31 October 2008

A Tale of Three Streets

Oakville Ontario, Phoenix Arizona, Edmonton AlbertaGordon Stratford
Over the years I have had the good fortune to experience first-hand an eclectic variety of thoroughfares – Unter der Linden in Berlin and its elegant boulevard park setting, Dubai’s Sheikh Zayed Road with its frenetic array of look-at-me towers, Savannah’s Barnard Street and the genteel southern squares along its path, and Shinjuku District streets in Tokyo, amazing on a rainy night after watching Blade Runner with Japanese subtitles in a local cinema. I once thought that the only streets worth paying attention to were the classics, like stately Unter der Linden, but energetic upstarts like Sheikh Zayed Road and Shinjuku District have given me pause to consider what makes a street really work. It would be worthwhile to set aside the worldly destinations, and take a closer look at some less exotic locales such as Oakville, Phoenix and Edmonton.

My family spent several years looking outside Toronto for the right place to call home. One of our key goals was a community whose heart was not a shopping mall: it had to have a healthy downtown. In the suburbs this is not easy to find, and then we found Oakville.
Lakeshore Road in downtown Oakville has the feeling of a classic Main Street that has grown, changed over time and actually thrived. It has just the right width, the right bordering building height and mix of uses. It has a choice of shady and sunny sides and promenading is alive and well. There is a nice bit of traffic complexity with curbside parking, trucks stopping in the middle of Lakeshore to make deliveries and slow speeds to take in the sidewalk life. A transcending civic moment, thanks to a well-designed pedestrian square midway along the street, provides a fine outdoor living room for cultural events and midnight-madness shopping. All seems well but I feel uneasy. Lakeshore feels like an incomplete portrait of the community, lacking that vital grit that balances gentrification. If you want the true main street heart of Oakville, you need to mix well behaved Lakeshore with nearby Kerr Street and its rough-edged alter ego.

I was told that the only place worth visiting in Phoenix was the main street in Kierland Commons –everything else is just suburban. Kierland Commons is touted as a prime example of the newest wave of development in North America, the mixed use urban village concept. Having decimated the traditional downtown with malls and big box shopping centres, developers are now recreating the essence of what had been destroyed. But do they succeed?
Kierland Commons is an odd thing, a taste of live/work/shop/entertain urbanity surrounded by the low density sprawl that represents most of Phoenix. Its main street has all the right ingredients, borrowing heavily from the genetics of streets such as Oakville’s Lakeshore. The proportion of street width to building height is comfortable, it is attractively landscaped and shaded sidewalks promote pedestrian activity – in itself is remarkable given Phoenix’s usually hostile pedestrian environment. There is street parking and traffic is nice and slow. A small square borders this main street, for daily use and special events. According to reports Kierland Commons is a great success, probably because it possesses what people long for and the rest of Phoenix seriously lacks.
It’s convincing but undone by an essential missing ingredient, authenticity. Along the street there are too many of the same stores that you would find in a shopping mall, servicing is too neatly hidden away from view, the main street ends unexpectedly and the transition to the real world of Phoenix is abrupt. The street never transcends its feeling of a manufactured stage set with not enough there there. Perhaps time, more local shops and expansion to a critical mass of urban streets, blocks and civic spaces will make the difference.

When I started visiting Edmonton on a regular basis, I asked a local where to stay in the city. I was told Whyte Avenue is the place to be. Since then I have experienced this street in all seasons, during festivals, through NHL hockey finals and on regular days.
Whyte is a bit like an awkward teenager, almost an adult but oddly put together and with a good dose of attitude. The street is wide, making it feel like the car is king. The buildings seem too short and the sidewalks too narrow to adequately frame the space. Oversized auto dealerships with enormous neon signs fight for attention with a multitude of small shops. The closest thing to a square is the Tim Horton's parking lot, with its revving motorbikes and smell of exhaust.
The design part of my brain tells me that this is all wrong, but the rest of my brain differs – Whyte works! A big factor is the number of small, local, eccentric stores with comparatively few big chain outlets. There is a full mix of people making street life active, rich and sometimes unusual –such as the nose flute player, and sometimes dangerous – Whyte is a street that can party: once a perfectly inebriated stranger grabbed me on a sidewalk packed with thousands of fans after the Oilers won a quarter-final series.
This one street captures the pulse of its community, where nothing is done in small measure. I am slowly learning that conscious design is not always the mantra for saving the world and making it a better place. Successful streets are proving, to me, that adhoc authenticity and inconsistent conditions win over choreographed strategies.

Stratford, Gordon. 'A Tale of Three Streets: Oakville, Phoenix, Edmonton' On Site review, no. 19 Spring/Summer 2008
©Gordon Stratford and On Site review

No comments: