Globe Real Estate
The Perfect House

JOHN BENTLEY MAYS
The Globe and Mail


 

Back in the waning years of the 20th century, a local appearance by Miami planner Andrιs Duany made reporters and architecturally savvy citizens snap to attention.

Both Mr. Duany (which rhymes with rainy) and the New Urbanism, as his neo-traditionalist planning gospel is known, were controversial. Politically correct enemies, appalled by the old-fashioned pitched roofs, shady front porches and Lassie Come Home streetscapes favoured by New Urbanism, denounced the movement for promoting feel-good architecture instead of making the revolution.

The doctrine was dismissed by other bien-pensants as nothing more than a high-sounding strategy for making better-looking suburbs. Deep inside the concrete bunkers where bad urban planning goes on, grumbles were heard from bureaucrats laying out big-box malls and sprawling subdivisions, and thinking up dirty ten-lane solutions to our traffic headaches. The sales power of neo-traditional neighbourhoods — with through streets and no cul-de-sacs, and loaded with encouragements to walk and discouragements to drive — was not at all obvious to real estate developers and home builders.

But while Mr. Duany still occasionally portrays himself as a martyr to the critics — "They hate us!" he told me over lunch — both he and the New Urbanism are ex-celebrities. They're certainly not dead. They're just cool.

They are very cool in affluent North American suburbs worried about fresh outbreaks of car-dominated sprawl.

Apart from a few developers and environmentalists, local citizens barely raised an eyebrow when Mr. Duany turned up in the comfortably middle-class Toronto suburb of Oakville in September to lead a week-long public discussion about the development of a huge swatch of town land.

As far as I know, Toronto didn't notice at all.

The whole business of what happens in Oakville, however, is far too important to ignore. According to a decree handed down by the Ontario Municipal Board last summer, 8,000 acres of lovely pastures and shaded ravines in north Oakville are to be rezoned to provide housing for 55,000 people and workplaces for 35,000.

This is, in principle, a good proposed use for one of the Greater Toronto Area's largest remaining swatches of greenfields. Over the next 20 years, the population of the GTA is expected to rise by millions, largely through immigration. As Mr. Duany reminded us often during the Oakville discussions in September, 55,000 people is the projected number of immigrants for only six months. Torontonians — here I'm talking about citizens of Oakville and everywhere else in the GTA — should offer the newcomers the most excellent accommodation in the world, by reason of humanity, courtesy and proper hospitality.

Sitting through the week of sessions, listening to Mr. Duany handily deal with whatever mild criticisms the environmentalists or developers threw his way, I wondered whether New Urbanism had become too respectable for its own good. Granted, there was a little outcry when Mr. Duany suggested that a bridge be put across Sixteen Mile Creek, the most conspicuous natural feature of the tract under discussion. And some people wanted to tinker with the balance of green space and built-up territory. (While respecting the popular desire for protected animal habitats in urban settings, New Urbanism tilts toward strengthening the human habitat as a place that's walkable and liveable.) But I suspect that nobody seriously disagreed with Mr. Duany's typical New Urbanist proposals for Oakville, unveiled on the last night of the series.

Housing will be clustered into several small neighbourhoods on a strong grid of streets and transit lines. Each neighbourhood will be focused on a central square or park lined by little shops and stores. The new downtown of this part of Oakville will have large buildings and hard streetscapes, while the residential architecture will have a neo-traditionalist look borrowed (in this instance) from Ontario's Victorian villages and small towns. The activities of life, work and shopping will no longer be sharply segregated, and each neighbourhood will, ideally, be a mixture of all three.

I can't think of objections to any of it. So are we all New Urbanists nowadays?

Suburban sprawl, gated communities, and out-of-control car culture — bad things New Urbanism seeks to prevent and remedy — still have friends among the developers, though the proponents of such unnatural phenomena may be dwindling in number and influence. Some developers, in fact, have come on side with the New Urbanists. Sprawl-addicted Ontario suburbs, such as Markham, and now Oakville, have hired Mr. Duany to help them sober up and nurture good neighbourhoods on old corn fields at the edge of town.

If the idea that cities could avoid new plagues of suburban desolation with a revival of old-fashioned town planning was once thought laughable, nobody's laughing any more. Still, certain doubts about the New Urbanist agenda persist. Nothing Mr. Duany said during the public sessions in Oakville, or to me over lunch, completely allayed those doubts.

With a well-rehearsed wave of his hand, for example, he handily dismissed the contention that New Urbanism is too much about fabricating the appearance of community in new suburbs — I'm talking about those small-town porches and such — and too little about building real community in the wounded downtowns of North America's old cities.

"Anybody who does any reading on culture knows it's all about appearances," he told me. "We are not here to reform the world. We are recreating and restoring traditional urbanism for the social and environmental benefits, and for human happiness."

But benefits and happiness for whom? If the populating of north Oakville's 8,000 acres follows the pattern of the town's growth over the past century, and if Mr. Duany's proposals prevail, the chief beneficiaries of New Urbanist development will be affluent white people who earn their salaries in Toronto but find the city's ethnic, cultural and economic diversity intolerable.

The dream of "community" — a favourite word in Oakville and also among New Urbanists — will come true, but only as a pale and anemic simulation of the real, organic and untidy thing.

Should incomes remain high, and the commitment of Oakville's politicians and planners stay steady over the years to come, a nice place to raise kids — without panhandlers, mental patients, poor people or other banished inconveniences of urban life — can quite possibly be fabricated on the rolling uplands of north Oakville. But it will be a terrible place to raise kids — a sterile fantasy of the good life complete with loads of I'm-all-right-Jack attitude, but devoid of the civic morality encouraged by urban surprise, experiment, jostle, disappointment and delight.

"Here in Oakville," Mr. Duany said to me, "we are no longer radicals." Perhaps the New Urbanists were never as radical as they seemed, only a few years ago.

 

 

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