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Tuesday, August 17, 2010

21st Century Suburbia

The London Free Press story had a good lede:

" . . . picture the land rushes of the 1800s, when tens of thousands of people on horseback, wagon train, bicycles, foot, mules and railway cars raced each other to stake claims in the wild American west.

Change the horses to BMWs, and the pioneers to developers . . . and you'll have the London rush."

Randy Richmond is a fine reporter and writer. When I saw his byline on the weekend special report on the changing of southwest London from farmland to an urban landscape, I poured myself a coffee and sat down for a good read. It wasn't much of a read, one page. Nor was it all that good. By the time I had finished my coffee I had finished Randy's piece.

I'll be upfront with my feelings about New Urbanism; It's mostly a crock. If you think large homes jammed tightly together on small lots is an imaginative response to suburban sprawl, I think you should think, and imagine, again. You can be forgiven if you've been fooled, sold a bill of goods, as most of us haven't visited these New Urbanism utopias but only read about them. And New Urbanism gets good spin in the press.

Snout houses, as Randy calls them, are rapidly appearing.
Randy tells us it will be "goodbye snout houses." I guess Randy hasn't visited these New Urbanism utopias either.

The homes on the left are part of a new development going up near Wharncliffe Road South. In this development it is, "Hello, snout houses."

Randy quotes a city councilor: "Everybody wants to be the first to build." The first? As is obvious from my pictures, the building has already begun and it is not all that creative.

The homes, some quite handsome, sit on streets that curve and curl and are joined by short streets called gates in subdivisions of past decades. Suburban crescents are not uncommon in the new subdivisions in the southern part of London but courts are rare, but not as rare as the traditional "grid pattern of streets" mentioned in Randy's piece.

Apparently high density and four car garages go together.
According to Randy, the new housing will achieve "higher densities than in many areas." I believe him. Many of the subdivisions presently being built are composed of attractive homes squeezed tightly together. This does not mean that no homes have suburban-wide frontages. This home in Talbot Village has a large, double-doored garage off to the side. Personally, I like its look but it does not say high density.

One of the hallmarks of New Urbanism is the inclusion of neighbourhood retail space, ideally centrally located and no more than a five minute walk from any residence. This mixing of residential and retail minimizes the reliance on the car and if done correctly adds a sense of place to the new community, or so we are told.

Possibly the closest shopping district to Talbot Village.
I believe it was The London Free Press writer Christine Dirks who wrote the piece on Talbot Village before the earth was even turned for the suburban development off Colonel Talbot Road below Southdale Road.

As I recall, Talbot Village was to be possibly London's first foray into New Urbanism. In the end, it wasn't. It's a suburban development and a good one with many of the homes having pleasant '30s facades. But when it comes to shopping, you can't buy so much as a bottle of Coke and a bag of chips in Talbot Village. For shopping residents must get in their cars. (This has now changed. As of November 2010, a Tim's and a No Frills grocery store are being erected in Talbot Village.)

Appealing? Maybe. Architecturally breathtaking? No.
The folk living in the apartment buildings shown are in London's finest apartments according to the sign posted by the Tricar Group. They live within a short walk of the Wonderland Road shopping district. They're closer to more stores than the folk in the pseudo New Urbanism development.

Now, don't get me wrong, I like apartments. In fact, if I could get an apartment with the floor space of my home and for a similar monthly cost, I might move. But I can't and so I won't.

The wow factor
My main reason for showing these two twin structures is the claim reported by Randy that all structures in the developing southwest, "even commercial and industrial enterprises" will have "appealing architecture." These buildings may be appealing but they are not grabbers. Check out this tower being built in Mississauga. You might not agree, but I think this building is an eye-catcher.

I find it interesting that, according to Randy, Wonderland will be the gateway to the city. The curvaceous Absolute Towers serve the same gateway role in Mississauga. The difference is that the Mississauga buildings are an exciting architectural design. They break with the past and open our eyes and minds to the sculptural possibilities of architecture.

These amazing buildings would look even better in London as they would not have to compete with a lot of other towers. The canvas is still somewhat clean in London but this will not last and there is little sign that anything exciting is on the horizon.

Randy talks of a grid pattern of narrow, tree lined streets with cars in the back of the houses. I read that lane ways were part of the original plan for Talbot Village. The actual subdivision not only has the garages in the front, some roads are widened to allow cars to be parked in front of the homes but off the main part of the street. I think it is actually a good idea but it is not New Urbanism.

A lovely street but why does anyone think that this is not urban sprawl?
Oh well, as I said at the beginning, the lede was good. I googled everything in the story but the best stuff I found was on the American land rushes. Check them out. Randy pointed us in an interesting direction --- even if that direction was not towards southwest London.

These homes present a design approach popular around the world but are they high density housing. I think not.

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