College Quarterly
Fall 2004 - Volume 7 Number 4
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Yes, In My Front Yard – The Neighbourhood Imperative

by William Humber, B.A., M.E.S

"The great struggle of the 21st century will be between those who believe in cheap goods and those who believe in place." - Michael Shuman (2002, p. 202)

The following brief stories provide some perspective on the meaning of the contemporary environmental challenge. Each in its own way is related to the more specific theme of my discussion on the neighbourhood imperative as the foundation on which any meaningful long-term response can occur.

  • Free markets have been described as our ability to enjoy bananas in February. Bananas however may disappear within twenty years thanks to specialized breeding to ensure their colour and availability in February.
  • The Monarch Butterfly may be eliminated in our lifetime, as their winter habitat is clear-cut to provide wood for a variety of consumer products.
  • Part of the cost of building chateaux (they're not called houses anymore) in York Region has been the loss to date of 15 billion litres of fresh water sucked from the ground to make way for sewer and water supply pipes.

It's my contention that these disappearances each have connections to the more intimate places where we live. Our demands and expectations are directly related to the building of chateaux, indirectly in the products we purchase from the loss of habitat, and philosophically in our short-term measurement of the meaning of free markets.

I feel obliged to begin by recognizing, in light of our theme of "urban places, urban games", that my neighbourhood has two significant hockey connections with front yard implications. Both in turn lead to a larger observation about the idea of human habitability and environmental stewardship.

Across the street from me on Beech Avenue in Bowmanville, Ontario, Al and Anna Strike have, for the past 41 years, constructed a home-made hockey rink for use by local children. Originally it was for their three young sons but they have long since grown up, married and had children of their own. Still the Strikes continue the annual tradition. Boards consist of old doors from countryside barns and bits and pieces of construction boarding.

Towering conifers shade the rink on the Strike's front yard and this rewards Al and his volunteers (usually his grown sons) in putting down a solid base of ice, which will withstand temporary mild spells. He figures it takes a good 14 to 20 hours of spraying to achieve the desired result. The rink has been known to last until the school break in March.

Just around the corner is one of the more prominent homes in Bowmanville, complete with a widow's walk above its third floor. John Higginbotham, the town pharmacist in the 19th century, built it. On a slight rise the home looked down on Liberty Street and, like the Strike property, had a majestic lawn fronting it. Members of the Winnipeg Victorias hockey club gathered here annually in the late 19th and early 20th century on their eastern swing.

In the summer after winning the Stanley Cup in 1896 their star defenceman Fred Higginbotham from Bowmanville had been killed in a horse riding accident on the Winnipeg property of one of his fellow players. His team-mates honoured Fred by laying flowers on his gravesite and then visited the family home.

Though the house is still there, the special view from the Higginbotham front door down towards Liberty is no longer possible. A developer bought the front yard twenty years ago and built two rather ordinary semis on the site. Since I know the people who live in both semis I won't say anything more about their homes.

These two stories illustrate the seemingly convoluted point I am moving toward, that the challenge of environmental degradation and the loss of bio-diversity ultimately have their remediation in how we deal with what Andres Duany, in a lecture at Georgian College last year, called the issue of human habitability. By this he meant any meaningful solution to environmental challenges would require tackling consumer lifestyle options and car-related design at various neighbourhood levels.

These places include generally low-rise residential areas but also mixed use and higher density places (from the apartments surrounding the World Trade Centre site to much of Hong Kong). It is here, particularly in low density residential communities, that we make choices from water use on lawns and within our residences, to pesticide use, to whether our kids walk to school or ride long distances, to the size of homes and the products therein and the associated demand for energy, to whether we plant and tend trees, to the width of our roads and the volume of other impermeable surfaces, to how many cars we own, to what we share, and what we hoard, to whether our sense of entitlement and privilege has any limits.

You therefore might notice a contradiction in the two stories I have told.

The Strike's community hockey rink sure uses a lot of water, and the two houses in front of the old Higginbotham house appear to be a valuable kind of infilling necessary for the advantages of urban intensification. Yet there is much to like in what the Strikes did, and much to abhor in what was done to the Higginbotham house.

