Archives for posts with tag: suburbia

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I finally made it to my parents’ second home in Naples, Florida.

I was reluctant to go since my last visit in 2004. Their house is located in Fiddler’s Creek, a suburban gated community surrounded by a golf course. Its cookie cutter houses are gussied up with overly marketed street names such as ‘Mahogany Bend’, ‘Hawk’s Nest’ and ‘Isla Del Sol’.

My last visit left me with the impression of a development on the frontier of the ever-diminishing Everglades. I remembered a gated community sandwiched between highways leading from one super-suburban strip mall to another. I remembered epic social stratification and no public realm, with wealthy neighbourhoods isolated behind gates, wholly separate from the nearby shabbier neighbourhoods where service workers live. My lasting impression was of gas-guzzling car dependency everywhere.

Of course, reality is much more complicated than my simplified judgement of Naples when I was 13. I understand that Fiddler’s Creek is a beautiful place, and enjoyed my time there with my parents under the perfect sun. While my impressions from my last visit remain largely true, I didn’t remember that a huge area is devoted to Everglades National Park and the Rookery Bay Reserve, protected from development thanks to social movements in the 1960s. I also observed that though gated communities are pervasive, and indeed embody extreme social and economic stratification, Walmart proved to be a very real space where the area’s diverse population could meet on common ground.

During my explorations (by car, but also by bike with my father), what emerged as the most enlightening feature to understand the geography and logic of Naples was the ever-common “No Outlet” sign.

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Driving along the wider arterial, highway-style roads, you encounter many intersecting streets. Most of these intersections are accompanied by a “No Outlet” sign.

Essentially, you can only get to different neighbourhoods via the highway. Every time you enter an area from the highway the “No Outlet” sign signifies that there are a bunch of loopy roads that don’t lead anywhere. The only way out is the way you came in.

The consequence is that there are all these areas that are wonderfully different from each other in terms of income level, architecture and vibes, but are completely physically separated from one another. Each has their own distinct internal logic. Entering each neighbourhood from the highway, you experience incredibly different versions of the South West Florida universe.

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Hand drawn conceptualization of “No Outlet”

Functionally, “No Outlet” means that you cannot cut through a neighbourhood as a shortcut. It means that residents have no reason to enter another neighbourhood unless they have an explicit reason to do so. As a result, there is no space for chance encounters and understandings between classes and cultures to occur (the very essence and benefit of urbanity, in my view). The social and economic stratification of the communities in Naples is fixed and ingrained due to the “No Outlet” state of affairs. My mind wanders to one hundred years in the future: will the communities integrate, ever? Will increasingly expensive energy prices break down the walls between these side-by-side but physically barricaded neighbourhoods? A closer investigation of the map reveals a life-line between two neighbourhoods here and there, but mostly between those of the same socio-economic group.

For now, “No Outlet” describes Naples, Florida pretty succinctly. It also makes me grateful for the cross pollination that is enabled by the tangled, twisted and integrated grids of my Toronto. Of course, Toronto is no paradise of unified urbanity itself. Poverty is increasingly concentrated in the city’s inner suburbs, which have similar “No Outlet” style isolated neighbourhoods. (Though not as extreme, the scale of the neighbourhoods and their location far from downtown don’t lend themselves to aimless exploration and chance encounters).

Back in Naples, biking through the above-mentioned nature reserves — up Sea Shell Road and toward the Gulf Coast — I began to wonder if the physical geography of the area could offer any enlightenment as to the “No Outlet” mentality of South West Florida.


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The coast of South West Florida, south of Downtown Naples

Dense thickets of mangroves hovering above the water, sandy oak scrub and brackish estuaries mean that Naples’ coast lacks any easily understood linear logic. The coastline is rather a series of loops, curves, isolated bays and pockets connected only by larger waterways — nature’s version of “No Outlet”. Perhaps the logic of the mangrove swamp has seeped into development patterns of Naples and its isolated communities. Or perhaps, more simply, the area was developed too recently, too in the thick of car dependency, to have had the chance to manifest any differently. 

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Beyond Portland’s downtown, and mostly, in my experience, across the river on the city’s east side, I experienced a very pleasant form of suburbanism.

The cityscape in these parts is characterized by the archetypal suburban elements:  wide streets, stand alone retail plazas, and single family homes with lots of yard space.

The streets, however, were incredibly walkable, and due to Portland’s progressive approach to urban planning, accommodating to cyclists.

