Stephen Wickens on ‘The need for small blocks’ and the Danforth’s split personality

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Roy's Square, Toronto by bricoleurbanism

Apart from a brief post at Torontoist, the erasure of Roy’s Square for the 1 Bloor condos went unmourned. And two stops down the Yonge subway, the Aura condos rise, snuffing hopes of those who cared that a block of Hayter Street was shut in 1978.

The Death and Life of Great American Cities has been around 50 years and Jane Jacobs has been gone more than five, but ‘The need for short blocks’, second of her four conditions indispensable for generating diversity, remains overlooked.

On condition 4, density, converts abound, though understanding is often dangerously simplistic. It’s tough to gauge how we fare on No. 3, but mingling buildings of different ages is widely discussed. As for No. 1, land-use mixes, there has been progress, though it will remain limited till people really get the crucial differences between primary and secondary uses.

Short blocks, alas, tend to be viewed as insignificant if noticed at all. It’s no surprise that one-offs such as Roy’s Square are forgotten. But multiplied over a city or an area, and the absence or loss of short blocks undercuts street life and economic viability. Implications are lasting and hard to correct.

In Chapter 9, “The Need For Small Blocks”, Jacobs combines common sense, basic observation and rudimentary maps of streets in Manhattan’s West 80s, between Central Park and Columbus Ave., to illustrate how long blocks isolate pedestrians, limiting their options and leaving many streets “stagnant backwaters.”

“The supply of feasible spots for commerce rises considerably” when street grids increase chances for pedestrians to turn corners. Even slight variations in sidewalk traffic will make or break nascent enterprises, so it’s easy to see how seemingly minor changes to street patterns trigger virtuous and vicious cycles.

The chapter, the book’s shortest at just nine pages, explains a mystery that baffled New Yorkers after street-deadening elevated rail lines were removed from 3rd and 6th avenues. On the West Side, where the blocks were long, the move had little effect. On the East, with its short blocks, revitalization erupted.

Of course, cities are complex and organic, so it’s foolish to consider conditions in isolation, something Jacobs reminded me of in a 2005 discussion on block-length effects in Toronto.

Referring to the underperforming Sheppard subway, she decried local media’s fixation with the new residential density along the line. “A few tall buildings don’t constitute healthy urban form. Even near the stations, people aren’t walking in large numbers,” she said, pointing out that land uses remain separated and there aren’t enough primary uses attracting people.

Furthermore, because the area can’t provide a real mix of building ages for generations, she said it’s doubly essential the other diversity generators be present. “As long as the blocks are long, you can be sure the area will be off-putting for pedestrians and, for the most part, economically barren,” she said. “Density in the absence of short blocks is usually trouble.”

Regarding Danforth Ave. east of Pape, Jacobs indicated that those who noticed the area’s decline as car ownership grew and after subway replaced the streetcar in 1966, tend to overestimate transportation’s role. “If this is like typical blue-collar neighbourhoods from the early 20th century, you’ll find there was significant loss of industry after the war,” she said. “These losses devastated the area’s primary-use mix.”

Then, after a warning about how misleading maps can be, she said my quest to understand the Danforth’s split personality should “start with a good, scaled map; compare block lengths.”

Sure enough, the things she identified in New York apply here. To the west of Pape Ave., in Greektown, where businesses and sidewalks thrive, it takes less than a minute to walk most blocks at an easy pace. Sometimes 45 seconds will do.

The first south-side block east of Pape is unbroken all the way to Jones Ave. and takes nearly four minutes to walk. The long-block east-west streets to south have little real connection the Danforth. And all through the areas often called the “Other Danforth,” where a “blight of dullness” arises, long blocks dominate at least one side of the street until the rail corridor veers close enough to do further damage by truncating neighbourhoods to the south.

From Roy’s Square, to the Danforth, to New York, Europe and beyond, the role of the four generators is universal. But while we often add density and mixes of uses, and we sometimes let our buildings age, we rarely add streets and shorten blocks.

It troubled Jacobs to the end.

The best way to thank her for explaining this crucial detail, which was hidden in plain view all along, is to ensure we leave as many small blocks as possible to our descendants.

5 Comments Add yours

  1. Those are some fantastic illustrations. Having mostly lived in Toronto as a student, I feel like I don’t know so much of the city, and your description of the Danforth area was very illuminating.

    To your point about the stubbornness of long blocks, in How Buildings Learn Stewart Brand has this to say: “Political site is eternal. The streets of Boston, tangled as they are, won’t move. Even the skyscrapers must dance to their choreography. In Lucca, Italy, the outline of a Roman amphitheater lives on in the modern city.”

    Streets and properties are one of the slowest changing aspect of cities, and it takes a lot of effort and resources to make them move. This makes it all the more important that we (a) seize opportunities to correct problems when they present themselves because they’re few and far between, and (b) make good decisions because any decisions we make will stay with us for a long, long time. As Jacobs points out (maybe in the chapter about Visual Order?), these sorts of changes essentially cannot happen all at once, and cannot be master planned. They have to happen piecemeal and opportunistically.

    As a side note, I think the need for aged buildings is also quite overlooked by planners and governments. Most of the current discussion about aged buildings revolves around heritage and adaptive reuse, rather than the low-overhead, rundown buildings that Jacobs describes. I think promoting this kind of aged building is hard to accept for planners and policy-makers, because it essentially means they have to leave them alone, even if their ugly, ordinary facades beg for intervention. Unlike density and mixed uses, these buildings cannot be planned or governed into existence.

    Both short blocks and aged buildings have in common the need for patience and longterm planning—two things that, in my experience, governments and planners have a tough time with.

  2. Steven Dale says:

    I always wondered why Roy’s square wasn’t incorporated into the design for 1 Bloor. I loved that place.

  3. Bradley Wentworth says:

    I’m almost caught back up to the reading schedule and the blog posts, but thought I’d chime in quickly along the way. I leave at Gerrard & River Streets in Toronto, at the east end of Regent Park – Canada’s textbook example of 1950s project housing that has had huge problems. It’s now being rebuilt and one of the cornerstones is the resurrection of several through-streets (the entire project was bound by 700m x 350m blocks). It’s also going from pure low-rise residential + grass to mixed-use, mixed-income (social housing next to market units with provisions for lower-income tenants to own their units over time). It will be dense. The only criterion missing for a vibrant neighbourhood is a mix of new and aged buildings, however that might be mitigated by the thankfully gradual pace of construction. Phase I has been open some two years now and phase six won’t be done for another 15+.

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