I'll conclude this point by describing two other situations that appear counter-intuitive in their logic. Recently the former chief planner of Toronto, Paul Bedford, decried lengthy environmental assessments and hearings before new public transit could be built. A couple of years ago Andres Duany railed against the imposed solar orientation of homes. Such positioning had the potential, he argued, to detract from the new urbanist ideal of street connectivity and the focusing of many eyes directly onto the street. He feared it might also restrict opportunities for greater neighbourhood identity as mixed use was compromised by other objectives.

How could one be against either environmental assessments or solar design and still appear to be on the side of reduced environmental degradation and a healthier bio-diversity?

Their arguments are based on a recognition that this issue of environmental degradation is not one out there in the oceans and forests, not someone else's problem reserved for a bureaucrat, a corporation or even one's personal intervention and action though they are useful models, and not one solved solely through technological fixes though these may have local benefit. Environmental remediation is ultimately dependent on the millions of personal decisions, with collective consequences, that we make as to where and how we live. In doing so we either reduce or add to what Wackernagel and Rees have called our ecological footprint. These have an impact whose profound feedback results either in harm or benefit to oceans and forests at the macro level or to the habitat of individual species (such as the rare plant versus a highway extension) at a micro level.

At the Creative Places and Spaces Conference last fall in Toronto, Winnipeg Mayor Glen Murray described these as choices between either consumerism or intergenerational regard. It remains unclear which we prefer, though the former has clearly been on the ascendance since the end of the Second World War.

Returning to the Strikes and their rink I would argue that there is a larger environmental, not to mention health, benefit to the watering of their front yard in winter. It keeps people in the neighbourhood for activity that doesn't have to be purchased; it gets them outdoors; it reminds us of our commitment to others.

In the case of the Higginbotham front yard there were other locations for this infill than a property whose grand presentation would have contributed a further reason for people to walk through this area. It also had traffic calming (there is a whole body of psychology on the role roadside variety plays in slowing traffic) and other recuperative effects.

Both of these hockey-related properties therefore have qualities contributing to a vibrant public realm and its associated habitability beyond what is at first apparent.

I could add more to this discussion on the role of physical characteristics in enhancing or degrading an area but I will limit myself to examining more fully the idea of the neighbourhood as the rooted locale in which so much of our lives are lived. Neighbourhoods are one of the more permanent features of the built environment, from homes to the deliberately human-arranged natural world. "Neighbourhoods," Witold Rybczynski said in City Life (2002, p. 227), "are the lifeblood of any city."

There is, however, an ill-formed view by some that neighbourhoods are no more than sentimental attachments with no social significance and only minimal geographic reality. Individuals, so the argument goes, now pursue their own interests or work and are bound only to those who are geographically distant from their residence. Harvey Cox pondered some of these issues in The Secular City 40 years ago, and others have made similar observations. What neighbouring remains is little more than an accident of real property investment and constitutes a period of brief near residency before the owners divest their interest and move to another, apparently better, place.

On the other hand, Richard Florida (The Rise of the Creative Class), and Canadian policy observer Neil Bradford, have identified neighbourhoods as being real, not sentimental, entities which effect the decisions made by talented people and companies as to where they locate. Bradford says economic development is based on assets, "…ranging from global business clusters and leading edge workforce skills, to inclusive neighbourhoods with well-preserved built and natural environments."

The neighbourhood reality shows up as well in the way issues of poverty, health, and even body image are neighbourhood based. A New York Times magazine essay (12 October 2003) said, "In America's rundown urban neighbourhoods, the diseases associated with old age are afflicting the young." A lack of clean buildings, a deficiency in the number of parks, and stress associated with crime, were just a few of the factors cited.

The neighbourhood is above all else a contemporary urban identity. It emerged from the rise of the modern city which in the 19th century was a centralized industrial manufacturing place based on steam power and fixed link transportation, but in the 20th century became a disaggregated region supported by the dispersing effect of electricity and vehicles.