As I explored, it became evident that east-Portland is home to a unique urban form: walkable Suburbanism. Yes, the streets were wide, and cars quickly zoomed through them. Cars are not, however, the dominant form of transportation, the standard unit of planning. Ample room is given to pedestrian space, bicycle lanes are omnipresent, and on some streets, light rail takes up a portion of the roadway.

The archetypal suburban architecture also had a walkable spin: retail plazas and restaurants, usually found set back several hundred feet behind immense fields of parking, were rather directly fronted to the sidewalk. Parking, if present, was limited to a small strips in front of stores.

The neighbourhoods were characterized by detached homes, but the area retained its urban feel, with shops and parks nearby.

As developers become more constrained by the cost of goods and transportation and construction, let’s hope they finally heed to the calls of sustainably-minded urbanists. Grey-field sites, such as already developed suburban land, should increasingly becoming the focus of development.

This is the new frontier of urban planning: the densification of the suburbs. Suburbs are already serviced by water, electricity, and transportation, and can easily accomodate more people. Cities, as they are, have vast tracts of land that can support increases of population: we no longer need do to develop farms and forests on a city’s fringes.

Portland’s walkable suburbanism provides a good model for the densification of the suburbs, the real need being in suburbs that have been developed in the last 20 years.

As most of Portland was probably built in the 1950s, an era of suburban city-building that still had an ounce of dignity, its neighbourhoods are well connected, located in walking distance to commerce, and the streets, though wide, are certainly inhabitable. Portland, along with cities like Winnipeg, and inner-suburban Toronto, is lucky to inherit this built form. It is a great mix of the urban and suburban: it heeds to the desires of those who feel they need fresh air and space, but can also be serviced efficiently, is walkable and bike-able, and certainly fosters social relationships amongst neighbourhood fixtures and passersby.

As we densify the suburbs, let’s look to east-Portland for inspiration. Due to history and good conscience, the future is already there, and its thriving.

I noticed a shift in my aesthetic sensibilities as I negotiated the streets of Toronto back in my last several-month stint there.

I started to appreciate, no, really dig, central Toronto houses of the 1960s modernist era — you know, the ones that look like they somehow landed downtown, blown in from some distant suburb.

As I’ve previously described, Toronto is the essential neo-liberal city. It is defined by its lack of architectural unity, rather characterized by the visions of individual actors and their piecemeal city building efforts. The result is an urban form that keeps you guessing: one strip is dominated by slender, elegant Victorian townhouses, the next, a block-wide modernist concrete rental building, the next a hodge podge of architectural styles, eras, efforts.

Sometimes, if you’re lucky, you’ll stumble on a “little Suburbia” – a row of houses that looks like it belongs in Vaughan or outer-Etobicoke. I get a sense of geognative dissonance in these places, like I’ve defied contiguity, entering a geographic space-warp between central Toronto and suburbia.

Two strips come to mind: the row of houses on the North side of Nassau just east of the Toronto Western General Hospital, and close by, just east of Bathurst on Wolosley just north of Queen.

Suburban townhouses along the north side of Nassau, east of Bathurst

Suburban townhomes emerge out-of-the-blue on Wolseley Street, just north of Queen, east of Bathurst.

And you know what? I never thought I’d say it, but I like these houses, their architectural style, their feel. I like their straight lines, and awkward relationship between window and wall size. I like their reference to a Canada of a different sensibility, their expired mid-century hopefulness. I like that they are big, and spaced out, yet dense and humble. I like their front yards, and how they stand together in the face of a rougher, more diverse urban landscape.

Of course, if this was the only house-form in Toronto I’d probably think differently, but, as a one- or two-off feature in an incredibly diverse city, they provide a nuanced shade to the multi-architectural Toronto pallette.

If I feel this way, I’m sure many other urbanists do as well. My aesthetic shift is probably the result of tired and overdone architectural romanticism. I do agree that Toronto Victorian townhomes are the nicest and loveliest housing form, but my preferences can go beyond a single architectural style. We are culturally saturated with old Victorian Townhouses, and I think looking to relatively newer styles as possible homes, and as inspiring spaces is liberating, and exciting.

Jack Bishop uses an incredibly romantic, thick brush stroke style, evoking quaint rural landscape paintings of the 20th century, to represent the dominant suburban landscapes that define contemporary Canada. By using a style that abstracts reality, he is able to incredibly honestly engage with the state of affairs of the settings of our lives. Whereas the 20th century romantic landscapes that he is evoking evaded the reality of a dreary industrial transformation of the country, his paintings subvert that style and interrogate the landscapes that define our times.