How our town embraced New Urbanism
I live in a town that has given the whole concept of New Urbanism a great big hug. It all began back in 1970. At that time, our small but growing town made a decision to rip up our old Main Street and put in a busy overpass (mini highway) to help “zoom” people through our town and onto the next.
I guess they thought there’d be no big loss as the historic buildings that lined our Main Street — in Unionville, a part of Markham, Ontario — were old, unkempt and for the most part vacant. Well they underestimated the power of a few passionate people. Residents who felt very strongly about containing urban sprawl and protecting our historic buildings came up with a plan. They would galvanize support to stop construction of the road by hosting a street festival.
Why a street festival?
Well, what better way to reacquaint neighbors with the value of their local community than to bring them into the street where they could see and talk to people they only saw as they entered or exited their garage? What’s more, those old buildings may not have looked like much from the car, but up close there was so much to discover in that old architecture.
Bringing the people into the street helped to highlight for them all the things they loved about the notion of the town/village lifestyle. For example: the easy and comfortable connection with people as you pass them in the street ... the conversations had with local vendors ... the easy and manageable strolls to town and home again. It’s pretty clear to see why that sense of familiarity and proximity to people and our built environments is so compelling to so many.
As much as New Urbanism developments are criticized by some for being too reliant upon Victorian design and nostalgia, there’s just no denying the fact that front porch and roof lines that welcome close observation and offer some whimsy in the details are a welcome “human” touch … even in this very high tech world.
Our town’s street festival (the Unionville Festival) provided that human touch and served to “alert” residents to the richness of community life. Eventually plans to destroy Main Street were shelved. Instead plans got under way to “restore” the street.
Today Unionville Main Street is a huge gathering place for the community and tourists (a boost to lifestyle and city revenue!). What’s more is that as new developments were created, builders capitalized on the Victorian architecture that was protected on Main Street and served to define the region. In fact, one very well known architect known to readers of this blog, Andres Duany, helped to design Cornell — one of our new communities.
A recent article in the Toronto Star interviewed Cornell homeowners to get their perspective on living in a new urban community. Here’s a brief excerpt:
“The Bur Oak [section of Cornell] has zoning for mixed use, which allows residents to run a business at street level and live upstairs. The Moniz family occupies a spacious two-storey, three-bedroom apartment. They relocated from Toronto’s Willowdale area two years ago.
Moniz says she’d never heard the term “New Urbanism” before they came to Cornell.
“The real estate agent took us to Richmond Hill, Vaughan, Maple,” says Moniz, who grew up on a big farm near London, Ont. “They were nice but they didn’t feel homey.”
That “homey” feeling is exactly the kind of sentiment I hear from so many people I know living in a new urbanist community. The fact that this resident had never heard of the term “New Urbanism” before is a big issue for me.
Here’s why: I think this movement hasn’t captured the attention of more people who would support and advocate for the use of New Urbanism principles in town developments and restorations because people simply don’t know what to call a “walkable, mixed-use, high-density development.” That description doesn’t even sound appealing.
I’d suggest that developers and marketers in the industry try using “New Urbanism” more often (and more creatively) in media targeting the very consumers that are needed to embrace the movement.
While there are critics and fans of New Urbanism, there is for me one major criticism that will take some focus to address. The promise of providing residents with communities where they can “live/work/play” is falling considerably short with respect to the “work” component.
I’m a working a mom and business owner, not a town planner, but I do visit planner forums and that complaint is echoed in their harsh assessment of New Urbanism, again and again.
Cornell has received that complaint and it’s warranted. There aren’t any major employers nearby and the bus system, while new and growing, still leaves much to be desired. The outcome is many residents must still drive to get to work and to access a decent variety of entertainment and recreational options.
It goes without saying that the carbon footprint created by Cornell is likely no where near reaching it’s full “green” potential with so many residents still having to drive to work, the supermarket, the theater, and other destinations.
The good news, however, is that awareness is on the rise. Instead of just talking or wishing we could live close to work we have communities being built with those objectives in mind. As long as those objectives remain priorities, the residents themselves will help to put all the pieces together to help realize the New Urbanism dream.
After all — that simple street festival in 1970 served to revive a town that is now one of the models for New Urbanism in North America.
A veteran regional marketer, Sharon McMillan advocates for vibrant, cultural, and eco-friendly communities for families and businesses. She blogs about New Urbanism, the boomer generation and healthy communities over at NewUrbanMom.com.