Fusing Quality Atributes for Better Neighbourhoods

In each era of the history of the world’s cities, people lived in good neighbourhoods and in bad ones. The progression of affluence and invention has gradually given most of us decent houses, pleasant neighbourhoods and vibrant cities full of amenities and activities. Neighbourhood streets are clean and full of vegetation, houses on them are neat and comfortable-looking and neighbours are usually watchful, caring and like-minded.
So then, what is all the talk about the planning mistakes of the past 50 years? About building “bad” suburbs? About rediscovering the 19th century models? About “sprawl?”
Rather than repeating ugly words that blur our responses, we need to look at what bothers or inconveniences us in the neighbourhoods we live in and, conversely, what pleases—even delights—us. And then plan with quality in mind—suppress the bothersome and enhance the gratifying.
The most frequent complaint today is about traffic—traffic noise, dust, fumes and danger. Traffic is a nuisance and, at times, it can be injurious, even lethal. The higher the traffic volume the greater the nuisance until it reaches the point where a street becomes a virtual “traffic sewer”—mostly annoyance and no pleasure. We need to plan for less traffic in our neighbourhoods and a way to ensure that it will stay the same, for a while at least.
What do 19th century plans teach us about controlling traffic? Not surprisingly, not much. Until the invention of rail you could walk across most cities; there were too few people in them to constitute “traffic” and most were on foot—there was hardly a need to control noise, speed or volume. Still, those who could afford to lived “in (the) country” on estates away from the “buzz.”
The second inconvenience is that practically everything, including the kids’ playground, is too far to walk to. We have a great variety of things to choose from, but only by driving to them. When your car battery dies overnight, your horizon shrinks to your house. We need to plan for more activities within walking distance. The 19th century has a partial lesson for us; the comparatively short list of activities were all to be found on the main street, always at walking distance. And when rail helped cities grow, much could be found at the rail stops, still a convenient walk away. These are good hints for enhancing quality.
A third annoyance is being unable to find a friend’s house, even with good directions. In some neighbourhoods, streets take unexpected turns and twists and there is no set pattern you can “see” in your mind’s eye. A place only a block away can take many blocks of walking or driving to reach. Earlier cities had a regular pattern—the grid—that residents and visitors grasped immediately. More regularity and predictability in our neighbourhoods would remove this irritation.
We enjoy peace and tranquility when seeking to recover and recharge; nothing is more rejuvenating than deep sleep. Even when awake but in a contemplative mood we cherish tranquility. Whatever disrupts recovery or contemplation is an unwelcome intrusion. Let’s imbue our neighbourhood plans with tranquility.
We delight in nature—the freshness of nature, its changes and surprises and its vast repertoire of amazing living things—no imitation can replicate its direct experience. We would rejoice in daily contact with nature, if it were possible. Even a brief contact with it is enough to shed some of the stress caused by the city’s intensity. Early cities were surrounded by nature outside the perimeter walls and most citizens worked the land for a living. Experiencing nature was a daily event. Not so today; when most days are spent inside towers and houses. We are nature-starved. We need nature close by in our neighbourhoods and in our city centres.
We like mingling with friends and acquaintances in planned and casual occasions. These encounters happen on “common ground,” usually places of rest and relaxing settings. Squares, some streets and the “commons” (small parks) played that role in early cities. As well, pubs, cafes, church halls and social clubs offered similar places for mingling. Our streets are now taken over by asphalt and risk. Little mingling is left to chance. We need more casual common ground for chance encounters and mingling both in our neighbourhoods and our city centres.
Derived from pleasure and displeasure, here then are the elements of quality that we need to fuse in our neighbourhoods—tranquility, safety, proximity, nature and people places.
For tranquility and safety we must control the amount and speed of traffic; and no other planning tool achieves that more naturally and effectively than dead-end and crescent streets.
For proximity to amenities and conveniences we need to bring destinations closer to the neighbourhood—at the transit stop where lots of people go by and stores can be profitable.
Nature in the neighbourhood can serve a double function: as a people place and as a footpath connector. Strategically placed, a square can offer respite, linkage and an occasion for casual encounters.
And to find places easily, we can use clear geometry and embrace regularity and some repetition.
The picture on the left is a quadrant, the basic building block of the Fused Grid. The configuration shown here has been adapted to accommodate environmental features.
This fusion of elements of quality cannot be accomplished by each of the current planning methods alone: neither the traditional grid nor the contemporary irregular, unstructured suburban road pattern. A fusion of the two is needed.
A new prototype, a model, has been developed that brings all these elements together: the Fused Grid (See Figures 1 and 2). Introduced and promoted by Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation (CMHC), it has already built some following among planners and builders.

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