It Really Comes Down to Choice

I decided to write this article in order to share some of what I have learned with others in the community regarding the Congress for the New Urbanism, their goals, theories, and what it means for Windsor. The discussion will generally be presented from my own interpretations of the subject matter. I encourage you to conduct your own research to form your own opinions. Following this, I will briefly discuss two possible local opportunities based on what is covered here.

I’ve spent most of my life in one suburban type of community or another. For the most part it has been spent right here in Windsor, Ontario. I’ve grown to appreciate the appeals of the single family home as so many have.

Over the last number of years I’ve become increasingly interested in the urban conversation and the debate surrounding suburbanism. As an architectural professional, urban design and thinking are engrained in us during our education. However, when I thought about urbanism I often pictured cities like Toronto. Having grown up in mainly suburban communities this didn’t really appeal to me that much. Once I stopped defining urbanism as an outcome of density, that started to change. Density is not what makes a place urban.

As I researched the subject further during my free time I was persuaded by the arguments. Urban neighbourhoods have a lot to offer. Nevertheless, I remained skeptical that these theories and practices could work in Windsor. Luckily, the Congress for the New Urbanism National Conference came to me when it was held in Detroit (and Windsor) just over a week ago. It was a wonderful opportunity for me to ask questions and better understand what the movement was about.

The Congress is a collection of planners, architects, designers, developers, politicians, and more who each have their own views but share common beliefs.

When I first started learning about urbanism I held the common misconception that urban advocates wanted us all to live in high-rise apartment and condo towers. That is not the case. The Congress is a proponent of traditional neighbourhoods. Their goal isn’t to take away the beloved single-family home. What their argument really boils down to is choice.

It was discussed during one of the lectures at the conference in Detroit that according to the American Automotive Association it costs, on average, $10,000 per year to own and operate a vehicle. If we take that as being accurate it is little surprise a large percentage of the American population does not own a vehicle or have a driver’s license. This includes young people who have decided they do not need a vehicle of their own, or simply cannot afford one.

Windsor is an automotive city, located in a region steeped in automotive history. Personally, I love cars and enjoy driving. But, just because I enjoy driving doesn’t mean everyone else should be forced to as well. That really isn’t a fair expectation. People should also have the practical option of walking, cycling, or using transit to reach their destinations either all or some of the time. Our community has developed in such a way as to take those other options away. We have large residential areas where people can only live. We have shopping centres where people can only shop. And you guessed it; we have business campuses where you can only work. These areas are all segregated by use. In addition, we evaluate the suitability of a site to be used for important services by how long the drive will be for the majority of users.

This is where the CNU and their traditional neighbourhood come in. The traditional neighbourhood refers to the style of neighbourhood typically designed and built prior to the conclusion of WW2. The traditional neighbourhood still has single-family homes which Windsorites have grown to love. But, they also have other things nearby too. In these neighbourhoods a variety of daily needs are available within a 20 min (1/4 mile or 400m) walk. These needs may include amenities such as small shops, restaurants, markets, schools, and more. Clusters of homes suited to different age groups and income levels may be mixed in as well. This means that people working in the neighbourhood will have the option of living in it regardless of what stage of life they are in. Having nearby schools allows more students to have the opportunity to walk to school rather than requiring buses or carpools. The best local example of this style of neighbourhood is Olde Walkerville. Residents here have nearby entertainment, shops, restaurants, market, places of worship, Willestead Park, and schools.

Having choices doesn’t seem too bad does it?

Walkability

We can work to bring in a greater mix of uses into our neighbourhoods in order to provide more choice. However, we must address how people will actually get to those new destinations. For them to be successful we have to find harmony between vehicles, pedestrians, and cyclists. There are several components to creating walkable neighbourhoods. Jeff Speck, a prominent member of the Congress for the New Urbanism and the author of the book Walkable City: How Downtown Can Save America, One Step at a Time, breaks the components into four categories as part of his Ten Steps of Walkability. Those categories are: useful, safe, comfortable, and interesting. The most important aspect to tackle first is safety. On many of our sidewalks people can feel exposed. The sidewalk is pushed up against the road and there is nothing standing between the pedestrian and the speeding car that hops the curb. There needs to be some type of barrier between the pedestrian and the motorist. Street parking establishes a wall of steel between the motorist and the pedestrian. Trees, lights, benches, etc. also add to the layers of protection of the sidewalk while also making it more pleasant and comfortable.

Street parking can also make cycling safer. An interesting fact that was mentioned at the conference is that recently Detroit adopted a new bike lane policy. This policy required all new bike lanes to be separated from motorists. One method of accomplishing this is by placing street parking between the motorists and cyclists.

