*to Hanlon's razor: Never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity.

Sunday, 5 December 2010

Japanese versus N. American Streets: Density

The city's virtues and it's failings are in its density.  You want to live where there is greater density if you find the city has more virtues than failings; you want to live somewhere with less density if you find more failings than virtue.  The details encompass relative quality of life, and relative costs of real estate and transportation, located in areas with different densities.  You can argue for urban, suburban or rural areas in good faith, depending on the precepts that you use.  The argument is rarely in good faith with N. Americans, because most want their 'cake [urbanity] and to eat it too [unlimited car access and cheap land prices]'.  The picture from the 'Plateau' neighbourhood of Montreal is the best compromise we can wish for in N. America, and though mid-rise is one of the most dense in Canada.  It even has parking.

I just want the cake: a stimulating pedestrian environment.  In my post on Tokyo's Shimokitazawa I argued that it is far more interesting than Toronto's Kensington primarily because of its density.  Density is sine qua non.  There's no way to have the best of the city and the best of the country in the same location.  All one achieves is ugliness without charm, and the destruction of a lot of near-city farmland and greenbelt, and still fail at both pedestrian charm and automotive convenience.  There is a limit to the density that is healthy for the body or the mind, but you can't say it is reached in N. American cities.  It's probably reached in Tokyo, but most of Tokyo's problems are that it is a helter-skelter mid-rise city, with temporary housing.  Tokyo's density would be much more humane if buyers could safely build higher without expensive earthquake amelioration, and family housing was not designed for a thirty year life (buyers want the land, not a 'used' house), and shade cast by trees onto neighbouring property was not a legal issue.

Attempting to leave the transportation issues to the third post, let's look at what we can do to copy an urban neighbourhood that works and includes cars: the 'Plateau'.  I am sure that New York, Boston, San Fransisco and others have their own examples, but I lived in the 'Plateau' for four years, so I can best speak to it.  High-rise buildings are alienating in a way that three-story walk-ups, or row-houses (a more Anglo style), are not: you do not have individual entrances to the street.  Even if you rely on your car in the 'Plateau' you will see your neighbours as you go to it.  Detached homes are alienating because the sparsity of residents interacting with the street kills it.  The Plateau avoids these alienating factors yet keeps the density.  Most buildings are three stories tall.  Some have different renters on each floor.  Some have different owners on each floor.  Others are a mixture of owner/renter.

The following are views of three neighbourhoods I know from three different cities, which have been my experiences of interesting neighbourhoods.  You can tell quite a lot about the density from an aerial view.  Please note that 'Little Italy's' is quite a bit less dense than it appears, and it appears the least dense, because one-third of the rooftops are garages.

'The Plateau', Montreal

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'Little Italy', Toronto

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Kameari, Tokyo

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Though it is far from a dense neighbourhood by Tokyo standards, there is no chance N. Americans would tolerate the density of Kameari: there is little parking or green space.  There is little open space of any kind.  However, it does have everything within a short walk: shopping, dining and good commuter rail.  'Little Italy' is just a bit more spread out than makes a good pedestrian neighbourhood, and the lower density and large number of detached homes are the cause.  In the case of the 'Plateau', dining and shopping may be less dense than in Kameari; however, this is well offset by the greater green space - and parking if that is your requirement.

The 'Plateau' is also quite extensive, has a subway line, and multiple bus routes, running through it; 'Little Italy' is small, and is served only by rather poor surface transit.  As much as the number of detached homes works against density in 'Little Italy', so do the deep properties: about 100' is standard.  Even more than in colder Montreal, life is lived indoors in Toronto, so the depth is underutilized.  Density could be brought up perhaps 50% if owners could subdivide their property so that 'laneway homes' could be built.  This is virtually impossible in Toronto due to Ontario property law, and the requirement that enormous firetrucks must be able to access each home from its front.  One wonders why smaller trucks can't be bought.

This article is just a gloss.  You can use the links to the right for more thorough information and arguments.  In any case, Toronto has just elected a new mayor as ignorant of urban planning as about most else, so there is little hope that things will soon change.  In Utopia, 'Little Italy' and neighbourhoods like it could have their densities improved by overcoming the obstacles to 'laneway homes' and by investing in transit sufficiently to offset the larger number of people, much less to address the people living there at present.  Of course, given the header to this blog, you can imagine what I believe to be the likelihood of that!

Three postings in this series:
Japanese versus N. American Streets: Differences
Japanese versus N. American Streets: Density
Japanese versus N. American Streets: Cars

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