Prior to the modern urban industrial age the collection of people in near proximity to each other ranged from tribal gatherings to employment locales (such as the guilds of the Middle Ages). A crucial moment in the evolution of the human species had been the switch from nomadic to settled residence. Hunter-gatherers required something on the order of 16 square kilometres for each person in a 100-member tribe. All 100 could therefore live for only a brief time in any 16 square kilometre area. Such space could not maintain them for long and so they were constantly moving. The development of agriculture and the domestication of animals, however, meant that those same 100 people could live a more sustainable life on those same 16 square kilometres. Residential permanence was thus possible and with it the creation of what we might think of as the first neighbourhoods.

In retrospect we might see these as proto-neighbourhoods. They did not have the conscious or planned aspect of that modern identity, as we know it, except perhaps in advanced urban places such as those in ancient Greece and Rome. Even here it is unclear how, or if, this sense had our modern form or was based simply on shared exigency (i.e. rulers surrounded by the ruled; members of the military; rural workers for whom urban residence was temporary and ill-formed).

Our modern idea of the neighbourhood reflects the explosive growth of city life since the 18th century and the collection of a body of strangers. They were drawn from the countryside and, in the case of North America, from across the ocean, as aspiring employees of an expanding industrial and later service economy. In the city they lived in close residence to each other.

What distinguishes these neighbourhoods in which they lived from what could be called neighbourhoods in other eras was their deliberate and intentional quality. They developed as a commodity within an explicit urban culture driven by capital and free markets associated with urban industrialism.

Ironically, given this morning's combination of talks, the story of the neighbourhood is similar to that of modern sports like hockey whose early forms as play, ritual and folk game appear similar to the game of today. It required, however, the commodification of sports as entertainment, commercial enterprise, and hometown boosterism before leagues, collectibles, record books, rules (a product of industrial standardization) instant replay and superstars could ever be imagined.

Likewise the formalization of neighbourhoods in Europe and North America as part of the industrial revolution provided the basis for their export to cultures not yet affected by these changes. Today we describe places from Brazilian favelas to South African shantytowns as neighbourhoods even though they have not in most cases progressed far beyond the primitive living conditions of the middle ages.

The North American neighbourhood might have started as a combination of strangers but ethnicity, class, work, and often religion drew people together during the first phase of centralized manufacturing in the 19th century. Individual homes and vertical tenements were side by side, work was often just around the corner, as were small saloons, groceries, and the myriad features of urban life from shoe repair outlets to ballparks. All were generally within walking distance. These were places of both squalor and vibrant public life. They became conscious identifiable commodities through the agency of real estate promoters and the reforming influence of social workers who either established "Neighbourhood (also known as Settlement) Houses" in the crowded downtown or, like Ebenezer Howard, designed new communities based on the neighbourhood unit intended for the nearby countryside.

The idea of neighbourhood in North America has always been challenged by our enlightenment era sense of individualism and by a high regard for property as an investment. External controls or, more often, obligations are not welcomed. Personal proclivity to move, often in search of new opportunity or real estate return, and the increasing opulence of one's private space from backyard to interior, have supported these beliefs.

By the 20th century, electricity and the car not only dispersed production but made possible increased suburban residence and ultimately a form of privatization in which communication and entertainment, once limited to public meeting places, could now be accommodated in one's own home or apartment. Vibrant inner city neighbourhoods declined in many cases while suburban neighbourhoods became less places of engagement with the world than oases of retreat from it, situated as they were in emerging Edge Cities (Garreau 1991) based on function and profit over design and public interest. This corresponded to the growth of the "Not In My Back Yard" or NIMBY quality of civic withdrawal for both city and suburban residents in which personal entitlement superseded even interest in one's next door neighbours unless they had to be organized against a common threat to their individual privacy.

This fragmentation of public spirit has been supported by a whole series of legal and financial entanglements. Land use zoning for instance dictates that areas be either solely residential (and then of only one building type and income class), or commercial and, in a few remaining instances, industrial. Diversity and surprise are eliminated. Fiscal polices such as mortgage deductibility in the United States and an earlier policy of redlining older neighbourhoods contributed to suburban sprawl and the public cost of new roads and associated infrastructure.

