True or false: townhomes are better than high-rises at promoting community?

They look so inviting, our little versions of New York brownstones or Baltimore rowhouses: Vancouver’s trademark downtown townhomes, with their front doors opening to the street, their little patios carefully personalized with planters and decorative objets d’art, and their small flights of steps. They transform downtown streets from a dreary Towerville to a spot where Carrie Bradshaw and her friends might hang out.

Lawyer Grace Chen loves her place on Richards Street. As she and her boyfriend have often noticed, they talk to their neighbours much more often than when they lived in apartments. Somehow, says Chen, it’s easier to connect on the street or on their stoops than in a high-rise hallway or elevator. And the whole street feels more connected. On a sunny weekday afternoon recently, rivulets of walkers streamed down her street, one of the prime breeding grounds of the Vancouverist townhouse, some with strollers, some with briefcases, some with grocery bags as they strolled past. It looked like a scene of utopian livability—downtown urbanity as friendly village.

But oh dear, maybe not. These homes, which seem to induce such neighbourliness, are also oddly empty. There are patio chairs but no people, flowers but no children’s toys. Windows facing the sidewalk usually have their curtains drawn. And one urban researcher who’s explored the anthropology of the area suggests that although our townhouses look as though they have the power to generate a noticeable wave of bonding and sociability, they really don’t.

“The townhouses have a positive design impact. And they make the streets feel safe and lived in. But it’s a simulacrum of a neighbourhood,” says Peter Greenwell, a graduate of SFU’s Urban Studies program, who explored residents’ interactions with their Downtown South area and each other. He surveyed them about who they are, what they like about their neighbourhoods, and how much contact they have with the people who live around them. What he found from 22 in-depth interviews (representing about one-sixth of the 133 townhouses in his study) was that they have high incomes, travel, and are well educated. They love the convenience of living close to their work and some of them walk—the move to the inner city really did prompt many of them to give up second cars, and several told him that once the Canada Line opened, they’d give up their remaining vehicle.

But do they know their neighbours? Only half of respondents said they have any social interaction at all. And half of that contact happens only on the street. There’s a little more on their terraces, but very little in-home visiting. For Greenwell, who was then the director of the nearby Gathering Place, that was a disappointing surprise. “I found what I didn’t really want to know,” he says. He’d hoped that the new areas would foster a sense of community and connectedness that would help agencies like his work with residents on local social issues, like homelessness. “These townhouses, which are really Georgian knockoffs, where people can promenade—people really like them because they feel they’re in this safe, secure, neutral space. But in terms of living in the community, the townhouse as a place maker did not work.”

One of the city’s best-known townhouse residents begs to disagree. Larry Beasley, who as head of planning steered the city’s central-area development through the two decades after Expo 86, almost single-handedly created the downtown townhome. Beasley, who spent his toddler years in Savannah, Georgia, was imprinted early with the power of that form to create a sense of intimacy on the street. When he went to Europe in his 20s, he fell in love with rowhouses again. In Vancouver, as the condo boom got under way, he badgered developers to build townhouses at the base of their towers. A few developers tried them and saw that they sold, and they became part of the template for downtown housing developments.

Beasley agrees that they don’t necessarily foster a magical explosion of neighbourliness. But then, no housing form does by itself. Suburban developments can be just as anonymous, with their garage doors facing the street and their families isolated inside their McMansions and fenced yards.

“I think it’s an unrealistic expectation anywhere that you will know your neighbour just because you live next door,” says Beasley, who bought one of the first townhouses developed downtown, a 2,100-square-foot, three-storey spot on Hornby Street, which he has turned into something resembling a tiny, perfect Italian art museum. “We live in a community of interest and a community of geography. In these times, we’re more compelled by the community of interest.”

It’s important, he believes, that you have a sense of who your neighbours are—it helps reduce the sense of anonymity—but will those neighbours necessarily become part of your social circle?

As it happens, Beasley knows one of his neighbours well enough to have him over for dinner from time to time. As for the woman who’s lived two doors down the other way for the past 15 years, they wave and make nice, but he still doesn’t even know her name.

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