Walkability + Livability

I think a lot about the question of what might make my neighbourhood livable and thriving long term.  And how does that relate to affordability?  And the environment?  I’ve been trying to get my mind around some of Jane Jacobs’ and others’ thinking about urban planning, in an attempt to understand and change my neighbourhood.  Why?  Because middle- and lower income people have been leaving.  They can’t afford the rent. They can’t afford to buy.  And that is changing the character of the place.

I’ve been trying to imagine what might enhance Roncy and prevent it from becoming just another expensive but perhaps less creative community.  This might seem counter-intuitive to some, but after a lot of reading, I think we need many more diverse people, densely “packed” into much more ‘mixed-use’ development.

One of Jane Jacobs’ points is the need for lots of pedestrian traffic in a neighbourhood, for as many  hours of the day as possible, for safety and  “walkability” and potential to thrive.   Densification benefits the safety of residents. It benefits the environment + development costs as well, with more people per unit  of  infrastructure.

Even 15 years ago, countless homes in the neighbourhood consisted of three or more apartments, often with a basement unit as well.  There were many ‘rooming houses’ as well as duplexes, triplexes and so on, not to mention socio-economic diversity.  There were industrial and semi-industrial buildings most of which have now been replaced or renovated into residential.

With so many renters – as opposed to merely owners – there was probably a greater variety in lifestyles and hours of work, for starters. There was much more foot traffic throughout the area, with many working night shifts.  Today, when my daughter waits for a streetcar before sunrise, the streets are virtually deserted, thus a safety issue.  Deserted streets are not ‘walkable’ streets.

Local access to doctors, drugstores, community centers, restaurants, all accessible on foot, also translates into walkability and less greenhouse gas.  I expected that the local population would be less now, but it has apparently increased.  Would that be mainly due to the condos built in recent years?  If so, I would also guess that the lower income residents who lived in rooms or basement apartments may have been replaced by ‘high-end’ residents with significantly greater incomes. What can we do about that?  Why should we care if artists, musicians, teachers, social workers, retail clerks, and writers can’t afford to live here?  Because they enrich our lives.

Does anyone do the actual arithmetic?  If we anticipate an increase in an urban population over five years of, say, 20,000 residents, can we estimate how much and what sort of construction it will take to house that many people while maintaining a rental vacancy rate of five  per cent?

Vancouver’s former mayor Sam Sullivan did do some math according to journalist Daniel Wood.*   He estimated the number of people on his block to be about 1,000.   “So one residential block downtown equals 30 West Side blocks,” Sullivan says.  “All those boomers in expensive Dunbar homes that young families can’t afford.  Doesn’t make sense.  Schools there are closing.  The whole West Side needs density!”

He could have been talking about Roncesvalles Village/Parkdale – except that our schools are supposedly bursting at the seams.  I’m guessing many of the homes that used to contain singles, ‘roomers’, and little old ladies, now contain families with children.

Daniel Wood also comments, “Most people understand that urban densification is necessary.  Globally, suburbs are an environmental catastrophe.”   While I wholeheartedly agree, I’m not sure this understanding is that widespread.  And certainly, most people I know seem to feel it’s not necessary in my neighbourhood.  They don’t seem to get the connection between climate change or affordability and the everyday choices they make.

Will a relatively conservative culture encourage more affordable development, evenly integrated into increasingly denser neighbourhoods?

Back to Jane Jacobs, people might argue about what she would support or recommend.  Some talk of her as if she were a “NIMBY” type (not in my back yard), but she apparently supported the St Lawrence neighbourhood development.  This is a mixed-income, mixed-use development, with a certain percentage (about 30% at the time,  I think) subsidized.  The development was to enable people of quite different socio-economic backgrounds to live together as a community.  Diversity.  One of the operative theories was that this would help break cycles of poverty.

In my view, that happened in a more socially conscious period that has completely disappeared – replaced by a strong anti-government sentiment that almost precludes any government involvement or influence in humane activities like housing.

The St Lawrence development was not only beneficial socially and economically. Ideally – for reasons from walkability to climate change – we’d build many like it.

Urban hubs.  Clusters of mixed-use buildings and diversity, created around the shared infrastructure, reminiscent of the way people might cuddle up together to share a campfire.

It would mean an adjustment.  But we’re human. We can do that.

*http://www.straight.com/news/vancouvers-density-debate-pits-sullivanism-versus-ideas-jane-jacobs

**Greater Toronto Area

This entry was posted in affordability, gentrification, neighbourhood, Roncesvalles Village, Toronto, uban planning, urbanism, Vancouver and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

7 Responses to Walkability + Livability

  1. Ardean says:

    A very interesting topic. I moved out of the suburbs (brampton) mainly because as a single, 40 year old childless women (that’s not depressing at all!) – there isn’t much out there for me (besides some family ties). With the hope that finally moving to Toronto proper – I will find a ‘place’. I never thought or knew of the impact that the ‘suburbs’ have on the environment. From the standpoint of a person coming from a lower income up-bringing and as a racial minority (just realizing that I am) – I would definitely like to see culturally rich neighbourhoods like Roncy (considered moving there) continue to embrace diversity and stop the on-going gentrification pushing out the ‘lower’ classes.

  2. This is a really great article. Here in Princeton, NJ, we have a massive problem with affordability, and a big shortage of small housing units (one or two-bedroom apartments and town homes). We believe that the solution is to put affordable, walkable housing around the walkable downtown core. However, any project that attempts to offer that faces massive pushback from many local owners of low-rise single-family homes. Densification is anathema, because they claim it will bring traffic and ‘destroy the character of the neighborhood’.

    We think this is wrong, but it’s a huge struggle. I’d like to say I’m confident that eventually we will be able to make the case why walkable development with affordable units is the best [only?] solution to our problems with traffic, loss of green space and social exclusion, but it’s not certain that we will be successful.

    • I’m so glad you’re optimistic! At the end of the day the hardest thing seems to be getting people to change perspective — so that is increasingly something I focus on learning more about. Last night I was talking to a victim-renter in the neighbourhood who may now have to leave after decades here (her bldg. has been sold) and when I talked about densification, she was somewhat shocked, is one of the many who just ‘love things the way they are’. Maybe we should teach ‘attitude adjustment’ or ‘realism’ in schools! 🙂 But she will be thinking about what I said…. I can feel a buildup to another blog post! Meanwhile, there’s an interesting sounding conference coming up:
      http://www.cityage.tv/toronto/about/ I hope I find some inspiration there…..

      • Haha! I’m not sure how optimistic I am! But it’s good to know that there is a community of like-minded individuals all around the world who recognize the values of living in walkable communities. Hopefully by banding together we can share tips on how to promote urban sustainable living.

  3. A potentially exciting development in Toronto (+ reason for optimism?) is our new Chief Planner – described here: http://www.thegridto.com/city/politics/rules-of-engagement/ There’s also a new TEDx talk by her (haven’t watched yet):

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