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Friday, July 5, 2013

Many neighbourhoods have character, not just Wortley Village

Shaded suburban street in south west London. Note garages are to the side.

I'm disappointed in ReThink London. Planning a city is a big task and it is a task best done with big plans. But the plans cannot be divisive but must involve everyone in the community, including local politicians. If the members of city council are not on board, the plans are just so many empty promises.

On a corner lot, Byron home's garage is on the side, out of sight.
I find the ReThink process involves small thinking on a grand scale. I call the thinking small because it seems contained, boxed in, trapped in a maze of clich├ęd urban planning approaches.

This is not to say that small thinking is wrong. It's not. The ideas are just expected: line some core streets with trees, protect the Wortley Village heritage neighbourhood, adhere to placemaking, smart growth and compact development practices.

If the ideas are good why am I so aggravated? Why? Because all too often the ideas seem to spring from text books and not from an intimate knowledge of London. The ideas do not come from the heart. The ideas have no soul.

What I have found surprising is that the city planners do not seem to be familiar with their own city. When urban planning LFP reporter Randy Richmond interviewed planning director John Fleming, and an urban design expert who was a member of the London placemaking team, Richmond was told, "We have to tame the garage."

Hawthorne Village, Milton: Does London have to copy this?
Ah yes, tame the garage. No need to say snout-nosed neighbourhood. We all know what is being talked about, and we all know the new urbanist solutions, such placing all garages at the back of the lot, hiding them in laneways at the rear of the homes.

Richmond reports that planners say it's easy to turn lots on their sides, as in Hawthorne Village in Milton, making them wide and shallow to allow garages to be built beside homes rather than in front.

Why go to Milton to sample this approach? Just go to Byron, only fifteen minutes from downtown London. This late twentieth century Eadie and Wilcox subdivision has wide lots, narrow streets and in many cases no sidewalks. Most garages are off to the side of the homes and not jutting out in front. The aging Byron subdivision tamed the garage decades ago.

According to city planners, mandatory sidewalks are so yesterday. "Shared space" is the phrase of the day. Cars and pedestrians share the space and this makes those on foot more alert and encourages motorists to reduce speed.

In many ways this Byron neighbourhood is the wave of the future but built yesterday. Again, a tip o' the hat to Eadie and Wilcox.

This rather impressive London suburb garners little interest from city planners, while Wortley Village and Old South rate a discussion paper examining how to best protect these heritage neighbourhoods.

Is this home less significant than my '20s Petersville home?
I'm all in favour of protecting the character of the Old South or the Woodfield Community east of the core but I question why we stop at protecting a few, select heritage neighbourhoods. Decades before a heritage community became a heritage community it was just a collection of new homes, a subdivision outside the city centre.

I used to live in the former Petersville on the west side of the North Branch of the Thames River. I found my 1920s era  home on Wilson Avenue listed by the city as a residence with architectural significance. A small, barn-shaped home, it is an example of a working class home from the days before the Great Depression.

Sadly the stucco has been covered with vinyl siding, the front porch enclosed and the small front yard covered with paving stones. Also, the porch has been notched to allow parking on the front lawn. The notch allows the front of the parked car to slip under the porch. Faux shutters now border the upstairs windows. There is talk of protecting Petersville but that protection will come too late for my former home.

This Byron home has the look my Petersville home once had.
As part of ReThink London I suggest rethinking how we protect neighbourhoods. What's good for Old South is also good for the Woodfield Community or for Byron or Westmount or for the whole city.

I believe the city should have a department that assists homeowners in the upkeep of their homes. These maintenance and reno experts would be able, thanks to computer software, to quickly show homeowners how to best retain the original visual look of their homes. They could point homeowners in the right direction for finding companies capable of doing the required work.

Since moving to Byron I've watch a number of homes undergoing improvements that were anything but improving. If, in 70 years, someone wants to preserve the Eadie and Wilcox Byron subdivision, it may not be possible. With the passing decades the original neighbourhood will be renovated out of existence.

Since suburbs seem to encourage driving rather than walking maybe we should be applying some of the Old South thinking to Byron and other subdivisions.

Note the artist's conception, on the left, showing the finished look.

When a local developer built a new apartment building on a major corner in Wortley Village, stores were located at street level and two levels of luxury apartments were constructed above. This is an old approach, mixing commercial and residential, and very much in tune with the heritage of the Old South neighbourhood.

More and more, box store retailers are being forced to endure having apartments located above in the name of compact development. Why is this not being done in London? At one ReThink event we were told it's being done in Vancouver with great success.

If London is going to grow in a more compact manner, neither Old South nor Byron can be the model. Yet both neighbourhoods deserve respect. Many Londoners see the value of Old South thanks to the patina of age.

If the Eadie and Wilcox development in Byron manages to move into the future intact, it too may gain the heritage patina that comes with time. Maybe then planners will realize that these wide lots complete with large flower gardens and fleshed out with trees and bushes have created an almost park like setting for the residents.

It is a wonderful place to walk and lots of people do. The sidewalks are often filled with folk walking their dogs or simply out for a stroll. Thanks to the pedestrian walkways linking various crescents and courts distances are often shorter on foot than by car.

I have taken this wide path to stroll from my home to the grocery store.
When walking to the grocery store or the bank, I often take a wide path that ends at Colonel Talbot Road. Unfortunately the last 100 yards is just a crude  path. One might say, when it comes to walkability the city planners talk the talk but fail to walk the walk.

Duplex in Hawthorne Village in Milton, Ontario.
Some years back when Randy Richmond wrote a piece entitled: A Tale of Two Suburbs - Placemaking, he wrote the piece with the help of city planner John Fleming. As I mentioned at the beginning of this post, the city planner spoke very highly of Hawthorne Village in Milton, Ontario.

Check out the duplex, on the left, found in Hawthorne Village. There are streets lined with these homes.

Now check out the duplex, below, built by Eadie and Wilcox in Byron fully twenty years before the Milton development. In many ways London developers have been very imaginative.

Show London developers a better way of doing things, an approach that others have found profitable, and with the right planning guidance in place the city might become a better place, maybe even a world class mid-sized city.

A duplex in the Byron subdivision in London.
For background on this post, read the Randy Richmond story published some years ago in The London Free Press. (If the link has not been broken. I've noticed that this happens occasionally.)

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