Thursday, February 26, 2004

Oakville North Secondary Plan

Lots going on in the urban front this week, but here's something which in particular caught my eye. The Town of Oakville hosted an open house on Tuesday night, showing the preferred development scheme for the Oakville North development area (the controversial proposal to open up the area between Dundas Street and the 407 to development).

I'll ignore the question of whether the area should in fact be developed, and the issue of another urban growth boundary being loosened to sprawl, and take a look at what's being proposed under the assumption that development of the lands is a done deal.

There are a number of maps, plans, and documents on the Town's website (here). I haven't had time yet to go through all of them, but I've at least taken a look at most of the various planning maps. If I were to pick one to focus on, it would be the main Secondary Plan (warning: 2.5 MB PDF), which not only shows the proposed broad-strokes land uses and major roads, but a conceptual (presumably) block subdivision, showing (amongst other things) a local street pattern.

The plan was largely facilitated by new urbanist planning guru Andres Duany, who's written an excellent book entitled Suburban Nation: The Rise of Sprawl and the Decline of the American Dream which outlines, well, the rise of sprawl in North America and then presents the new urbanist alternative. The GTA had its first introduction to Duany's work in Markham, with the new urbanist community of Cornell; Oakville already has his penstrokes on its plans, with the Oak Park area of their Uptown Core at Trafalgar and Dundas.

The North Oakville Secondary Plan certainly has many of his trademarks: it's heavily oriented around a five-minute pedestrian-shed, with lots of small interior parks or "village squares." Non-"employment" internal areas are subdivided into "urban centre areas" (lining most internal main streets, which is promising), "general urban areas", and "sub-urban areas" (of which there are an impressively low proportion). The road network is a dense and highly connected modified grid pattern, which I tend to advocate — it even shows short blocks intersecting Dundas Street for most of the way, and while my gut tells me it'll be via service roads to maintain traffic flow on Dundas, I can certainly live with that. After all, it shows a narrow band of urban core area along Dundas, which is too narrow for big box development.

But the "Trafalgar Road Urban Core Area" certainly isn't too narrow! It cuts a ~750-metre swath all the way from Dundas to the 407, a scale just crying out for big box development, as if Oakville and western Mississauga doesn't have enough of it already. It's a problem with Duany's Oak Park design, too. He's set out to design a community that's on a pedestrian scale much more reminiscent of an older urban neighbourhood. The streets are narrow; the houses are set close to the street to give the street a real sense of enclosure and of place (and to make walking more visually interesting); the blocks are small, with lots of options for trip making. He's even proved in Oak Park that a four-storey walk-up is not out of place in a suburban development (although I understand that even the most tasteful building wasn't enough to satisfy some NIMBYers there). Yet in that overwhelmingly pedestrian-oriented environment, there are no pedestrians. Why? Because there's nothing for pedestrians to walk to. The closest attractions are the Wal-Mart and other big box developments along Trafalgar Road, which of course are surrounded with huge parking lots, and that paradoxical juxtaposition is, in my opinion, the biggest problem with neo-traditional developments. The residential areas are designed for pedestrians, and the non-residential areas continue to be designed for the car.

Having said that, it does have promise, and I will hold out hope. The next question: will good intentions be lost in the interpretation? (There's some background behind that scepticism, which I will reveal in a future edition...)

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