Wednesday, December 12, 2012

ReThink London must address urban myths

In early September my wife and I spent the better part of a week in Montreal, Quebec. Wonderful city. It is one of my favourites. I spent a lot of  time walking about the Côte des Neiges neighbourhood where my wife and I were staying with friends.

I have been following the oh-so-long London Free Press series examining London and I have been involved with ReThink London, a year-long review of the city's official master plan. The goal of ReThink is a new urban plan good for the next 20 years.

London is not Montreal. That said, there is a lot that London can learn from La Métropole. Let's begin.

Myth: Cars or people. One must make a choice.

Côte des Neiges is filled with people and cars. The area is alive.

All too often one reads stuff on how to make better people places. Add trees and flower beds while subtracting car traffic — is a good start, or so we often are told. Bunkum!

I've seen this done in Paris, France, too.
I was raised in a walkable neighbourhood. No car was needed but that did not mean there were no cars. It was the early '50s and every passing year brought more and more traffic. I lived near King's highway 39, a truck route through Windsor, Ontario, but even a busy highway did not hinder walking.

The Côte des Neiges neighbourhood continues that tradition. It is very walkable but filled with cars: cars on the roads, cars parked on both sides of surrounding side streets, and cars beside homes and even under them.

But, unlike the neighbourhood of my youth, Côte des Neiges has retained its rich mix of businesses. One reason might be the high residential density — approximately 20,000 residents per sq. km. There are lots of customers within walking distance and there is adequate parking for those who choose to drive.

What can London learn?

We must increase the density of our city. London has a published density of about 871 per sq. km. This number is probably low because a great amount of London is still undeveloped. Compared to Côte des Neiges we are very thinly populated.

Myth: London cares about increasing urban density

What's missing? Answer: Apartments above these box stores on Wonderland Rd.
London talks the talk but fails to deliver. When it comes to use of land, London is a pig. We come no where near maximizing our use of land. Increasing residential density is very important. It enables public transportation to become competitive and it makes the development of walkable commercial areas possible.

Not London: Note apartments above stores.
The planning committee rejected staff recommendations when they extended the "community enterprise corridor" on Wonderland Rd. The committee also loosened the grid patterns for residential development.

The Free Press reports that city planner John Fleming warned members the innovative nature of the original plan could be killed.
“You either have a plan or you don’t have a plan,” Fleming said.

What can London learn?

London has to spend some time looking at what other communities are doing to bring residents into commercial areas. The people making the decisions have to look to both older communities like Montreal and newer developments. Moving too fast may well saddle London with poor, low density developments that will be a blight to the community for years.

Myth: London has too many railroad level crossings

London does have a lot of streets intersected by railroad tracks. This is true. Still, everywhere there is a level crossing there is at least a crossing. The Montreal folk I talked to said they had too many cul-de-sacs, the result of street closures where a railroad cut through the neighbourhood.

Not the best example, an underpass is nearby, but the cul-de-sac results from tracks.
Depending on where you live in Montreal and how far you must walk or drive to get across a set of railroad tracks, you may think Londoners are lucky to have so many level crossings.

I worked for more thirty years as a news photographer for the local paper. I was inconvenienced by slow moving freight trains now and then but generally level crossings were not a huge problem. In fact, I saw them as a benefit.

Which is better: A street blocked by a passing train occasionally or a street blocked 24 hours a day by a fence-lined railroad track?

What can London learn?

There are some level crossings that should be eliminated. Let's focus on the problem spots, while taking pride in the fact that London has fewer cul-de-sacs thanks to our abundant use of level crossings. All level crossings should be controlled by gates with flashing warning lights.

Myth: Industrial areas in residential areas should be eliminated

Residential, commercial, industrial and religious uses mix on this Montreal St.
If the industry is loud, dirty, or smelly, it doesn't belong in the middle of a residential neighbourhood. But we should not be too quick to prevent industry and commercial areas from bordering on, or even mixing with, residential areas.

It was done with success in the past and is being done again in some large urban centres in the United States. London has an old, mixed use area in east London. Think of the abandoned McCormick's plant. McCormick Boulevard, behind the plant, has a number of manufacturing operations.

If the city has its way, the beautiful, historic terra cotta biscuit factory will be demolished and the land behind it redeveloped for housing. What a shame.

Why not allow the small industrial area to remain? If someone wants to walk to work, they can. Isn't that one of the goals of new urbanism?

The Montreal street shown is but a short walk from Côte des Neiges. It has residential units, commercial businesses and some industry.

It even has a rich mix of buildings devoted to religious activities. A resident assured me there is no move being made at this time to "clean up the area."

What can London learn?

Mixed use works in other communities. Maybe we can do it better in London. When I was a boy there numerous manufacturing plants in my neighbourhood. These businesses made an effort to blend in with the neighbourhood. I recall one plant that had a flower garden out front filled with colourful snap dragons. I used to see workers walking to work, a lunch bucket swinging at their side.

Myth: A simple grid pattern yields the greatest resident density

This just isn't true. It is easy to get from A to B when streets are arranged in a simple grid, but CMHC has devised a better approach when high density is the goal: The fused grid.

To learn more about the fused grid approach please read my blog: ReThink London: The answer is "fused grid".

What can London learn?

Having spoken with the city planning staff, I know that some planning officials in London are well aware of the fused grid. Yet, I went to a ReThink London meeting where city planning staff left mention of the fused grid out of an answer given a woman interested in knowing what urban street pattern was best at maximizing density.

London planners have to boldly step up and share their rich, urban planning knowledge with interested Londoners. ReThink London must be willing not only to be challenged but to do the challenging at times. London planners must not be timid when it comes to leading.

Myth: Cookie cutter homes unique to suburbia, especially '50s suburbs


A row of homes in North London.
Cookie cutter homes have been around literally forever. They are not unique to suburbia. The Côte des Neiges neighbourhood has a lot of houses of a similar design — mostly duplexes. But it is still an interesting area for a stroll.

Why is it interesting? The homes have nice touches. One home has a gorgeous wooden door in a beautiful stone enclosure. Another home has an interesting decorative treatment above a featured window.

Truth is that many of the duplexes in this Montreal neighbourhood seem to be little more than tract housing for the masses. Yet the years have been kind to the neighbourhood. Upkeep is important and many of these homes have been maintained with money, and more importantly, with respect.

What can London learn?

Insulting descriptions of neighbourhoods can often be the sign of a weak argument. When you hear the argument that a suburban neighbourhood is merely a collection of cookie cutter homes, feel free to ask: "And your point is?"

Add your own myths to my list.

There is a ReThink London meeting tonight and I want to get this posted. I encourage you to think about what you believe about cities, what you have been told, and to ask yourself, "Is this true?"

Think about the stories you may have read in The London Free Press about heritage buildings being demolished because they were impossible to save. The paper is often quite willing to simply report the words of those destroying the old structures; The paper rarely gives the other side of the argument.

Let me give an example from Montreal.

I understand this old home Victorian home was threatened with demolition. It was saved after the local community protested its planned destruction.

The home sits behind a Petro-Canada station. It appears to sit sideways on its lot — the front yard has been taken, or sold or something. Still the home has presence. It may be hidden but it cannot be missed. It may be white but it adds colour to the neighbourhood.

What can London learn?

Older neighbourhoods should be respected. And heritage buildings should be retained. If you want to create a people place, respect the history of the area.

I look forward to seeing many of you at the ReThink London meeting tonight.

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