Space Ooze in the 21st century

So this is embarrassing but it must be admitted: I am only just now reading The Death and Life of Great American Cities by Jane Jacobs. And sure enough, here are all the familiar ideas, groundbreaking in 1961, mantras now for many urbanists: eyes on the street; mixity and diversity of uses; round-the-clock activity…

Oh, but what’s this? According to Jane Jacobs, the number one quality that promotes safety and order on the streets is that: “Public and private spaces cannot ooze into each-other as they do typically in suburban settings or in projects.” (1992 edition, p.35)

And what is this? Jane Jacobs dedicates the entire fifth chapter of the book to critiquing parks, and to deriding the way city-planners of her day uncritically vaunted open space as if it were a cure-all for social ills. With her knack for summing up the absurdities of modern planning, Jacobs highlights this except from the New York Times, 1961: “Mr. Moses conceded that some new housing might be ‘ugly, regimented, institutional, identical, conformed, faceless.’ But he suggested that such housing could be surrounded with parks.”

Of course some parks are vibrant and successful – Parc Lafontaine, Parc Jeanne-Mance and Carré Saint-Louis come to mind as local examples. But, Jacobs argues, that when it comes to park space, less is more:

“people in cities, with all their other interests and duties, can hardly enliven unlimited amounts of local, generalized park. City people would have to devote themselves to park use as if it were a business…to justify, for example, the plethora of malls, promenades, playgrounds, parks and indeterminate land oozes afforded in typical Radiant Garden City schemes.”

Although we have adopted many of Jacobs’ insights about cities, it’s still common to see not-quite-public space oozing about equally-uninspiring condo and apartment blocks:

Above: Space ooze in new developments in Saint-Laurent, Griffintown and Verdun

Double-take on Meadowbrook

A few weeks ago, I attended a public discussion about Petite-Rivière, a project which adopts the principles of a one-planet community. 70% of the site would be public space, including both re-naturalized areas and landscaped parks. Supporters and opponents of the project alike agreed that the city needs more greenspace and many underlined the excellent precedent that such a project would set.

But while this plan may be adapted to Meadowbrook’s particular shape, location, history, and biodiversity, does this kind of land-use really make sense in Turcot or in Pointe-St-Charles?

Ditching “Green”

Perhaps today more than ever, it feels like sacrilege to critique the existence of greenspace, any green space. Montreal notoriously lags behind other Canadian cities and international standards in terms of parkland. And, faced with problems such as heat-island effect, biodiversity loss and food security, doesn’t every little bit of greenspace count?

I think that the first thing that I think we need to do is to ditch the notion of “green.” A colour cannot stand in for a value system and most lawns are about as bio-diverse as a bedbug infestation.

If we need space in the city for biodiversity, urban agriculture, rain-water filtration, local waste diversion, geothermal pipes and other renewable energies – and I believe that we do – then let’s be clear about it. Lets draw it into the plans; lets see architectural renderings with gardeners on their knees weeding rather than couples strolling against a bucolic green background; lets see indigenous wildflowers and birds and even insects; lets see those unsexy compost bins and solar panels. Oh, and let’s use the roofs, of goodness sake.

But assuming that some nondescript greenspace will automatically assure that a new development is either sustainable or family-friendly is about as logical as the 1950s assumption that space ooze would “fight blight” in slums. It didn’t, and it won’t.

5 comments

  1. Very interesting. Tree canopy does a lot more good than graminoid-mono-culture, as you say:
    – absorbs more run-off
    – requires less constant maintenance
    – requires much less herbicide and fertilizer
    – shades and wind-breaks
    – can line both streets and alleys
    – transpiration cools the surrounding area
    – provides fuel in case of seige…
    – can provide fruit or mast during same…

    The nicest streets I have lived on in cities have been dense with housing and shops, and dense with foliage.

  2. Fuel in case of siege?! Ah, I feel more secure now.

    While I agree, I also love the Habitations Jeanne-Mance which show how a dreadful 60’s towers-in-the-park social housing idea CAN work after all. There is some greenspace that is unused, it’s true, but very little and only because they’ve put in chain-link fences and purposely blocked access. There are gardens, there are benches that are full, there are kids playing soccer in the summer and skating in the winter, and even cegep students smoking joints and playing hacky sack and sometimes being chased away by a sprinkler system.

    And don’t forget that we’re actually quite good in our “canopy index” so our city isn’t necessarily lacking in green; we just have fewer parks. Plus, I much prefer the beautiful urban parks here compared to Vancouver where I grew up and where so many neighbourhood parks are merely soccer fields with a few trees planted around the edge.

  3. Yeah! Forget the leisurely stroll through a bucolic green.
    I love the idea of a city with green technologies, indigenous plants, urban gardens, every innovative means possible. And people actively and outrageously nurturing it. Excellent post!

  4. In regards to Tristou’s comment:
    Habitations Jeanne Mance has been recognized as one of the worst urban renewal projects in the city. It’s construction led to several protests at the time. It is sensibly an area that’s disconnected from the rest of its neighborhood. It ignores the urban structure it is set in, and the green space you speak of is nowhere safe in the evening, or at night. As a matter of fact, this area is mostly avoided.

    What Jane Jacobs denounced wasn’t necessarily the availability of green space, but rather, the form it took. A park, bordered by public streets, where its setting incites accessibility and visibility will most likely be safer, and therefore more populated. A private housing unit, built in the middle of a park will have just the opposite effect.

    The clear divide between public and and private spaces is key to a healthy parks and recreation system. This you will see in examples such as the Old Port, the Canal Lachine, Mount-Royal Park, Lafontaine Park, and many other city plazas/squares. 

    Moreover, we need to “green” our own yards, our own structures, buildings, etc. This practice will allow for better, healthier cities, rather than just “greener” cities, where green equals waste of space. 

  5. Also, the gare Windsor project is essentially a private backyard, as it is not accessible to the public. Technically, it is not an example of public private “oozing”.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *