Neighbourhoods face resolutions, revolutions and revelation

In this Chronicle Essay, Douglas Cornish explores the complex, and often fraught, evolution of neighbourhoods

By Douglas Cornish

The evolution of neighbourhoods is complicated but when neighbourhoods work, their residents are happy with the local amenities, like these ski trails accessible at Mile Circle. Photo: Marie-Frédérique Caron
The evolution of neighbourhoods is complicated but when neighbourhoods work, their residents are happy with the local amenities, like these ski trails accessible at Mile Circle. Photo: Marie-Frédérique Caron

This is a resolutionary time of year. People make resolutions, break them, forget they even made them, or wonder why they even did. They curse themselves for making them but repeat the process the following year. It’s tradition. It’s trendy. It’s part of the culture. It’s a fun thing to do. If taken too seriously, the results can be disappointing, a useless exercise. Discipline is destiny, as they say; a New Year’s resolution can be life-changing or heartbreaking. The result usually lies within an individual’s character. It also depends on the nature of the resolution.

A frivolous one can do no harm; a serious mountain climbing-like endeavour can break you unless you quickly put the brakes on the idea.

The connotation of the word resolution is not unlike the words: revolution, evolution, and revelation. A resolution can be revolutionary, it can be an evolving process, and there is often a revelation involved in the outcome.

Neighbourhoods are part of this process, particularly when considering recent municipal and provincial interference. Neighbourhoods, particularly older and established ones, are changing and evolving. Evolution isn’t always what we might expect or even demand. Evolution is generally associated with survival, but in the case of neighbourhoods, some of them may have been doing just fine, thank you very much.

The evolution of a neighbourhood can be complicated, and often follows societal trends, such as the current showpiece-like houses. The old structure, which did well by previous generations, is torn down and replaced. The unfortunate revelation: sometimes the new house put up in its place compromises the surrounding architecture. New owners may not understand the neighbourhood and might not even care–it’s their house and they can do what they want! The giant new homes may be visually disturbing, but perhaps it’s the beginning of dramatic change.

So-called “intensification” replaces houses with low-rise buildings.

Sometimes, a house is intentionally demolished to fill in the land with multiple structures, higher than the surrounding ones. With developers at the proverbial gates, the evolution might be irreversible and unsightly.

Date with density

An old saying is, ‘put your money in land because they’re not making any more!’ Land is precious these days, especially in older neighbourhoods. Attractive uniformity might give way to a squeezed in hodgepodge of buildings where the neighbourhood is no longer recognizable and lacks the attractiveness and community feel that convinced people to live in the neighbourhood in the first place.

There is also a potential green-space land reduction surrounding a neighbourhood to produce more density.

This is the evolution and the revelation that many may not see coming, and many might not like the eventual result.

So, it’s the time of resolutions, revolutions, and revelations. There are times when the three can’t easily be separated, especially when discussing the evolution of older neighbourhoods. The word “devolution” might even be a more appropriate term. Older neighbourhoods are often targeted by municipal overreach. In Ottawa, urban sprawl was initially encouraged but produced outlying suburbs 30 minutes or more from downtown. The trend now has reversed itself, and city authorities want people closer to downtown, which means density.

A logical fourth word to think about is “solution.” It may not seem possible, but there is always a solution, and the best way of reaching it is through sensible compromise.

A resolution for neighbourhood growth is complicated. It requires architects, urban planners, neighbourhood community committees and a general neighbourhood mindset to solve the evolving nature of older neighbourhoods. It will take a community-wide effort, a revolution, and hopefully a revelation that everyone likes.