Shifting development to the urban village

Downtown Port Coquitlam

I subscribe to a news service called Better Cities & Towns.  I neglect most posts and feel guilty about it, but recently I tripped over an item by Geoff Dyer from July, 2012 [since deleted from Better Cities] that gathers some of this site’s musings on urban villages into a single list.

Waterfront walkway, Comox, B.C.His key point is an obvious one: the best customer base for business in an urban village is made up of the people who live within easy walking distance; and so housing is the basic ingredient in reviving an old downtown or a commercial dead zone.  The appetite for medium-density housing is limited in any market; city governments get maximum benefits, in terms of spin-off economic development, from focusing apartment development in urban villages.

Housing people in areas where they can walk to services, Dyer writes, saves an average of 7-10 vehicle trips per day per household.  Concentrating housing in town centres puts “eyes on the street” and reduces crime.  Concentrating populations in urban villages makes transit service more useful and affordable.

It’s often easiest to restrict new medium-density housing to decaying commercial corridors, but this won’t promote diversty or interest.  Urban village plans should provide for densification in a radius around the high street, not just along the high street.  To succeed, urban village development needs real commitment, not just token commitment, from local governments through the location of housing, and new commercial activity, and public services.  I’ll quote Dyer here:

“Too often, however, municipalities and developers choose only to commit to this model halfway, viewing it as a niche market with limited potential where quaint mom and pops struggle away (you know, that one-off new urbanist development at the edge of town), while the “real stuff” happens in large conventional single-use centers down the street.

This lack of commitment allows many of the essential ingredients of a successful walkable town center to get sucked into car-focused single-use centers (the easy place to put them) so that everyone can make excuses as to why the poor mixed use village struggles and we still have to do the conventional stuff until oil hits $10 a gallon.”

I understand that there’s a level of urban excitement beyond the modest comforts of the typical Lower Mainland urban village; that the architecture, old and new, is often humdrum, the visual arts and cuisine only satisfactory, and so on.  But this urban form, in my view, is healthier and better for the environment than the dominant form, and so I continue to explore its merits (and shortcomings) on

Farmers Market, Maple Ridge

3 responses

  1. I have noticed the explosion of condos around the ‘Haney urbane village’ lately. I lived in a condo near Memorial Peace Park for many years.I enjoyed the short walks to events held there. I walked to my Doctor, to Crumbs on Saturday when there was music, and to many other stores for small items.No car and no need to find a parking spot. This was a good quality of life.

    • Thanks, John. The pace of condo development has accelerated in Maple Ridge. I count at least five complexes under construction in the village — 223, bottom of 224, Brown, 226 across from Thrifty’s, and Brunette behind the A&W — and I would expect this to provide a boost to area businesses. As I visit suburban downtowns around the region, I see a clear correlation between the amount and diversity of housing and the quality of village services — especially in Port Coquitlam (perhaps surprisingly) and above all in Uptown New West.

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