N O U N : A design blog by Oliver Oike

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Do people want this? Do I want this?

August 15th, 2005 · No Comments

This recent NYT article, along with my own living circumstances, have me thinking more and more about “communities.”(For this article, you will need to register (free) at nytimes.com.) Currently, we live in a 95 yr-old house in an old, central part of town, surrounded by a mix of very-renovated, slightly-renovated and ready-for-demolition homes of all shapes and sizes. We have back lanes, low-height fences, huge, thriving trees, wide sidewalks and a vibrant restaurant/cafe scene two blocks away. We’re 10 minutes from anywhere, and very close to downtown (just over the river).

The front and back streets, and gridded layout of the neighbourhood allow for limitless routes in and out. The short street lengths in between stop signs keeps the traffic moving at a reasonably slow pace for a central urban area. Also, the house is amazing. Purchased 6 years ago by an architecture grad student, it was stripped down to the studs and rebuilt to very high standards. In short, it’s beautiful. Real maple hardwood everywhere, lots of big windows, and some really nice finishing. This house made moving back from Vancouver seem VERY worthwhile. Especially considering the pricetag when compared to Lotusland. A similarly-built place in a similar neighbourhood out there would cost $600,000 easy. We love it.

However, we have two children, and recently had to admit to ourselves that the lack of other kids in the neighbourhood and the older make-up of the population (along with a transient population; this is a popular university crowd area) offer us fewer touches with folks in a similar situation than we’d maybe like.

Which brings me to the NYT article. It talks about new neighbourhood design and the corporate icing that is slathered all over new developments across the continent, like it’s some kind of bonus that focus-group testing determines all kinds of minutae that will pull the yuppies out of town to small “exburb” developments (only to see them swallowed up by “in-fill” exburbs in a very short amount of time). It talks about the careful planning of these developments, the ubiquitous big-box madness, and – my favorite – the town-square idea of “building” a community.

Now don’t get me wrong – I like new, clean, fresh things. The idea of a brand new house is very appealing. But as I ponder our move(s) over the coming years, I always come back to the question: “Yeah, but could I LIVE there?” There are no bumps, no warts, no roots. Isn’t it kinda like living in some hyper-real dorm built beside a shopping centre?I dunno, don’t get me wrong, I’m just speculating. But whenever I have to visit a neighbourhood like the ones described in the article, I feel displaced, out of sorts and a bit confused, as I wind and wind and wind through the never-ending street, past the dead man-made “lakes”, past row after row of THE EXACT SAME HOUSES. I imagine having to count driveways to make sure I park in the correct one. I imagine little lego trees everywhere!

The crazy part is that while in one of those neighbourhoods, inevitably I find myself playing out scenarios in my head and end up finding myself rationalizing that maybe it could be a better environment for our family, a better alternative to where we are now. But then when we pull up the lane to our house and see our trees, our weathered fence, and that-thing-that-needs-fixing, and I think, “Nevermind, this is perfect.”

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