The Joy of the Old

Jane Jacobs made a good point in her book The Death and Life of Great American Cities: Neighbourhoods that are older develop a patina, and a collection of buildings and infrastructure of various ages, in various states of maintenance or decay. All this variety makes the place real.

People who live in older urban areas like this variety. We easily put up with converted buildings, the property owner who never mows the “lawn”, etc. Odd things are interesting. Provided the immediate neighbour is OK, we don’t care much about the details of someone a half block away. This pretty much restricts us to pre-1940’s neighbourhoods, when the auto was ascendant but not yet king.

Those sorts of variations don’t go over so well in new urban areas, where property owners are more likely to seek a conformity of harmonious architecture. Blending in becomes their mantra. Compatibility of land use and structure. And often self-seclusion by income, housing form, ethnic group, or other criteria. Variety, let alone grottiness, isn’t charming there, it’s threatening.

At various times over the centuries, developers have tried to capture the essence of an older, established urban area in their new developments. They can get some of the basics right, like a cutesy main street, architectural details (sometimes derided as nostalgia or faux history). Think of the new urbanism communities you have seen. Or Las Vegas. Or Disney (which is not to sneer at these efforts. Appreciate them for what they are).

Most recently, China has attempted to copy entire European villages, an interesting exercise in cultural appropriation for a country that boasts everything happened in China first. And remember those early 20th Century schemes to recreate Venice in Florida, and LA? Copying the palaces of Europe in the new world wilderness, or failing that, wholesale purchase of châteaux furniture and fireplace mantels.

A significant, noted trend now evolving in the US of A is the reconstruction of dead malls to convert them into an instant suburban “downtown”, pedestrian friendly, but with parking nearby. These attempts to install a finely mixed land use into suburbia have had decidedly mixed results. The whole planning code is designed to thwart just what these new town centres are trying to achieve. And for many “out there” neatness and orderliness is what they want.

Until we see developers adding on pre-dilapidated character bits like the enclosed verandah shown in the picture above, these new downtowns will seem eerily unreal.


About westsideaction

Eric Darwin is a community activist involved in planning, transportation, streetscaping, and cycling issues in Ottawa, Canada.
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