The extreme aspect of urban living in this second stage of modern urban development is intensifying with the combined features of on-line electronic independence, the expanding size of homes, the military aloofness of the private car, and the growth of gated enclaves along with private systems of law. Yet against this return to a kind of Greek and Roman model of urban living (the rulers surrounded by the ruled) is an upheaval in the intellectual underpinning of the city, a change as it were in the urban paradigm. The post-war low density, single use subdivision as model has been replaced by a more dynamic urban idea incorporating mixed use, graduated density range, street connectivity and development located in support of public transit, and alternative personal mobility choices such as bicycling or walking.

This more dynamic urban idea, while still nascent in many forms, has at least joined the public dialogue on the future of the city and is reflected in more generous notions of what is meant by human habitability, and the attractions of a more diverse and spontaneous urban existence. Ideas like those of traditional urban design, the new urbanism, the creative city, urban and "urbane" sustainability, and smart growth are part of a new way of thinking about cities and reflect a more intentional urbanism in which the attributes of historic city life are actively pursued.

The neighbourhood offers the opportunity for building new forms of urban living partly out of necessity and partly out of desire. Necessity drives this process by concerns about the human health of a largely sedentary population dependent on the car; by what Jane Jacobs called the "great blight of dullness" that informs too many places; and the potential for a collapsing economy that is dependent on a suburban lifestyle of high gas costs, shoddy construction and the increasing time demands of commuting. With respect to the latter, the public in many parts of Canada demands lower taxes but increased expenditure on health care and policing. Disposable income is needed to finance aspects of a non-sustainable urban sprawl-related living standard, but the associated lifestyle is burdened, on the one hand, by medical consequences such as asthma, heart disease, and diabetes, and, on another, by issues of public security and traffic management. The cost is paid by imposing the debt obligation on future generations or asset stripping the present by sacrificing anything for which an immediate value cannot be calculated, from scenic views to school sports and arts programs.

The elements however of a new neighbourhood-based strategy in which human habitability issues merge with environmental stewardship are found in a number of opportunities. Some of these include:

Locally–based Infrastructure: The emerging technology of more dispersed infrastructure delivery includes on-site treatment of waste water, energy demand and supply side management, to improved air quality by means of integrated green space and trees, and associated opportunities for diversity in site-specific planting and song bird regeneration. With regards to the latter, the primary sustainability indicator of environmental health in the United Kingdom is the vitality of the songbird population, which tends to be better in the city with its diverse settings than in the country with its monoculture industry. Sebastian Moffatt of the Sheltair Group in Vancouver has been a leading exponent of what he calls Green Infrastructure but which may be more aptly called Hybrid Infrastructure for the way it integrates on-site solutions with existing centralized hydro, water and sewer systems.

Smart Communications: Electronic communications tools contribute to privatization but also have the potential to invigorate neighbourhoods. Functionally they can support local infrastructure through the integration of individual home automation systems with neighbourhood and regionally based sources of water and energy supply and demand management, as well as their potential use for security, fire, and other elements of personal safety. As a communications resource they include Internet based radio and news coverage in a kind of electronic community centre. In the absence of meaningful newspaper coverage in my neighbourhood for instance we recently used a simple list serve to notify people about the passage of a steam train through town. Over a hundred people showed up on the big day. Finally, such tools contribute to emerging artistic expression from individual CD music production to publishing of local interest. Neighbourhood-based performance also includes the exploits of sports teams as a reminder of an earlier day when the Toronto Beaches fielded a Grey Cup winner.

The Metaphysics of Place: Settings dominated by an engineering bias for straight lines over curves, and disrespect for the imperfections of nature are challenged by what I call a metaphysics of place in which peculiar attractions of a local place - from its colours to its sounds and smells, and the play of light though buildings and nature - contribute to feelings of attachment to one's surroundings. These emotions often give rise to sensibilities of a "oneness", which some describe in religious terms, others impute to psychology, and still others render in more literary ways. In all cases they are about a sense of mystery and distinction of place and explain why locals adopt pro-active strategies including heritage designation.

