RECREATING OUR NEIGHBOURHOOD CENTRES

Back in the late 1920s and early 1930s, the International Congress of Modern Architecture, guided by Le Corbusier, held a series of conferences ending in a cruise from Marseilles to Athens, which produced the legendary Athens Charter, inspired by Le Corbusier’s dream of ‘radiant cities’ with high-rise towers in vast urban parks, with elevated freeways and separate zones for living, recreation and work. Traditional streetscapes and architecture were eliminated to make way for standardized architecture and industrial technology. Out with the old ! In with the new ! The consequences were tragic, and even today, 40 years after the architectural world realized its error, we still live with the consequences. This May, the pendulum swung. Several hundred architects, developers and public officials met in Charleston, South Carolina for the fourth annual Congress of the New Urbanism, which ended in the adoption of a new Charter – the antithesis of the 1933 Athens Charter. It calls for a return to traditional urban centres and towns, reconfiguring the sprawling suburbs to make real neighbourhoods, creating communities designed for pedestrians, bicycles and transit, where streets, squares and greens have a real sense of place. Urban infill is seen as preferable to peripheral expansion, while non-contiguous growth outside urban boundaries should be in “towns and villages with their own urban edges, planned for a jobs/housing balance, not as bedroom suburbs”. Here on Vancouver Island, we live with many sprawling suburbs and car-dominated shopping malls. How do we begin to bring back a sense of place, community and charm ? In James Bay, the Five Corners shopping centre where Thrifty Foods is located is the natural heart of James Bay, a community of 12,000 people. Right now, it is completely dominated by cars, and people are really secondary. What would it take to redesign it to make it a people-friendly market square ? These are just ideas, but……Phase out most of the parking from in front of Thrifty’s, and close off Simcoe St where it comes in from the west, leaving a narrow route for emergency vehicles. This creates a large pedestrian urban square. Plant trees, install a bandstand, make space for dancing, and encourage cafes to spill out into the square. To create a sense of entry, build a large arch across Simcoe St to the west with residences built inside the arch above the street, to pay for construction. Build two more arches on Menzies, one to the north and one to the south, again with internal residences, and create raised bottleneck crosswalks to slow the traffic moving along Menzies and Toronto Streets. What about parking ? Thrifty’s already offers a home delivery service. Expand this by providing bicycle carts, enabling people to tow their shopping home (just started in Totnes, South Devon, UK). Parking could be metered to discourage lazy use, and phased out over five years as people adjusted to the new shopping habits. A community minibus circling the James Bay streets with space for groceries and supplies would help elderly people come to terms with the loss of parking. Create some new parking at the blocked off end of Simcoe St; there may be other parking spaces which a detailed walkabout would reveal. Yes, there would be initial inconvenience, as people adjusted to the new shopping habits. But there would also be a beautiful market square where people could gather, take coffee, listen to music, watch their children play, and enjoy open air art displays under the shade of the trees, and evening concerts. It is a vision we really have to hold onto, while we consider the loss of the parking. The biggest difficulty, apart from making the transition away from easy parking, would be getting all the owners, planners, engineers, councillors and community representatives around the same table to work out a joint agreement. There would be a hundred objections, any one of which could kill the idea if the larger vision was forgotten. Thrifty’s might be able to open up their fresh produce section to spill out into the market square. New retail shops might decide to fill in the spaces when they realized what a wonderful space for people, culture and happenings the whole place was becoming. It is such an enticing possibility. The next time you visit your corner store or neighbourhood centre, take a good look around. Could it be redesigned too, to make it a place for gathering, street markets and music ? And the suburbs – could neighbourhood centres be created out of nothing by choosing a location where the transit routes meet, narrowing the streets, rezoning the nearby properties for commercial and retail, and installing a village green, with trees and a pond ? It is all in the realm of the possible. Have a great summer !

Guy Dauncey

http://www.earthfuture.com/econews/back_issues/96-07.asp

A Practical Model:

Germany_Friburg_Vauban Quartier_Architect: Rolf Disch
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