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Changing the Conversation – and along with that, the neighborhood character

Jana Kelemen

Our cities are struggling with housing affordability. Many political platforms are built around this issue; yet, no significant changes have been made to reconnect the existing housing-related policies with much-needed intensification.

One of the simplest solutions to generate more housing without the eradication of additional greenfield while creating more resiliency within our cities would be urbanization of the existing low-density areas. Gentle incremental intensification of our suburban neighbourhoods, supported by existing infrastructure is the low-hanging fruit of possible solutions to housing affordability problem. Slightly more compact suburbs could feature a wider variety of housing forms and sustainable density.  Higher density could provide a reasonable base for effective public transit as well as more amenities within walking distances, creating more energy-efficient communities. 

It was once a common practice in medieval cities that developed within fortified walls to grow internally, to adapt to the population increase within its boundaries first. Cities developed organically depending on the needs of their residents. Many of the old cities we love to visit grew this way into beautiful, walkable places with great amenities.


Beautiful places may happen when we embrace city’s adaptability.

When we started planning large areas of our cities in a homogeneous way, we have also invented regulations ending the possibility of any further organic growth in these areas.   In trying to freeze those master-planned creations in their time, believing that they are the best solution, we have failed to recognize and understand that change is inevitable, at all times.  A City is a living organism which has great adaptability to its inhabitants’ needs. We forget that we should encourage creative change and embrace the fact that we might not know exactly what the end result will be.

Settlements within physical boundaries feature significantly more thoughtful planning and design solutions than ones with vast lands available for expansion. The formation of the Greenbelt in the Greater Toronto Area prompted an anticipation that the creation of a physical barrier to the sprawl would provide an opportunity to create strong, sustainable communities within.  I had hoped that we would thoughtfully intensify our sprawling cities and strongly focus on excellence in design, as the many cities confined by built or natural barriers have done.

It seemed deceptively easy. We could adjust maximum density measure to support transportation and local services and decrease energy consumption. We could allow for a variety of housing types and for a wide range of uses, as long as the development achieves expected low levels of pollution, vibration, noise nuisance, etc. We could eliminate much of the extreme over-regulation found in current zoning by-laws and leave only simple measures such as height, which could also be implemented in a more innovative and flexible way, based on surrounding context. We could permit parking on streets, use money from the infill development to fund infrastructure revitalization and provide more amenities for the neighbourhoods. We could create stronger and more resilient communities.

Unfortunately, today, quite the opposite is the reality. Historically, zoning was invented to segregate offending uses from the residential ones. In today’s zonings, the segregation is brought to a very different level causing not just use exclusion, but also isolation from people perceived as socially unacceptable. More and more controls to protect the low-density neighbourhoods are employed by cities, even the large ones (for example, Toronto’s recent Official Plan Amendment 320), many in the name of protecting the ‘neighbourhood character’. Although these words are used often, you are unlikely to find many people who can explain what neighbourhood character means to them. Sometimes it is something as palpable as the mature trees lining the street, but most often, the conversation about character quickly progresses to disliked housing form, larger and of different styles which don’t “fit” well with the existing homes. Change is not something that was expected, wanted or dreamt of at the time of home purchase. People mistrust change and draw specific lines around themselves about personal tolerances based on habit and perception. Furthermore, change in our neighbourhood is perceived as a threat to the dream of stability, as the danger of losing something tangible anchoring us in this fast-moving world. The home we own, the one stronghold of our solitude.

And likely of similar importance, many homeowners fear that with change will come a decrease in the value of their property. Our home is thought of as a commodity, an investment, and not as a human right. More people moving into the neighbourhood is perceived as a serious threat to that investment. Moreover, lower income people are not welcomed as it is almost a social norm to believe that they would bring an increase in crime.

We live in a strange paradigm of mandatory public consultation on almost all planning-related matters. We as professional urbanists often do not understand all of the complexities and forces of the living creature that the city is; yet we trust that its inhabitants do.  

Very few people are willing to spend time participating in public consultation which results in a lack of meaningful feedback. To make things worse, there is no education through the elementary or secondary schools which would prepare the general public for any well-informed conversations. Yet, we still involve the few people who do show up for these consultations into the future decision making, based only on their personal likes and dislikes (almost always the later). It is obvious that 4-year term politicians listen very carefully to their constituents and that they base their decisions on those opinions rather than on opinions of professionals who are not their voters. Planning is a long-haul exercise which does not fall within the politicians’ short-term lifespan.

In this age, in this country, public sentiment is everything. With it, nothing can fail; against it, nothing can succeed. Whoever molds public sentiment goes deeper than he who enacts statutes, or pronounces judicial decisions.

 -Abraham Lincoln    

Ours might be the only profession in which the experts ask untrained non-professionals to participate in decision-making on complex matters which will affect many others, today and in the future. That participation, which hides behind the idea of democracy, is often not based on the expectancy of insight into something related to the matter; it is simply based on property ownership in a certain area. This practice is extremely disconcerting in that the input is received only from the property owners who are rarely interested in the more holistic community context. Most often, they are focused solely on their own financial and social interests.

