This photograph is the view from my apartment in Hintonburg, a neighbourhood in Ottawa that is quickly gentrifying. Since I moved here a year and a half ago, a derelict KFC building was taken up by a local burger joint, a ‘public house’ in Hintonburg’s name popped up down the road, a new ‘raw bar’ and eatery with seahorse wallpaper sucked up a tired Greek restaurant, and an old tavern was bought late last year by an esteemed restauranteur. When I moved in, that condominium building on the left was a hole in the ground.
I’ve been pretty excited to watch the renovation of Hintonburg from my window, but there is hesitation and ill ease within the community and Ottawa itself towards the creep of gentrification. Swish restaurants, public houses, and boutiques selling the wares of Canadian designers inflate rental rates and property taxes as more people are attracted to the city’s neighbourhoods. But the ultimate symbol of a community changed by elevated tastes is the luxury condominium project.
The Globe and Mail recently published an op-ed by Doug Sanders arguing that Canada needs to embrace Vancouverism – an approach to urban planning that values high density in the urban core through mixed-use development projects. Vancouver is unique for its planning strategy, which preserves sightlines of the North Shore through a combination of height restrictions and tiered design with apartments recessed from street-level commercial fronts. Is this approach to design all that is required to generate and replicate the vibrant communities of Vancouver?
I was reintroduced to Jane Jacobs this week, who wrote The Death and Life of Great American Cities in 1961 as a meditation on the potential of urban planning to support communities and foster trust, security and freedom. While Jacobs was a fan of high density urban communities, she argued that density has its limits. Writing from her experience in Greenwich village, Jacobs explained that successful urban communities work like a carefully choreographed ballet, where strangers and locals alike take part in the shared, sub-conscious surveillance of the street. Small business owners knew what was happening on their end of the block, as did the couples walking their dogs, the students heading to class, the neighbours watching the crowds from the 6th floor, and the men spilling out of the pubs in the night. But if buildings were too tall and too self-contained, one could not casually watch or hear what was happening outside. There would be a disconnect between one’s condominium cubicle and the life of the street below. Community, security and vitality would dwindle.
We need higher density – it’s the only way to combat sprawl and pollution from transportation. We need mixed-use development – but we also need the vision of Jane Jacobs, to think about what kind of community we want to build. Canada doesn’t need the Whole-Foods-on-the-ground-floor, luxury-condos-on-the-top-floor Vancouverism, but the Vancouverism of the West End, where low-rise character apartments sit next to high-rise condos, where flats and commercial spaces at either end of the price spectrum are available in the same neighbourhood. This is where urban planning develops diverse communities, with or without public houses.