You gotta keep em separated
I’m a private person, especially with my home life. It’s not that I’m living a criminal life, cooking meth in my bathtub at night like I’m Heisenberg. It’s just that I like to do my thing (write, crush Breaking Bad episodes and talk both to and on behalf of my cat) in solitude sometimes. Maybe it’s that I feel I need to put on a bit of a show if people are watching and I lose my authenticity. Kind of like the entire social media experience. I value the moments where I can just exist and be my true self for a few hours a night. It brings me peace, and I’m sure all the other introverts out there are silently agreeing with me.
Privacy is a tough thing to get in a dense urban environment. I live in an apartment building with 64 units, and face another 200+ unit apartment building across the street. The street is active at any given time. But it’s fine because there is enough distance between me sharing my spaghetti with my cat (Lady and the Tramp style) and the judging faces of the neighbouring apartment building.
Distance between residences is a blessing, but it’s also going the way of the dodo bird in contemporary city-building. With development costs and minimum density regulations increasing, housing is closer together in order to be economically feasible. I grew up in a house built in the 80s with 3.0m between it and the neighbouring houses. Most new neighbourhoods have houses separated by 2.4m at most. Many are being built to the absolute minimum separation distance of 1.5m allowed by the Fire Code.
The space between houses has shrunk by 50% over the past 30 years. The rise in popularity of attached products like duplexes and townhouses further highlights this trend.
The shrinking single family lot
But neighbourhoods are also getting more compact by shrinking lot depths. Again, to use my parents standard 1980s suburban house as a reference point, it has a depth of 46m, whereas today’s standard is 35m, with more 30m deep lots appearing every year.
With the spaces between houses shrinking on all sides, what happens in between those spaces becomes very important. As mentioned earlier, distance between units is an easy way to mitigate any privacy concerns; unless someone gets binoculars out they won’t clearly see a grown man throwing his Xbox controller across his apartment in disgust after getting beaten at NHL 18 by an 11-year old telling him all the different ways in which he fucks my mom. For example. But as distance between houses shrinks, so too does that privacy buffer. All of a sudden I have to watch my actions and outbursts, or close my blinds all the time. What a way to live.
On the flip side, as a pedestrian I love peering into people’s homes and seeing how the other half live. I can’t be the only one that enjoys this, so the closer to the street the houses are, and the less privacy screening they have, the better. But I’m a hypocrite in that I don’t want people peeping me.
There is a really great new type of housing that hasn’t really caught on in Edmonton called Greenway Housing. Imagine your typical new neighbourhood with houses that have rear detached garages with access from a lane, meaning the front has smaller yards and plenty of on-street parking without all those pesky driveways. Now, switch out that vehicular paradise in front with a park – that’s basically the difference. Still with me? I need visuals to help me understand terrible explanations as well, so here’s what that looks like:
The principles surrounding greenway housing are sound. The design is for families. Kids can be outside the front of their house, playing safely without their parents having to worry that they’ll get mowed down by someone texting and driving. It allows the parents to get to know each other and overall builds a great sense of community.
Gone are the front-street road hockey games, but in their place are games of tag, soccer or re-enacting scenes from the power rangers (I don’t have kids, I don’t know what the hell they do other than call me names on Xbox Live) in a park-like setting. Right in front of your house! Front yards are relevant again!
I think it’s a fantastic use of land. Less pavement. Increased opportunities for social interaction everywhere. It’s right out of Planning school, which gives me both a tickle and PTSD-induced shudders.
I heard of greenway housing popping up around Edmonton but have never been out to see it. Partly because it’s all being built in the deep suburbs and that’s a long way from me. Partly that not a lot of them are completely built, because they aren’t selling well. When I heard that they were having trouble selling, I had to get out there and see what was going on. Because in theory, greenway housing is a slam dunk for families of small children. And here is what the marketing package shows for a rendering, making it look just quaint as all heck:
So off I went in my 1994 Ford Taurus to the suburbs to see this local example of greenway housing. Here’s what I found:
I mean, within seconds of pulling up I could see what a possible issue is: there’s no privacy between units. Where a typical development would see at least 23m of space between houses (17m road right-of-way, 3m setback on either side), here is just 11m!
The greenway does not include privacy screening. Instead, how about some sod, benches and bollards that illuminate the sidewalks being your only buffer. So yes, one could argue that there is an 11m wide park in front of everyone’s house, but that is pretty close, and devoid of any type of privacy measures. The intent is to have the front as a play place; in this circumstance the children playing in the front park area can clearly see someone preparing breakfast in their underwear. Worse yet, the master bedrooms are all facing that 11m separation space. Aka, the spaces where homeowners do the things they likely want the most privacy are easily visible by your neighbours. Good thing you’re spending so much time getting to know your neighbours throughout the day. My blinds would never be open.
Speaking of blinds being perma-closed, check out this floorplan that has a main floor bedroom facing the greenway.
It’s an extra bedroom, sure. But I don’t want my bedroom goings-on to be on full display to people walking by.
There are other possible issues as to why these are not selling well. They are priced to start at $380k for a 111m2 (1200ft2) house where you can watch those neighbours you despise rig up their sex swing every night from the comfort of your bedroom. The floorplan above is in the $500k range. Also, there are virtually no backyards. The distance between the house and the garage is only 3m – basically just a place to mow every week.
Maintenance of the greenway is another issue, as it belongs to the homeowners themselves instead of the City. This means there is an annual fee every homeowner has to pay to get someone to come mow the grass. Right now it’s very nominal – $150 per year, but that’s with the most basic of landscaping out there. If there was a desire to do something else in the park – a play structure or some trees, for example – first of all the homeowners would all have to agree to it, and there would be an increase in those yearly fees.
Lastly, parking for visitors isn’t as convenient. They now have to park on the street at the ends of the greenway, or on individual driveways in the back lane, and walk to the front doors. On lit, unobstructed sidewalks, yes. But if you’re visiting the fourth or fifth house in it’s getting to be a little bit of a walk. This isn’t a big deal for someone more able-bodied, but my Opa and his walker would consider this a major deal breaker. Especially when the sidewalks aren’t clear.
That’s why the developer went beyond traditional alley design and enhanced them to make them more appealing:
Construction aside, that looks an awful lot like a front street instead of a traditional alley.
But that misses the point, doesn’t it? Don’t you want to bring people to the front?
In Victoria, there is a fantastic development called Dockside Green with the same greenway housing principles; parking in the rear, fronting onto common green space. The development isn’t quite fully built-out yet, but here is an air photo from Google Earth (complete with photoshopped-in buildings by yours truly) showing what we’re dealing with:
First of all, we’re dealing with way greater density than the development in Edmonton. We’ve got 4 apartment buildings on the west side, one on the northeast corner, and two townhouse buildings photoshopped in on the east side. Each of these has access to parking from the surrounding roads, and a heavily landscaped greenway down the middle. The differences between it and the Edmonton greenway housing example are plenty, but use four basic principles to provide privacy: distance, screening, orientation and elevation.
The first difference is that between the units in the above photo is 18m of linear distance. If you remember, which I’m sure you do, the standard road right-of-way in Edmonton (ROW) is 17m. The distance here is only 1m wider than the standard roadway, but less than the 23m door-to-door that is typical of suburban development. This isn’t as simple as saying it’s a road width of separation, because a standard local road is only 9m. But once you add in sidewalks (1.5m each side) and utility/landscape easements (2.5m each side – these are mostly sod or have trees), you get……….double checking the math here……17m.
Go outside, stand on one side of the street and look across. Would you feel comfortable with someone staring at you from the other side of the street?
This isn’t great terminology because my brain immediately goes to fencing, but it can come in many forms. My personal favourite is landscaping, because if designed properly it can serve both a function and contribute to personal health and wellbeing.
Dockside Green went with landscaping on this one as well, creating a natural buffer between the residences on either side. In the following two pictures are examples of what it looks like when first planted and fully grown out. The people adjacent to the fledgling landscaping don’t have the privacy built in yet until everything matures. This is one of the drawbacks of using landscaping as a screen as it’s not a very good screen immediately. Regardless, visibility between residents on either side is minimal once everything matures.
On the left of this photo is one of the townhouse buildings, and a separated path for residents and outsiders like me take to walk through.
In the second picture you can clearly see the apartment building on the right and the townhouses on the left, hidden by the landscaping.
Building orientation is underappreciated in providing privacy. One issue with the Edmonton greenway housing example is that the houses are lined up on either side of the greenway. With little variety in the architecture and floorplans, inevitably windows will line up with those directly across the greenway. Here’s what the Edmonton greenway housing example looks like from above, thanks to our friends at Google Earth:
Whoops. The area is still under construction, so we will have to improvise:
Perfect. Here you can see from the very realistic overhead shot that the houses are all mirror images across the greenway. This is super efficient for surveying, but not super efficient in terms of creating privacy through site design.
A simple fix is to reorient buildings:
The solution isn’t perfect. Everything isn’t aligned anymore, at least. There are also drawbacks. I’ll be honest – the first example only artificially fixes the issue as the windows are still on a parallel plane; while the second example results in less efficient use of land, which developers hate. These are crude examples, but the principles should be clear.
In Dockside Green, they have dwellings of different sizes on either side of the greenway. The left side features $1 million condos with huge frontages, while the right has narrower, more affordable (Victoria standards…) dwellings. That’s right, you can locate rich and poor people this close together and the world won’t implode.
On either side of the greenway, the majority of the entrances don’t align. This means living spaces and windows into those spaces won’t align either. Simple architectural intervention.
The last principle is fairly straightforward – a change in elevation gives some semblance of entering a new space. In the Edmonton example, everything is on the same plane. Ground floors are at the same height. Front porches are at the same height. Master bedroom windows are at the same height as well. You can easily see your neighbours through your windows when everything aligns.
In Dockside Green, by comparison, the elevation between the dwellings on either side of the greenway changes by about 2m. This is just good design. Developers used the topographical challenges to their advantage. This principle exists in other contexts, as well. In New York, the Brownstone house is a classic housing type. It is separated from the street by a set of stairs separating ground level and main living spaces. From that high up, you do not have to worry about people strolling by and staring you in the face while you cram it full of Doritos. They can’t see you easily, so do your thing.
Also, the bonus water buffer here is a nice touch:
Before I conclude I want to say that using only one of the four principles above isn’t enough. A combination of these elements though, works wonders for successful greenway housing. Dockside Green used all four and I consider it a perfect example of how to do greenway housing properly. It’s a lifestyle that is vastly different from the normal. Instead of making it look exactly the same as everything else, be bold, spend the money, and make it more desirable. Basically, actually implement what is stated in the marketing brochures being handed out at the showhomes. Or, use edible landscapes. Or, lean into the word “landscaped”: