Canada's Condominium Magazine

Great neighbourhoods are inclusive, diverse, interesting

Torontonians like to think of their city as one of many interesting neighbourhoods. Queen Street West, for example, is considered a “great” neighbourhood, but what does that mean, in city planning terms? For one thing, it has a variety of “functional attributes” that contribute to residents’ day-to-day living: in other words, there’s a lot going on there, with a lively mix of commercial, residential and retail. As The Lonely Planet put it, this is now Toronto’s art and design heart.

Queen West accommodates “multi-modal transportation,” though not in an exceptional way it must be said. Streetcars, cars, pedestrians and cyclists share the road in a somewhat uneasy dance much of the time. There are no bike lanes at the moment, though the city has been talking about installing them. Still, it is a very walkable neighbourhood, and it’s easy to get from one place to another without going out of one’s way.

The area certainly has visually interesting design and architectural features with entire blocks of Victorian streetscape more or less intact, as well as modern architecture. The Art Gallery of Ontario is just one example of that. And it is safe to say that the area encourages human contact and social activities.

These are just some of the characteristics that the prestigious American Planning Association (APA) provides as guidelines to great neighbourhoods. We’re not sure whether the APA is aware of Queen Street West, or would even consider it a “neighbourhood” in their sense of the word these days. Each year the planning group selects a list of America’s greatest neighbourhoods, and they tend to be more traditional residential areas, often in small towns, with nice houses on nice tree-lined streets.

One of the criteria the planning group considers, for example, is “consistency of scale” between buildings, with buildings being proportional to one another. This would apply to the Victorian buildings on Queen Street itself, but how would the APA people regard the high-rise towers that have sprouted in the last few years?

What about diversity, affordability?

Another criterion the APA uses to define a great neighbourhood is the economic, social, ethnic and demographic diversity of its residents. Without having hard data, it’s impossible to give an accurate breakdown of Queen West in those terms, but any visit to the area seems to confirm that this is a very diverse neighbourhood indeed.

On that point, diversity, an academic at the Arizona State University has questioned whether APA’s definition of a great neighbourhood is sufficiently sensitive. The Arizona researcher found that neighbourhoods with APA’s blessing these days tend to be well-to-do enclaves whose desirable physical properties are making them correspondingly less affordable, and therefore less diverse. The nicer they become, the more exclusive they become. In fact, the author states, many of America’s “best” neighbourhoods are surrounded by vastly less affluent tracts. The disparity between the median price of a home in a “good” neighbourhood and one outside it was found to be huge: $108,000.

These highly desirable, highly served, and increasingly isolated neighbourhoods, says the report’s author, lose their diversity precisely because they have lost their affordability. Gentrification is often the culprit. She calls on the APA to take a “principled stand” on the issue and include a commitment to maintaining diversity and affordability as one of the criteria that define a great neighbourhood.

How that could be done is not made clear, but Queen Street West could perhaps serve as a model for what it looks like when it does happen.

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