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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Lincoln Logs or Pick Up Sticks?

Called “Interlace”, this proposed complex of 31 interconnected six storey blocks stacked in hexagonal configurations around communal gardens is to hold 1,040 apartments in Singapore. Designed by OMA (Office for Metropolitan Architecture) for CapitaLand Residential Singapore and HPL, this proposal puts yet another spin on “rearranging the blocks”.

OMA is also the architect for the CCTV (China Central Television) HQ in Beijing, another structure recognizable for its rearrangement of a basic elemental form.  The bottom image is a close-up view of a cluster of the Interlace buildings.


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What is a Vancouver Special anyway?

Some say it derives from the “rancher” turned sideways, to adapt to Vancouver’s narrow (33′) lots.  Popular in their time, inexpensive and quick to build, thousands of “Vancouver Specials” were constructed in the 1960s and 1970s in neighbourhoods all over the Lower Mainland and today remain a dominant housing form in Vancouver.  Reviled by many, but loved by their owners for the simple building form that maximizes every square foot of buildable area allowed at the time, the sheer number of Specials and their adaptability is making them desirable once again.

The tour runs Saturday, September 26, 2009 from 12 to 5.  Tickets are available at

For a visual “compendium” of Vancouver Specials, visit


Rearranging the Blocks

Apparently there are some things we just never outgrow. Moshe Safdie did it brilliantly four decades ago with Habitat 67 in Montreal:

Herzog & de Meuron are taking it to new heights at 56 Leonard in New York:

Ateliereen Architecten have turned the idea on end with their viewing tower in the Netherlands.

Perhaps it appeals to the child in all of us, but there can be something very refreshing about architecture that isn’t all lined up.

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One of the projects we evaluated for Orient-Express last year was the redevelopment of the legendary ’21′ Club. MOMA is immediately north of the site, across West 53rd Street, and Hines Interests had purchased the site next door to develop a mixed-use “seven star” hotel and residential condo tower in addition to expanding the MOMA exhibition spaces. Representing perhaps the pinnacle of the ‘star-chitect’ fever gripping New York at the time, architect Jean Nouvel proposed one of the most vertiginous, jaw-dropping designs I’ve come across:

The exterior bracing may invite comparison to the John Hancock Center in Chicago, but that’s where the similarity ends.  While the John Hancock Center is a 100 story tower of 1.2 Million plus square feet of imposing bulk, 53 West 53rd is to be a slender 75 story tower with a tiny foot print (think size zero) that will make it exceedingly difficult and costly to build.  A complete set of renderings can be viewed at and the project website it located at if you want to sign up for the developer’s updates.  The design is currently making the rounds of the New York City Planning Commission.

Making the rounds of the design-sphere today is an “alternate” design for this tower proposed by John Beckmann’s architecture firm Axis Mundi.  The “Vertical Neighborhood” is Beckmann’s call for “a more diverse, complex, heterogeneous, and environmentally-minded city [that] need no longer be represented by one-note architecture that makes a singular visual image and little else.”

While certainly diverse and heterogeneous, it elevates the favela to new heights.

I look forward to the day when green design stops being synonymous with “ugly”.

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