Doughnut City

Jason Niles, land use consultant and member of the City of Victoria's Advisory Design Panel offers a thought provoking perspective on building healthy cities.

If Victoria were a doughnut, which doughnut would we be?

My vote would be for the Cruller, architecturally distinctive with a golden twisting form. Its duality of being both light and dense, gets me every time.

Although the Danish is often touted as something we should strive towards, with its great bike lanes; great fashion; and great decor. Let me state, I do understand a Danish is not a doughnut, but felt it was needed to reference the importance of dedicated bike lanes.

One doughnut or pastry, Victoria is not.


The majority of North American cities have experienced the phenomena of locating growth on suburban edges, causing decay to downtowns and inner-city neighbourhoods. In planning terminology, this is called the “doughnut effect”. Urban sprawl started with the post-war economic boom and continued unchecked until alarming impacts became apparent by the 90’s. Compared to similar sized cities in Canada/USA, Greater Victoria has had a mild case of suburban sprawl, minus the Colwood Crawl. Many cities today are still in a hangover period, trying to figure out why they subsidized peripheral lands for low-density communities; and municipal budgets continue to battle with how to pay for services and infrastructure systems that are unsustainable.

Lessons learned from this period of growth:

  1. We are what we eat;

  2. Urban centres are where innovation and meaningful conversations originate;

  3. Education and awareness towards future-thinking is undervalued; and

  4. Accepting differences amongst a population is the definition of City.


In past work, we used a technique for public engagements in land use planning, where participants are asked to imagine how to design the worst future for their city. People love connecting with their dark-side. Fantastic ideas come forward: “Block out the sun”, “Cut down trees”, “Don’t let the children play”. The vomit list, as it is called, gets written down and there, in-front of everyone is the anti-future: the common shared vision of a not so great future. Also it is here where we notice community visions tend to focus on end-results, rather than designing processes that cultivate the desired future.


I don’t have the stat infront of me, but I would take a guess doughnut-eating cities have a more diverse doughnut selection, compared to non-doughnut eating cities. I also predict they have learning environments where students study theories related to designing doughnuts, and experts are on-hand to test and recommend doughnut types. Writers critique new doughnuts, retired doughnut makers share doughnuts stories of the past and visitors travel great distances to admire iconic doughnuts that have been preserved. Last week, I witnessed a tourist point and tell their friend “look, it is another mid-century”. Mmm, I thought to myself, they know their doughnuts. Most importantly, the residents of the doughnut-eating cities are well supplied with doughnuts. No need to go far to find a doughnut to call home. They have doughnut options. Life makes sense.

Now, cue the doughnut dystopia. A state of stale, expensive lumps of boiled dough. Where great doughnuts are hard to find and the well-designed doughnut is a relic. The City is left to work with remnants of the lowest common denominator and all the doughnuts begin to look the same. Identity of the doughnut-eating city becomes mass-produced and individuality a luxury. Neighbourhoods become protective of their doughnuts. Lawns are dotted with DAD signs (Doughnuts are Dangerous) and the reoccurring question, are the doughnuts affordable?, is prevalent. Is there a doughnut to raise my family or has my favourite been replaced by the “doughnut of the month”. No more new residents, no more new doughnut varieties. The doughnut-eating city is in peril.

Is there hope for Victoria?

I believe there is space to be optimistic. Decision-making in a complex system and building healthy cities is not easy, but it can be done. Healthy cities are dense, just like doughnuts are tasty. Victoria makes great doughnuts and there's no reason it can't make great density. Imagining what our cities will look like in the future is an exciting endeavour and should hold more value in our communities. I was reminded of this recently, while reading the obituary of British architect Will Alsop. He was quoted to say:

“Architects are the only profession that actually deal in joy and delight — all the others deal in doom and gloom.”

Yours truly,


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