Where did this self-entitlement come from? Why do we feel the need to control other peoples’ property based on our desires? Lack of knowledge and understanding of planning issues are likely a large component of the unfortunate situation we are in. And maybe, the lack of planners’ understanding of the reasons behind the resistance plays some role in the general absence of trust toward our profession.

If we want to keep public engagement as a crucial component of planning, we need to engage more people and in a more meaningful way. Equitable civic participation systems should be the very first step in achieving higher rates of public participation, and not just from residents’ associations. Non-homeowners must be included in the conversations to ensure that their ideals are expressed and heard as well. For example, new immigrants coming from countries where incremental infill of a neighbourhood is common, where living in an apartment has no negative connotation and where a multi-generational living is not considered a failure would likely express different opinions and ideas in this regard.

We also need to develop much wider educational campaigns with communication techniques that are more engaging. We need to start asking better questions. Learning about the history of the community and neighbourhood, the cherished elements, the struggles and the missing pieces would be helpful; showing the residents drawings and plans which many of them do not understand and asking about their opinion is not. We should recognize residents not as planning experts but as people most knowledgeable about their neighbourhoods who can help the professionals understand their community better.  Learning about and understanding of the community, the spirit of the neighbourhood, the uniqueness and opportunities would not only help the urbanists with their work, it could also open the possibilities for more trusting dialogue and possibly co-creation of ideas. 

Focused education should be at the forefront of any of the public engagement. Collecting credible facts and case studies which demonstrate an encouraging outcome in intensifying and revitalizing of the suburban neighbourhoods is important before starting any meaningful dialogue. We may want to refrain from bringing plans showing infill possibilities for a specific neighbourhood to the public before having a personally-oriented conversation. In my experience, showing somebody all the amazing plans (in my professional opinion) which could potentially happen in their neighbourhood is rarely appreciated by the residents. Showing different neighborhoods’ successful revitalizations is a better option for opening a discussion. The same goes for the recrimination directed at suburbanites for their lack of environmental accountability created by their lifestyles.  A more productive way is to ask personal questions to create better understanding of how the intensification would positively affect people’s lives. Questions which are often not considered by residents in relation to their situation, such as: could your kids afford to buy or rent a place in your neighbourhood? Would it be possible if there was a small condo/apartment building nearby? When you get older, would you like to stay in this community, close to your friends and amenities, but potentially taking care of a smaller place on a smaller property, or downsizing into a well-designed mid-rise? Is this possible currently in your neighbourhood? If your parents need assisted living, is there such a place in your community? Would you like better parks and more local services closer to your home? What could be done to strengthen your community? Are there financial benefits of more neighbours paying taxes and sharing the costs associated with living in your neighbourhood?


Some valuable components of the neighbourhood such as trees could be maintained, the ‘character’ probably not. Although the new one will be likely more interesting, livelier, and more sustainable.

Of course, infill will mean physical changes. The character of the neighbourhoods will change and that topic needs to be included in the conversation. We need to be prepared to address the usual concerns about context-sensitive development, reduced privacy, or parking and traffic impacts, to name just a few. We can talk about how some of the apprehensions could be mitigated – for example how is it possible to protect the mature street trees while allowing for on street parking, instead of building more driveways and garages. Again, examples of successful projects and neighbourhoods consisting of a variety of non-uniform built forms which create playful, interesting yet still cohesive streetscapes could go a long way in the formation of a better understanding of the impacts.

Providing tangible benefits and support for intensified neighbourhoods might go even further. People often do not realize these connections, simply because they do not think of the possibilities within the neighbourhoods they consider to be ‘stable’. When we point out that through a modest, incremental, sensitive infill and greater diversity, good things could happen to their neighbourhood, people’s personal choices might open to new possibilities and perspectives. In the end, we are all longing for a happy home for our family. Maybe the conversation could be about how could our homes be even happier with all the new people coming to our cities and how could these changes occur in our neighbourhoods while we all thrive in them. 

There are many great resources with supporting information and data regarding the benefits of infill, design ideas and successfully implemented projects such as Sprawl Repair ManualRetrofitting SuburbiaPortland’s Infill Design ToolkitPerverse Cities and the newly published, Toronto-focused House Divided. There are also few communities which have already changed or are in the process of changing their regulations to support infill and which have great information on such projects on their websites, including EdmontonMinneapolis and Oregon, which is moving toward being the first one in the U.S. to pass a bill to end the single-family zoning.


Interesting infill ideas from the City of Portland’s Infill Design Toolkit. Credit: The City of Portland Bureau of Planning and Sustainability.

Many urbanists would like to see a movement toward more compact, more complete, and more sustainable neighbourhoods. Many of us find it difficult to engage others (non-professionals) in a conversation which would lead to a significant change in commonly accepted views. How can we educate on such a large scale? To achieve significant changes to policies, the acceptance of intensification and the advocacy for it need to come from the general public. We should try to reach out to as many people as possible with all the information we have to create an understanding and hopefully a desire to rethink our suburbia and create beautiful, complete communities that everybody can call a home.

Let us know about your ideas on changing the conversation via twitter @canurbanism.

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