The Importance of Low Rise Infill Solutions

november-2016-column

Development in existing neighborhoods has been a hot topic for quite some time. As long as there have been mature neighborhoods, there have been people looking to build new projects within them.  This has led to countless discussions –some heated- about what should and should not be done, and as a result the city has been forced to respond with increasingly restrictive zoning regulations.  Whatever your position with respect to the style of housing units being built, it is important to understand the social and urban benefits that low-density infill development brings to a neighborhood.

When we talk about low-density infill development, we are referring to new custom homes, semi-detached homes, and similar developments being built throughout the city.  We all have an attachment to our neighborhoods and so it stands to reason that any change to what we are used to can be emotional and cause for concern.  However, infill development should be encouraged because of the high value we place on our neighborhoods and communities.

While it is easy to think of our mature neighborhoods as being static, it is more accurate to think of them as being in a constant state of change.  In some areas the change is gradual, while in others it is occurring at a surprisingly rapid rate.  We are seeing this in Hintonburg and Mechanicsville, among other areas.  But even older neighborhoods such as the Glebe or Old Ottawa South continue to evolve over time.  And it is good that this is happening, because change is essential for maintaining active communities. We say this because change is proof of engagement, of having an interest and an opinion.

If we focus this line of thought on development, it becomes apparent that low-density infill plays a critical role in the urban fabric.  While hundreds of smaller condominium units have been brought to market recently in higher density projects, these units are not of a sufficient size to allow for long term occupancy and rarely result in occupants who become involved with the local community. Low density infill on the other hand, offers a viable long term option for people looking for a home in an existing neighbourhood. Residents of these projects tend to live in them for much longer periods of time, and in so doing tend to become involved in their communities in one way or another.

Regardless of this, a portion of the population sees infill as an intrusion into their neighborhoods and among their complaints are the size of the developments and the style of the architecture.  While some will feel that new buildings in older neighborhoods should mimic the style of the existing houses, we need to be cautious about the possibility of creating thematic or pseudo-historical projects that are being built to emulate a style of the past.  Trying to build a copy can be a recipe for un-inspired design.  We need to consider a mindset where new projects are respectful of the character of a neighborhood and use these cues to develop an architectural style that reflects modern values.  Even the most highly protected heritage neighborhoods in the city are governed by regulations stating that new construction is to be “of its time”.  We must be mindful of the neighbourhood context and ensure that its unique qualities are diligently included in the design of all infill buildings.  When properly executed, this offers streetscapes with a rich tapestry of architectural styles with buildings that speak to the individuals that make up the whole, that speak of community.

When we consider infill at the level of urban design, the size and massing of an infill project is critical.  Because these developments are typically built on existing vacant lots, or on lots that had a modest-sized house, a new build can have an imposing presence on the street.  But these initial impressions need to be considered against a bigger picture urbanistically.  Ottawa is a growing city, and growing cities need to allow for increases in density along with new housing typologies to foster their growth.  And as with most North American cities, we must manage factors such as suburban growth and access to affordable housing.  If density is kept low enough to create a scarcity for urban housing, the cost of these projects will drive people towards more affordable options in the suburbs.  Likewise, access to affordable housing has become a big enough issue that the province is now promoting “inclusionary zoning” measures that seek to include affordable housing types in all forms of development.  All of this points to a need to have a somewhat elevated level of density within our urban boundary.  There are a number of examples that demonstrate how density can be designed in ways that meets a size requirement while being respectful of existing or mature neighborhood character.

When we speak of infill development, we are really talking about fostering a sense of community. This is the true value of mature neighborhoods and it an ethereal element that cannot be built.  Infill becomes about adding something to the community, an element that will adjust the background of the neighborhoods of our city which have stood for decades and nudge them in a slightly different direction.  They are a symbol of individuality, of uniqueness, of a cyclical change that is constantly in motion.  These communities will never be the same, they will never look back, and that is something to be embraced.

 

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