Monday, January 05, 2004

905 vs. Forest Hill

While flipping through the television yesterday over lunch, I stumbled across a show on CTV called Real Estate Television. Someone in the development industry was being interviewed, and said that he had been asked by a friend, why couldn’t communities being planned today be of the same calibre as some of Toronto’s more popular old neighbourhoods, like Forest Hill or Etobicoke (he didn’t specify, but I might guess that’s a reference to the Kingsway).

I missed the first part of his answer, due to static on my TV, but he basically said that, give today’s subdivisions twenty or thirty years, and they’ll be better than those old, revered neighbourhoods. After all, when Forest Hill was built, all the mature-growth trees we see there today were just young saplings; we need to give the new vegetation in those neighbourhoods two or three decades to grow (hmmm ... co-incidentally, the approximate length of a typical mortgage). And, what’s more, today’s new homes are so much better than older homes, because of better construction techniques.

Certainly both valid points, I would agree. We complain about having to rake the leaves in the autumn, but trees add a significant element to a neighbourhood — just ask the residents of northern Toronto or Halifax, who have lost large numbers of their trees this year to the Asian Longhorned Beetle and Hurricane Juan, respectively. And I would not be surprised if new design and construction techniques allowed today’s new-home buyers to get more features and higher quality for the same price.

In my opinion, that’s a pretty simplistic explanation to quickly dismiss what I think is a valid concern. Part of this has to do with the appearance of the house. The interviewee made the point that houses designed back in the 1980’s had the appearance of being dominated by the garage, whereas those being designed today don’t have that problem — but this statement was ironically voiced over a shot of a typical new subdivision, being filmed from a vehicle driving down a street, showing a dozen or so houses under construction, all dominated in front (at least to my eyes) by garages. And while developers have made some effort to increase the variety in home design, subdivisions still seem to have the sense of sameness to them; I suspect developers have determined a narrow range of design styles that are most popular with buyers, and asked their architects to conform to that range, with the result being more of the status quo.

Even those points aren’t all that significant in explaining why older neighbourhoods have more appeal, though. After all, mass production in design isn’t anything new: witness the post-war prefabricated housing boom, or even any number of Victorian-era streets in Toronto with remarkably similar house designs. Where these explanations all fail is in their foci on the house. The question was not of the individual houses or lots, but of the neighbourhoods, and that is where we must look for the answer — and not just to the residential uses. We must look to the scale of the neighbourhoods — how often they are broken up visually and functionally with auxiliary uses, such as schools, churches, parks, and shopping areas — and the scale and function of those non-residential uses, especially shopping areas. (More on this another day.) Sometimes I have to wonder if subdivision developers — and new-home buyers — are so fixated on the individual homes, that they only think of these auxiliary uses as an afterthought. I would argue it should be the other way around: when you have a vision of how the entire community should look and operate — including non-residential uses — then you can design or look for the specific individual house.

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