Franc D’Ambrosio of D'Ambrosio Architecture + Urbanism chimes in on density, change and neighbourhood character in Victoria.
Who is this "character" and what does he want with MY Neighbourhood?
What are the secret ingredients that make our neighbourhoods desirable?
When changes to the neighbourhood are proposed, why do we become wary and possessive of our familiar territory?
On my twenty minute bike ride to dinner the other evening, I passed through the streets of four or five discernibly different areas. Each one made up of a variety of streetscapes and hosting a full range of activities, from industry, through commerce, to all manner of housing. The unofficial borders of these neighbourhoods were apparent, sometimes abrupt and sometimes diffuse. Often a change in the landscape features was the defining boundary. Sometimes the type of street would change, its pattern of use by people or vehicle traffic speed. Could this observable edge be an acknowledged element of good urban design or an aspect of neighbourhood character?
Moving along, I took a mental inventory of the buildings along my meandering route. I noted new buildings among 100-plus year old ones. I saw a variety of building types, sizes and geometries. All constructed in the many years since European colonization. With few exceptions, the properties I passed have undergone renovations additions, and infill replacement. All within the generally static framework of regulated street-widths, setbacks, sidewalks, and other components of a typical city block. A sometimes intended and elegant, and sometimes accidental and clumsy mix. Contextual fit is an illusive architectural goal.
The position of buildings on private lots, their proximities and alignments, are very important to the spatial experience of a neighbourhood. When viewed from the public right-of-way, the ‘space’ of the street is defined by the apparent proportional characteristics of topography, trees, open space, and buildings.
The three-dimensional composition of these elements are the main drivers defining the neighbourhoods’ apparent scale. Are scale, and proportion, neighbourhood character-builders?
Riding slowly through the tree-lined streets of a predominantly residential neighbourhood, I imagined myself there 70 or 80 years ago. Larger and smaller trees, less or no parked cars, but in form, essentially the same. There were single houses originally designed in adopted styles of their various epochs. Some, modified to be multiple dwellings, and others replaced with apartment houses or buildings for commercial use. Even with constant change, there was something timeless about this place. The ambience is neither, solely architectural, nor attributable to any other neighbourhood component. Was this what is referred to as timelessness? Is it too, a secret ingredient of neighbourhood character?
I rode up to a large boulevard tree, (probably planted when my friends’ house was built), opened their side-gate and walked into the back-yard of the 50’ wide by 110’ deep lot, past a single garage, and a small garden studio, and was confronted by the buzzing of thousands of bees. My friend calmly called out a warning to stay back from the box-hives, as the honey bees were in the throws of expanding and establishing a new hive, and therefore in an agitated state. Bees, as it turns out, are extremely sensitive to, and protective of, their living environment. Their neighbourhood, you might say. The less possessive chickens in the fenced run nearby, came toward me, mistaking my arrival for that of their evening meal. Their realm, based entirely on food source.
It occurred to me that I was a 25 minute walk or 8 minute bike ride, from the centre of Victoria's downtown core. Yet, I was in a distinctive, human-scaled, mainly residential neighbourhood that has been modified and densified over time. A place whose influential characteristics were largely determined by a framework that has been in place for decades, but has been subjected to an evolving urban morphology. The single family and apartment houses, the corner store, the small machine shop, the commercial bakery, with all their historic, contemporary and future expressions, have undergone significant additions and deletions over time.
And yet, in this modestly sized lot in this modestly scaled neighbourhood, the spaces between buildings, and their relationships with each other and the street, as well as their proximity to other diverse neighbourhoods, allowed for a multi-faceted life.
Are the location and proximity to employment and services, the things that drive human behaviour, more secret ingredients in the neighbourhood character recipe?
My friends have lived in this neighbourhood for over 25 years. They have had a store-front business in another neighbourhood for almost as long. It occurred to me that their presence, and the characteristics of their occupancy, may hold the key. Human behaviour, industry and activity. Are these the illusive, seminal ingredients of neighbourhood character, I was in search of?
I considered the comings and goings of this family and all the people living in the neighbourhood: Their child-rearing activities; street and sidewalk sports; curb-side auto repairs; spectacular Christmas light displays; profit-free garage- sales; compulsive replanting of interesting plants in the tiny front yard; painting and repainting the exterior of the houses; acquiring and replacing of multiple vehicles occupying the garages and driveways; preparing for, and returning from camping holidays; minor incidents with the authorities involving exuberant revelry on a weekend or two; barbecues across backyard fences; construction and deconstruction of garden walls, fences, and barbecue pits; planting of the public boulevard; painting of the telephone poles; and yes, neighbourhood Block Parties.
I suggest that among others, it is the human activities and interaction with fellow residents and the physical place, that results in the visual and ambient atmosphere that constitute neighbourhood character. Yes, the buildings, trees, bushes and fences have a role, and yes, their number, size, shape and details have positive and negative impacts, but not because of their age or style. Not because they are frozen in an arbitrary time, and certainly not because these elements of a neighbourhood are to the taste and preference of a self-appointed individual or group. It is because the design of the urban ensemble that is a neighbourhood, has been accomplished through good urban design. Sometimes, in fact, in conflict with official planning policy.
The fear of change that people legitimately feel when faced with proposals to add more people to their neighbourhood, is most often caused by the unknown. The anxiety that if ill-considered and not done well, densification, or other kinds of changes made to an existing neighbourhood, will at worst destroy, or at least damage, the quality of life in that place. Neighbourhood character emerges from qualitative aspects of community life. The quantitative aspects of higher density such as larger capacity buildings and closer proximities, when designed with the intention of accommodating more people in a secure, convenient, robust and beautiful setting, can nurture positive community life. It is that, good community life, that manifests as neighbourhood character.
This ideal is rather illusive and there are good and bad examples of how the priorities of the development industry, combined with planning and regulatory structures, can create varying degrees of success. The solution, or at least a way to increase the chances of maintaining or creating good neighbourhoods, is to reform the systems that are used to develop new buildings in existing contexts. The first step in that reform, is to identify and address the impeding problems in our public and private, planning and development protocols.
This is a call to bring together relevant knowledge, experience and expertise*, muster all pertinent forces, and address the shortcomings of our systems. This, to allay the fear of allowing more people to share the good life, in this good place, and to contribute to the character of all our neighbourhoods.
D'Ambrosio Architecture + Urbanism
* Defining the systemic city-building problem: Some constraints on urban design of good neighbourhoods
Adapted from: The Urban Design Compendium, Corporate Strategy Department
English Partnerships - London, UK
• The compartmentalization of professional disciplines - the traffic
engineer, civil engineer, architect, landscape architect,
planner - rather than adopting a multi-disciplinary approach.
• The lack of recognition of the legitimate role of the public sector to
promote high quality design through planning, site assembly,
procurement and investment.
• The predominantly conservative, short term and supply-driven
characteristics of the development industry - particularly
house-builders, who concentrate on the ‘house’ as a product rather than
the creation of a ‘place’, lifestyle or community.
• The property and financial industries’ preference for single use schemes
• A lack of innovation in development approaches in respect of
sustainable development, use of new technology, construction
efficiencies, and planning and design appropriate for the 21st century.
• Reactive planning and development control approaches and mind-sets,
applying quantitative standards (zoning, density, parking, privacy
distances etc.) rather than providing qualitative advice and judgements.
• The lack of a reliable, robust and generally adopted series of guidelines
and processes through which high quality design can be procured.