by Sarah Burch

To the wobbly tune of a passing ice cream truck, a 12-year old girl slowly pedals her bicycle, weaving down a tree-lined street.  Every so often, she reaches into her basket to grab a folded newspaper, and tosses it onto the doorstep of each house on the block.  The houses are fronted by an expanse of perfectly manicured emerald lawn, a spacious garage, and a tree or two.  The girl’s father is just leaving work, and embarking on a 40 minute drive home.  Her mother is doing the week’s worth of grocery shopping at the sparkly new mall. 

Setting aside the sexual politics and socio-economic implications of this slice of 1960s Americana, this type of community was once considered the North American dream: single family detached homes, distant from exclusively business-oriented districts, major shopping outlets dependent on massive imports and industrial agriculture. 

Sometimes called Euclidean zoning, this way of structuring cities segregates land uses into stark categories: residential, business, industrial etc, with very little overlap or intermingling.  Euclidean zoning has led to much of what we see in today’s Canadian and American cities, and is increasingly recognized as fundamentally unsustainable. 

 First and foremost, this model of the city demands heavy use of cars, and rarely creates the density required to make public mass transit financially viable and convenient. Greenspace that enhances biodiversity (not just sterile parks, but ecologically rich urban forests, for instance) may be kept out of these communities entirely, and smaller local businesses are often edged out by conglomerates that can afford to lease 100,000 square feet of retail space.  The distance one must travel to work, school, and other activities make active transportation, such as cycling or walking, nearly impossible.

Given the constellation of problems presented by modern cities, we need to come up with some new visions of what our communities could look like.  Fortunately, there are a heap of them out there, and the ‘new urbanism’ movement does just this.  Proponents of new urbanism suggest that communities should be walkable, containing a mix of uses rather than the swathes of urban monoculture perpetuated by Euclidean zoning. This movement is closely linked to the broader concept of smart growth, focused on long-term sustainability oriented planning that supports transit-oriented, compact, complete communities.  A form-based code is one regulatory tool that may accelerate a shift towards communities that are less reliant on cars, more diverse, aesthetically pleasing, and functional.  This is done by paying attention to the form of neighbourhoods, rather than separating uses, and developing a particular community character that is a manifestation of a vision embodied in a community plan.  In other words, do you feel like an ant beneath 40 storey buildings that blot out the sun, squished into a narrow sidewalk with no place to sit and have a coffee in sight?  Or can you stroll down a pedestrian street fronted by three storey buildings (Hey!  There’s the sun!), each containing a family’s residence and small business or two, shaded by trees and spotted with public art?

When one thinks about this transition in urban landscape, however, it’s often large cities that come to mind.  Reining in Calgary’s sprawl so that (gasp) people once again walk the streets. Densifying Surrey’s city centre and corridors so that mass transit has a reason for being. But what about small communities? In many cases, smaller towns are often just as car-dependent as the suburbs of major centres.

The community of Revelstoke, BC, is leading the way for smaller communities by developing its own form-based code.  Revelstoke is an idyllic mountain town of 8,000 located along the Columbia River in south eastern BC. Revelstoke is aiming to implement a suite of regulatory tools to enhance community character, create a modestly dense city centre, and support the expanded use of a renewable district energy system (feeding off of the wood ‘waste’ created by a local sawmill).  This is a challenging task – many residents of small towns choose this way of life to escape the bustle of the big city, and have no problem with driving to school, work, and shopping.  Deep and continuous public engagement is a therefore a crucial ingredient to a successful sustainability plan, and the ultimate implementation of smart growth principles.  But this engagement may be even more fruitful in small communities than in large ones, as networks of trust (or at least interaction) already exist amongst many community members and the planning outcome can be visibly, powerfully influenced.

Sustainable communities aren’t just a big city phenomenon.  In fact, smaller communities may be uniquely equipped to innovate and implement leading edge planning practices.  So keep your eye on Revelstoke – the little mountain town that’s showing others how it’s done. 

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 Image: Lego sets that illustrate new urbanism, from Planetizen