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Front porches, sidewalks, buses (sort of) -- it's the New Urbanism

Cornell community members appreciate the anti-suburban-sprawl of their new neighbourhood, but can’t do without their gas-guzzlers yet

Globe and Mail
Monday, April 24, 2000

It’s a long, lonely wait for a bus in a suburb that promises to put cars in their place.

“I don’t think I’ve ever seen a bus,” Julie Jacobs said as she pushed a stroller carrying her 21-month-old son, Brennan, through the mud of a still-unpaved street in Cornell, northeast of Toronto.

Cornell’s design, by New Urbanism theorist Andres Duany of Miami, is supposed to resemble Toronto’s downtown Cabbagetown district, a community where people don’t have to depend on cars.

But as the first of its residents move in, they are opting for the ways of old suburbia.

Buses do stop here and can connect residents to local Markham buses and a GO train for a trip to downtown Toronto, but the service is “rush hour only.”

“The idea is you can get everything within walking distance. We don’t have that yet,” said Bill Nevills, who just moved here from Scarborough.

Taking his daughters Emily, 17 months, and Sarah, four months, to a park near the community’s first shopping plaza, Mr. Nevills said he was hoping for more shopping options. If he wants groceries, he has to get in his car and drive for about 10 minutes.

But Mr. Nevills and his wife didn’t even ask about transit before buying their $200,000 townhouse with a balcony and a sunroom on an 18-foot lot. They liked the home, the location and the feeling of neighbourhood better than more typical subdivisions where homes are further apart.

As one of the first residents of an area on its way to becoming a planned community of 30,000, Ms. Jacobs said she finds Cornell is much more convenient than the nearby suburb where she grew up.

The Victorian-style brick homes on straight, interconnected streets are built close together to encourage interaction and bring transit within no more than a five-minute walk of any home.

Ms. Jacobs finds she does walk more here. Along the way to the variety store for a few essentials, she can sniff a few roses and chat with friendly neighbours on their front porches.

But like most of Cornell’s home buyers, she and her husband opted for the two-car garage to house their prime transportation.

Despite a lack of transit ridership, it is still too early to judge Cornell’s success as an alternative to sprawl, said Dan Lemming of the Planning Partnership, involved in Cornell and in Angus Glen, a second New Urbanist community in Markham.

The population of Cornell will be as much as three times as high per hectare as is typical in other new suburban communities now being built around Toronto. That creates a concentration of population that should make regular bus service practical, Mr. Lemming said.

While many builders have resisted the New Urbanism until it becomes clear how successful the concept will be, at least half a dozen communities based on the principles are now being studied for Markham, Orangeville and Oakville.

Municipal planners have been enthusiastic about the trend to homes on smaller lots because it meets their goals for tighter communities with a greater mix of housing types, Mr. Lemming said.

Most suburbs are inhuman in scale, with houses far apart, few focal points and wide traffic arteries rather than sidewalks, argued Mr. Duany and Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk in their New Urbanism manifesto Suburban Nation: the Rise and Sprawl of the American Dream.

Cornell’s design is classically New Urbanist. The two-tone brick homes are shoulder to shoulder, with front porches rather than garages as their central focus.

While the New Urbanists are often accused of pushing nostalgia for gingerbread homes, they say any architectural style will work as long as enough people live close enough together to make neighbourhood shops and regular transit schedules possible.

“This is definitely becoming a real community,” said a beaming Norbert Fitoussi, owner of the Maison du Caf�, a coffee shop that has become the neighbourhood social centre.

He compares the feel to Yonge and Davisville in downtown Toronto, where he ran a Second Cup store before becoming one of Cornell’s first residents about a year ago.

The village centre, with stores on the first floor and three storeys of condominiums above, now has a bank, drug store, variety store, dry cleaner and video store. There is also a dental clinic and a hair salon, with customers who know the shopkeepers by name.

Mr. Fitoussi has become the unofficial social organizer, arranging euchre nights, Tupperware parties and live music on the store’s terrace in the summer.

Liz Makkay, sweeping the porch of a Victorian-style home with two cars in a garage behind it, said some new residents still profess to feel a bit daring walking to shops. But there is a feeling of safety because there are eyes to see if something is amiss and there are people on porches to chat with on the way.

Nothing about a car trip is as friendly, she said. But she hasn’t yet ventured out to find a bus.

“If my car didn’t work, I guess I would have to learn,” she said.