulary.  But that stance reflects their
powerlessness in the face of the development bias of the Planning
Act and of municipal councils that have very large populations.

In a previous ORSA article, I explored the concept of TRD, or
travel-reducing development.  It is based on the premise that the
monoculture of the suburbs creates the long trips, the dependency
on driving (and the poor transit service as well as poor walking
and cycling environments), and therefore the very traffic they
left the urban neighbourhoods to get away from.  Neighbourhoods,
I suggested, need balanced land uses, carefully crafted to meet
local residents’ needs for services and existing merchants’ needs
for customer demand spread over the entire week, which saves
money and time and space for both, along with the ancillary
traffic.

If I were still living in a suburb today (we spent five years in
Blackburn Hamlet in the late 1970s)m there are four additional
changes I would be working for in order to make TRD possible and
allow the maturation process to move ahead.  These changes would
bring back the local living that now occurs only for a couple of
years when a subdivision is new, and will make it a real
community.

1.   Side Lanes

To make walks and bike rides shorter, more varied and
interesting, new walkways should be constructed across the short
dimension of very long blocks made endless by series of cul-de-
sacs and crescents.  These side lanes are easier to install —
and more practical in Ottawa winters and for those who find long
lanes a security concern   than the New Urbanist preference of
back-lanes which cut the block in half along the longer
dimension.  Side lanes would be installed primarily to link two
adjacent streets that are not now connected, or would allow new
access points to greenway corridors.  The local government would
develop a  deal’ with adjacent landowners.  That would include
the provision of insurance, maintenance, fencing, lighting, and
perhaps annual payments (or reductions in property taxes) as a
form of compensation.  But a quid pro quo frame of mind would
turn the new  frontage’ into as-of-right rear-year infill lots,
one for each of the four owners on each 200-foot laneway who
would be giving up a sliver of sideyard.

2.   Neighbourhood Councils

Probably the only way such laneways could be created   and for
TRD to be made a reality   would be for neighbourhoods to get
some self-governance responsibilities in the upcoming municipal
reorganization.  Neighbourhoods cannot have any wholeness, or
integrity, without some tools and a group of people who will look
out for its future.  I do not recommend that they have all the
bureaucratic trappings of municipalities, but should instead be
created and empowered by the new uni-city municipality.  Unlike
the existing suburban cities   and the boroughs and “community
councils’ of mayors Chiarelli and Watson respectively   these
will be neighbourhood in size and less formal in structure,
although they must be fully accountable.  In some ways, Business
Improvement Areas (BIAs), for commercial areas, could be the
structure to copy.  Each would have its own planner to monitor
the demographic data and document the current demands for
services, advise the small council on how to create the side
lanes, and coach the council on what services and new residential
development that will truly reduce the need to drive.

3.   Hub Schools

I attended the three-day “future search’ conference held recently
by the Ottawa-Carleton District School Board.  The discussions
focused on the way that the board responsibilities might be
changed to meet the realities of today and the future up to the
year 2015.  I was gratified to see “hub schools’ discussed the
most.  These represent a school that is more than the place where
K-12 students spend 32 or so hours a week under the custodial
direction of the school board.  It would also be the place for
all residents to receive learning resources throughout their
lives, as well as the full range of helping resources for the
emotional and psychological ups and downs of life, providing the
bridge between the informality of the family and the formalities
of the many  care’ institutions, usually located in office parks
far away, disconnected from the community context and resources.
They would also have day-care facilities for both the very young
and the very old.

4.   Car-sharing

A half million Europeans are now members of carsharing clubs (and
several hundred Canadians in Montreal, Vancouver, Quebec City,
Victoria, and Toronto).  These are basically user-owned car-
rental agencies that rent for short urban trips of a few hours
rather than for whole weekdays or weekends, as the commercial
car-rental firms do.  They also store the cars in dispersed
locations near members’ homes and jobs, to allow them to be
accessed by a short walk, relying on phone-call reservations and
smart-card readers for queuing and accountability.  The monthly
itemized bills provide users both better record-keeping and
accurate feedback on the real cost of car use.  Of course, since
the clubs allow sharing the high level of fixed car costs,
savings are significant.  But also are the motivation for finding
alternatives to driving, including patronizing local shops.  Most
families have demand for car-access that can be better met by
such clubs.  As their success grows, not only would car use drop,
but the land for parking spaces would decrease dramatically.

5.   “DePoTs”

Finally, there would be a value to introduce new services to a
neighbourhood institution that is admittedly not doing well now:
the corner store.  These urban versions of the general store that
still exist in villages and hamlets in the region, would expand
their services to meet new demands.  I have coined the term,
DePoTs, delivery and points of transfer, to recognize the kind of
shift in function they would take.  They would be the place to
get one’s mail and courier parcels (saving additional driving in
the neighbourhood, as well as cost for the service) drop-off
points for dry-cleaning and photo-development, collection points
for recyclables (saving the costs and traffic of having the big
trucks have to stop at the foot of every driveway), tool and
furniture libaries and fit-it points, as well as provide a supply
the usual corner-store staples of bread and milk.  The village
council could approve requests from a retired resident on a
corner lot to convert his double-car garage.  This would be a
chance to exercise micro-TRD, and to create several street-scale
part-time jobs.

With these changes, all interlocking and co-dependent, we should
be able to return a high level; of self-sufficiency to suburbs,
and the safety and quiet of a highly walkable community.  Transit
service would improve, and the most ubiquitous long trip, the
daily commute, could be rescued from the web of car-dependency,
since the car would not be needed for the shipping and services
that are not so far away.  When those commutes occur by transit,
cycling, or walking, the stop-over at the community core or the
DePoT will not create the negative impacts on neighbours or
terror for parents of children that a stopover in a car does.
And there will be less need for older residents to move out in
order to be able to retain access to services without having to
drive.

Finally, the biggest drawback of inner-city neighbourhoods  cut-
through traffic; would be a thing of the past.  They would not
need to contrive their peace and quiet by closing off streets or
installing speed bumps or having police officers lurking
everywhere.

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