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Canadian Urbanism Uncovered

Housing Projects and Public Space

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An important dimension of the recent two-week bout of rioting in France, one that a few people have noted, is the shape and use of public space.

According the the Globe and Mail, the trigger for the riots was local residents calling the police when they saw a group of visible-minority youths crossing a public park (perfectly legally). Two youths died by accident after fleeing from the police, which proved to be the catalyst for the riots. Which raises the question, is public space truly public if it is not equally open to everyone, regardless of appearance?

Paris SuburbsSome of the underlying conditions for the riots are also space-based. The public housing projects in which visible minority families are housed on the outskirts of French cities are designed in the tradition of the mid-20th century ideals of the Swiss architect Le Corbusier. They consist of isolated residential towers, distant from each other and separated from commercial areas. There is plenty of public space, but it is empty and characterless, providing no focal point for people to gather together. The result is, first, a sense of isolation and a lack of connections between families and communities. Equally problematic is the fact that there is no place to start an economy. Unlike a mixed-use, mixed-form urban space, there is a lack of places within the community to rent a low-cost storefront in which to sell or make things. In the end, the organization of space makes it difficult for a true community to form, trapping people in poverty.

Toronto encountered a similar problem in its own housing community of Regent Park — a model community based on idealistic principles that ignored the messy reality of how urban spaces work. Even though, unlike the Paris suburbs, it was in the midst of the city, its design made it inward-looking and isolated. It will be interesting to see if the major project currently underway to re-urbanize Regent Park makes a significant difference to the community. This re-urbanization may be something we need to continue elsewhere in the city — one blogger noted that the pictures of the Paris suburbs are reminiscent of Jane and Finch.