Human Scale: Designing for comfort and safety are not only the concerns of building managers but also an aspect of the public realm of streets, verges, roads, and a mixture of building type. The Dutch word "gezellig" describes a certain feeling of home, safety and security, which could be applied to the built environment. Kirkpatrick Sale and Christopher Alexander amongst others have recommended means of building relationships between people and their built environment such as the ratio of residential building size and lot placement to street width and sidewalk location to maximize people's desire to walk through an area repeatedly. Graduated design in which small apartments (for those whose lifestyle or income requires such choices) are placed alongside single residences eliminates the jarring spectacle of a high rise in a sea of low-rise homes. This design approach supports higher densities as well as diverse living opportunities within a neighbourhood.

The Economics of Local Opportunity: Appropriate infill provides for greater mixes and numbers of people that in turn supports a diversity of locally based enterprises from small-scale production and services to independent retailing in which imaginative individuals offer a selection of food, books, or household items not found in formula, big-box chains. Alongside these is working at home, which, though it might initially contribute to increased privatization, does take people off the road. All of these require zoning flexibility and accommodation on the part of residents. Jane Jacobs has described the health and safety benefits of many of these functions and lately has speculated on the emerging need for such neighbourhood retrofits as part of an energy and lifestyle survival strategy.

The importance of the above ideas is that they are potentially part of a more intentional neighborhood in which residents appreciate the opportunity for civic, economic, and environmental engagement.

An intentional neighbourhood operates at three scales of organization. The smallest is the street level ranging from perhaps a hundred people (like the old nomadic tribe), to those on nearby streets numbering no more than 1,500. Next in size is the roving neighbourhood unit in which residents partake of many possible nearby neighbourhoods each with upwards of 5,000 or more residents, equivalent to the mythical small town in which many people say they'd prefer to live. Basic services from shops to restaurants and some community facilities like schools and medical clinics are available. The largest scale is the neighbourhood district of anywhere from 20,000 to over 100,000, like the Parisian arrondissement, historic garden suburbs, or the Little Italys of so many North American cities. They have both a distinct geographic identity and a greater range of services from high schools and hospitals to more diverse shopping and artistic venues.

The success of any of these three levels of intentional neighbourhood, however, requires that residents take apparent risks, venture beyond their locked homes and cars, engage in civic affairs with strangers, invite new enterprises into their area, enhance intergenerational regard, test decentralized infrastructure resources, and commit to personal mobility and shared obligations. Support and action for these deliberate choices is mixed.

There are intriguing signs however. Besides increased intentional urbanism, is the phenomenon Mike Davis describes in Magic Urbanism in which immigrants from central and south America have repopulated and transformed formerly derelict areas of inner city Los Angeles by combinations of front lawn bodegas, painting the house in vibrant colours and integrating inventive home based industries amongst residences.

Such initiatives start in neighbourhoods but require legislation for mixed use, taxation to support small economic and renewal activities, investment in local infrastructure and on-site energy and environmental solutions, and other policies to counter the current subsidizing of urban sprawl and its insidious partner, logistics management. These measures reward those whose environmental impact is lessened by virtue of their commitment to the neighbourhood imperative within an intentional urbanism.

Finally, acknowledging the neighbourhood's role as the lifeblood of city success and introducing and supporting technological and habitability innovation for environmental improvement depends on increasingly progressive markets as attitudes change. The tipping point of a new market sensibility might be as simple as putting an ice rink, if space permits, on your front lawn or planting a tree whose splendour will occur long after your lifetime. It may be as simple as choosing the diversity of a lively multi-owner shopping district populated by imaginative retailers over saving a few cents at Wal-Mart. It may be as simple as choosing to live without bananas in February.

References

Garreau, J. (1991). Edge city: Life on the new frontier. New York: Anchor Books.

Rybczynski, W. (2002). City life. New York: HarperCollins.

Shuman, M. (2002). Going local: Creating self-reliant communities in a global age. New York: Routledge.


William Humber, B.A. (honours), M.E.S. is the Chair, Centre for the Built Environment, Faculty of Applied Science and Engineering Technology at Seneca College. He can be reached at 416-491-5050, ext. 2500 or bill.humber@senecac.on.ca.

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• The views expressed by the authors are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect those of The College Quarterly or of Seneca College.
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2004 - The College Quarterly, Seneca College of Applied Arts and Technology