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Walkable communities require structural changes, not superficial misses

Under normal circumstances, Woolwich’s closure of a part of Mill Street to create a patio space would make little sense. But these are normal times, so a temporary move to help Elmira restaurants is worth a shot – the coronavirus pandemic has hit the hospitality industry particularly hard.

As with last year’s decision to close off a laneway beside the Kitchen Kuttings Café, how much use that space will get remains to be seen.

Neither spot is ideal, of course. There’s nothing inviting about the locations, with little in the way of shelter, no views and a steady stream of traffic on Arthur Street. No matter how hard you squint, there’s no mistaking those spots for a welcoming piazza.

That’s not the goal in a short-term workaround to maintain social distancing and helping businesses get back on track. But it does give rise to a discussion about why it is we’ve failed so miserably at creating inviting public spaces.

That failure – one not unique to this region – is not for lack of trying. As with other areas, local governments have spent considerable amounts of time and money attempting to create what are today called livable cities: denser, pedestrian- and cyclist-friendly communities theoretically emulating those tourists – and government planners – have fallen in love with for years when visiting Europe.

The ideal of so-called compact communities such as those in Europe see higher densities and people living within an easy walk or bike ride of most of the amenities of daily life. Because most communities developed before the advent of the automobile, they’re very much people-centric as opposed to the car-centered towns and cities of North America.

People actually do walk and cycle as a means of transportation, not just recreation. Public transit is convenient and well used. In short, the antithesis of how we do things here.

Building light rail transit does mean people will use – they don’t – nor that the sole remaining talking point of intensification along the transit corridor will bring beautiful architecture that encourages outdoor living – it hasn’t, doesn’t and won’t. Likewise, spending millions on makeshift bicycle lanes won’t – and hasn’t – encouraged thousands of people to cycle instead of commuting by car (note to public officials: recreation is not transportation).

While cycling lanes are a non-starter in the townships, a place like Elmira could stand to see some life injected into the core, with amenities to draw in people living within walking distance, including tree- and shop-lined public squares. Many studies have found that to be the case, the problem remains finding private investors willing to spend money in the core to an extent that public money follows.

In the region’s cities, massive amounts of public money have been spent with little to show for it, a case of building a cart with no horse in sight.

Not that that goal isn’t admirable, of course.

Who wouldn’t like a vibrant cultural scene, with great entertainment options and a real nightlife in the vein of, say, Montreal or Vancouver? Without, of course, the congestion and demographic nightmares of Toronto and its ilk. Curbing growth, however, is not on the menu.

With walking and cycling, who isn’t captivated by the street life of European centres? It’s great to see people going about their daily business under their own steam. Along with cars tucked into anything resembling a parking spot, bicycles and scooters can be found in uncountable numbers. On a single stroll, you’ll likely see more bicycles, parked or in transit, than you’ll see in a lifetime here – make that 10 lifetimes.

We lack the beautiful old architecture, public spaces and way of life, but we take a stab at it … without recognizing the cultural differences and the fact that the lack of beautiful buildings, attractive public spaces and European way of life dooms the trappings to failure.

As for transit, it’s fast and convenient – and sometimes even inexpensive – in other parts of the world. Why not here? Never mind the geographical distances, car culture and premium placed on our time … we’ll plow ahead in a small, makeshift way, spending much in return for little.

In all the talk of more human-scale communities, there’s no mention of aesthetics. For me, that’s the make-it-or-break-it part of the equation: our ugly built environments foster neither pride of place nor a desire to be out on foot, interacting with the place where we live something to enjoy in its own right. It’s going to take a monumental effort at creating something better to get us out of the suburban model: Shifting from our box of a house to our box of a car to the box where we shop and the box where we work. The insides may be nice and comfortable, as we shut out the world and the others who happen to live in the same town, but the shared spaces are not conducive to creating the kind of community envisioned by proponents of a livable city.

For decades now, we’ve had a model of suburban sprawl – low-density living that relies on roads to connect our homes to shops and workplaces. In the region, it’s pretty difficult to get around without a car. The transit system is not particularly robust, especially outside of the main transit corridors, which means pretty much the bulk of the area. The townships are beyond the pale. The LRT changes that not one iota.

Living in a large suburb, kilometres away from a mall or massive power centre, we naturally get in our cars to get there. And, when it comes to work, many of us have commute great distances. Changing that reality could take decades, even if we opt to do so. That would mean turning a 15-minute jaunt in the car into an hour or two on transit. And then there’s the part of standing around, perhaps in poor weather, before having to share your space with others.

We’ll walk more and cycle more when there are places to walk and cycle to. This means undoing decades of poor planning, mixing residential with commercial, and creating a built environment that isn’t 90 per cent ugly. Only then will true public squares evolve that draw people in. At that point, the planning ideals will amount to something more than wishful thinking.

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