I’ve never been to South Africa, but during the Oscar Pistorius trial I became more aware of Johannesburg. It is, I learned, one of the most dangerous cities on Earth, and has become a city armed against itself. Here’s how one blogger describes it:
Crime is for real and is definitely no joke. Every single person I have met has a scary tale, so it is understandable that they are vigilant in all aspects of their daily life. That explains why SA homes are built more like fortresses than houses. Seriously, when you walk down the street here there are lawns in front of lovely homes, but they all lie behind huge layers of security. The typical view when walking down the street is wall, gate, electric fence, wall, gate, dog, fence. You don’t see lawns and homes unobstructed. Instead you see fences, gates, walls, and signs all designed to keep the people inside safe and keep the criminals out.
Many of the fences and walls are topped with razor wire and are electrified. And it seems to be every residential street in the city. Here are the first three spots around Johannesburg I picked randomly on Google Street View:
St. Gothard Avenue:
Johannesburg is a violent place, but one aspect of all the wall-building is the legacy of Apartheid. The result is streetscapes that feel like a city under siege.
Halifax’s older neighbourhoods stand in stark contrast to Johannesburg’s walled city. Here, for example, is Maynard Street, north of Cunard Street:
Here’s Fuller Terrace:
Here’s the east side of Bauer Street:
It’s not just that there are no walls on the Halifax streets; there’s also an attractive, inviting transition from private to public spaces. Although there are certainly property lines, there is no clear visible delineation from the household to the sidewalk. A resident might be tending the gardens along the street; a neighbour could sit on the porch to talk. Happenstance meetings, like running into someone as they’re leaving their house, are not just possible but likely. This is a walkable, welcoming neighbourhood.
You don’t need a wall to destroy the aesthetic. I’ve written about the west side of Bauer Street before:
These are buildings on the west side of the street, which were evidently built somewhat recently. Note the garages dominating the first level facade, and the accompanying curb cuts and concrete driveways. The curb cuts remove on-street parking, and so residents are parking on the driveways. The result is a very pedestrian-unfriendly stretch of sidewalk, and no front porches that are conducive to interaction between neighbours and pedestrians.
So while you don’t need a wall to destroy the pedestrian-friendly, welcoming aesthetic, it certainly helps. Consider the new apartment building at the corner of Harris and Maynard Streets:
The border between private and public spaces is clearly demarcated, and walking along the building provides no visual breaks, no reason to care:
Likewise, the new apartment building at Maynard and Roberts Streets:
The building is going for a sort of industrial chic. I’ll leave it for others to decide if that works for them, but the effect on the sidewalk is this:
Walking down Maynard Street is beginning to feel like walking down a Johannesburg-like city under siege. The buildings are in the neighbourhood but not part of the neighbourhood. The residents of the new buildings are walled off from their neighbours, and the implicit message is that people out there are dangerous. In a racially diverse neighbourhood like this, the symbolism is corrosive and unhealthy.
This is not a new phenomenon. Consider the old West Street fire station, between the two new buildings, which doesn’t even have a window looking out onto the street:
New buildings don’t have to be built as fortresses.
Consider Almon Street, west of Isleville Street. Here’s a new-ish building on the south side of the street built as a fortress, with an unwelcoming sidewalk wall:
And here’s the north side of the same block, with another new building:
Note how the shop windows and flower boxes blur the visual boundary between private and public spaces, and help to create an inviting, welcoming sidewalk. This is precisely why ground-floor retail is desired in new large apartment buildings: it brings life to the street.
But it’s possible to create that inviting, welcoming sidewalk space even when the ground floor is residential. Here’s the new St. Joseph’s Square building:
There is no street-side walling off of the public, and the ground floor residential units are placed such that, again, the visual lines between public and private space are blurred, and the sidewalk is welcoming:
The retail spaces work, too:
That said, I’m creeped out by the rear of the building, which seems to loom over the school playground:
Across the street from St. Joseph’s Square, and also across the street from the Hydrostone Market, is the ugliest building in Halifax:
There are a lot of reasons why this building is so ugly, but one of them is, yep, the sidewalk wall:
Consider this: you’re going to build an apartment building directly across from the Hydrostone Market, a remarkable bit of post-Explosion urban planning focused on small retail spaces and walkability, complete with a pocket park, and you build this? The apartment building is like a black hole in the Hydrostone, managing to suck all street life out of existence by walling off the sidewalks. Any sensible developer would have wanted to capitalize on the street life and put in small retail spaces at ground level — as have the new buildings (hosting Getaway butchers and the Starbucks, etc.) to the west; those buildings add to the neighbourhood experience, but the pedestrian comes up against the black hole of this monstrosity, and I fear the Hydrostone won’t recover until some sane person takes a wrecking ball to the thing.
Our city planners like to say they’re all about building pedestrian-oriented neighbourhoods with interesting streetscapes, and yet time and time again new buildings are being built with sidewalk walls that destroy the pedestrian experience.
I don’t know what has to be changed to make it happen, but we’ve got to end the Johannesburgization of the north end.