A byproduct of adding street parking, pedestrians, cycling, and the other elements to our roads is that it forces drivers to be more cautious and attentive. This tends to slow down drivers and calm traffic. This in turn makes it safer for pedestrians and cyclists to cross the street.

Once we are able to make walking and cycling a safe choice we can shift our focus to making sure that the journey is actually interesting. Having a nearby destination and a safe path to use are great steps; but, if the journey to a destination is dull people are less likely to want to take it. Parking lots and garages, vacant lots, empty fields, blank walls, etc. are all sights that are unappealing for a person approaching or traveling by them. Arguably, the best way to make a path more enticing is with a variety of quality architecture. This includes both the built form and landscaping. This should be of little surprise as people often take a drive to sight see interesting architecture. It becomes a form of entertainment. We find ourselves in a world where instant gratification is often expected. Quality architecture can provide that reward and give incentive to continue. A quote I recently came across sums up the need for quality architecture nicely:

This discussion reminds me of a wonderful set of drawings by Leon Krier in which he shows two buildings side by side from three different distances. From far away, we can see that one is a classical palace, the other a modernist glass cube. The Palace has its base, middle, and top, while the glass cube is articulated with the horizontal and vertical lines of its large, reflective windows. As we get closer, the palace reveals its doors, windows, and cornice, while the glass cube remains the same as before: horizontal and vertical lines. Zooming in to just a few paces away, we now see the palace’s decorative string course, the window frames, and the rafter tails supporting the eaves. Our view of the glass cube is unchanged and mute. We have walked a great distance to the front door but received no reward. (Jeff Speck, Walkable City: How Downtown Can Save America, One Step at a Time, 245)

With mixed-uses, nearby destinations, and safe and interesting paths we can create a Windsor with more choice. At the end of the day, that is the goal of the Congress for the New Urbanism.

Where Can We Start?

There are many great locations in our community which could be better utilized to help achieve the goal of improving choice. Two such examples, located in East Windsor, will be briefly discussed here: Banwell Rd. and Sand Point Beach.

The first is the stretch of Banwell Rd. between Little River Blvd. and Tecumseh Rd. E. Virtually no addresses exist on this stretch of Banwell. Buildings along this stretch face away and are accessed from another road. This is the type of street identified by the Congress as being emblematic of suburban neighbourhoods. It is oversized at 4 lanes wide and its only purpose is to ferry people from their homes to Tecumseh Rd. E. The road is quite wide and entices motorists to speed. It is little wonder why it is often the subject of speed traps. This is also a road students cross on their way to school. There is an abundance of vacant property along this road which could be utilized. Adding small shops, cafes with patios, and small public spaces along one or both sides would provide the new uses needed to begin allowing some choice for neighbourhood residents. The two outside lanes could be converted to street parking and cycling lanes. This would likely cause minimal impact on motorists beyond encouraging a calmer traffic flow. The calmer traffic flow would make the road safer to cross for students. Improvements to the sidewalk (such as trees, benches, and pedestrian scale lighting) could further enhance safety and comfort for pedestrians. A small service access road could be located behind the new buildings with some limited additional parking. This type of change could alter the complexion of the neighbourhood. As the new additions become more popular nearby properties may increase in value as their walking distance will be shorter.

Sand Point Beach is a popular destination during the warmer months. It is adjacent to a large property which is used for storing gravel and sand which is shipped in. This adjacent property has a great deal of potential to help create a stronger destination for residents and visitors alike. If the storage facility could be moved a more appropriate use could be brought in. A mixed-use commercial and residential project could be that appropriate use. As it is located near single-family homes the height could be limited to three or four storeys. The lower level could be used for a mix of shops and cafes designed for pedestrian traffic. Nearby parking could offset the need for new parking on site. And the popular walking and cycling trail would provide easy access for nearby residents. The end result of this would be a new hub of activity for the surrounding area. It would create a destination where people can come to enjoy the beach, shopping, and a nice meal without the need to travel elsewhere.

Windsor is a suburban community where residents depend on their motor vehicles to reach their daily needs. This is due to the manner in which it has grown and evolved over time. The result of this is less choice for Windsor residents and visitors. Recently, the Congress for the New Urbanism held their CNU 24 conference in Detroit and Windsor. The Congress for the New Urbanism advocates traditional neighbourhood design and planning. These neighbourhoods include single-family homes which Windsorites love. However, they also allow the choice to leave the car at home and walk or cycle to a destination. We can work to bring these choices back to our community. Two possible avenues to explore have been discussed here. But, there are many more opportunities to create choice just waiting to be found. At the end of the day, a Windsor that includes choice is a stronger Windsor.

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