It's pretty marvellous how flexible cities can be to change. After seven weeks on the road, I found downtown Fredericton was full of changes but felt just as lovely as always. The narrow mixed-use buildings that line Queen Street, our main drag, can be reconfigured in so many ways. Time proves it. I recently had dinner in an old bank that became a bar that burned down and was rebuilt as a restaurant and would feel just as natural as a ballroom, shop, or gallery. Spend a few years in a place and you can experience the city remaking itself over and over in place.
Good urban design can compensate for modest building design
Another discovery was that as much as we love beautiful buildings, even pretty ugly ones can do the trick if they have a good relationship with the street. What I mean by that is they are a working part of a continuous streetscape. They are not shouting "LOOK AT ME" or making their neighbouring buildings feel out of place. They are making the street safe, comfortable, and interesting to walk along, etc. You've heard me talk about this already.
For example, in the video I explain Lunch Café is brand new. (The staff are really lovely by the way - if you're reading this in Fredericton you should go pay the place a visit. The interior is perfect.) It's plunked into an unattractive building if I can say so. But it's pulled up to the sidewalk and they've made the windows more inviting and added a planter. Since it fits so well into the street, you barely notice that the building itself is not doing any favours. It works. Good urban design can compensate for modest building design. One day, when a tenant is thriving and bursting at the seams, maybe they'll redevelop the building into something more stately. Even in its present form though, it's still more than pulling its weight on the street, much more than the drive-thru across the road which is physically a nicer building.
The Opposite of Remaking
Seeing how Downtown Fredericton is constantly remaking itself brought to mind the opposite situation. In my travels, I was taken to a couple sites that foretell the widespread decline of much suburban style development. We're already seeing the traditional shopping mall struggle across the world, and suburban neighbourhoods are proving difficult to retrofit as well. That's not to say good people are not trying and succeeding to give suburban areas new life - but it's quite a lot more difficult than your average paint-job.
There are socio-economic, political, and cultural reasons that we see suburban places get into a vicious cycle of decline, but design reasons as well. Generally, suburban style development is not designed for reuse. It has a best-by date baked into the investment. Those coveted major retailers want to get in for maybe 20 years and then leave the shell of the old store for greener pastures at the new big-box centre. What do you do with an empty box the size of an airplane hangar? Suburban homes are not easily subdivided or turned into non-residential uses. Short of tearing everything down and starting fresh, it takes supremely creative people and a lot of cooperation to remodel your way out of that situation.
How do we handle this?
Downtowns tend to have more modular, flexible, recyclable pieces. They can reinvent themselves for better or worse over and over again. Seeing that, many questions drift into mind:
- What happens to the people who live in places that are not built to last?
- What happens to the places themselves that won't last?
- How can we fix the system that creates disposable places (thereby treating people and communities as disposable)?
- How do we balance what diverse people want with development that has proven to work in the long run?
- When we re-build, how do we ensure we are building to last or recycle?
I'd love to hear how your city is faring on this matter. Any creative attempts at retrofitting uncooperative landscapes? Any inspiring redesigns of old sites? Any activities that have brought new life to a vacant building? Tweet me or comment!