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:

Norfolk Avenue:

Dunnotar Street:

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:

Photo: Halifax Examiner

Here’s Fuller Terrace:

Photo: Halifax Examiner

Here’s the east side of Bauer Street:

Photo: Halifax Examiner

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:

Photo: Halifax Examiner

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:

Photo: Halifax Examiner

The border between private and public spaces is clearly demarcated, and walking along the building provides no visual breaks, no reason to care:

Photo: Halifax Examiner
Photo: Halifax Examiner

Likewise, the new apartment building at Maynard and Roberts Streets:

Photo: Halifax Examiner

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:

Photo: Halifax Examiner

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:

Photo: Halifax Examiner

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:

Photo: Halifax Examiner

And here’s the north side of the same block, with another new building:

Photo: Halifax Examiner

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:

Photo: Halifax Examiner

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:

Photo: Halifax Examiner

The retail spaces work, too:

Photo: Halifax Examiner

That said, I’m creeped out by the rear of the building, which seems to loom over the school playground:

Photo: Halifax Examiner

Across the street from St. Joseph’s Square, and also across the street from the Hydrostone Market, is the ugliest building in Halifax:

Photo: Halifax Examiner

There are a lot of reasons why this building is so ugly, but one of them is, yep, the sidewalk wall:

Photo: Halifax Examiner

As I’ve written before:

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.

Tim Bousquet is the editor and publisher of the Halifax Examiner. Twitter @Tim_Bousquet Mastodon

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  1. On the blank walls around apartment buildings: These are called “podia” (singular “podium”).

    HRM land use by-law permits a below-grade storey to protrude up to five feet above grade and still not “count” as a storey as far as the regulation is concerned. If zoning permits a certain number of storeys, developers are loath to give one over to parking (which earns them little income). Also, excavation is costly, so developers prefer to minimize its depth.

    Thus, between the desire to not waste a storey on parking and to reduce excavation cost, we find underground parking levels are made as wide and shallow as possible, with their walls pushed right to the property line and up, out of the ground.

    (One solution would be to eliminate minimum parking requirements from planning regulations.
    Buffalo, NY did this years ago, and Mexico City more recently: https://t.co/cR0ITSvgen

  2. It’s too bad we don’t have a planning department to review and approve building plans before they are built. Oh….I just remembered: we do! How could I forget that?!

  3. I’ve never been to Johannesburg (other than the airport), but my experiences elsewhere in Southern Africa have made me notice there is, of course, a significant class factor to the walls around homes. You don’t see that sort of thing in the slums! This sort of prison-like security signifies a lot about inequality in a society. There is such a gulf between the rich and the poor that the rich actually become afraid of the poor. The buildings you point out in Halifax seem to be in gentrifying neighbourhoods. To me, it just shows a lack of understanding between the rich/poor, and there may even be a race aspect. It just seems like what it means is that the people and belongings inside your house are more important than the people outside of it.

    When I was in high school we read the short story Once Upon a Time by Nadine Gordimer, and I still think of it often.

  4. Beauty is not in the eye of the beholder and this ‘politism’ is making our city ugly.

    “If you foolishly ignore beauty, then you will soon find yourself without it.”
    Frank Lloyd Wright (1869-1959)

    It is extremely convenient for property developers to operate in a society that has no confidence in people’s ability to make judgments about whether or not things are beautiful or monstrous and deems anyone with the nerve to state a fact a snob or weirdo. It means these hucksters don’t have to worry about going to the expense of trying to make anything look good: because no one knows what that is anyway!

    A city built by low-bid contract will never be beautiful.

  5. I am left wondering if increased security supposedly provided by the wall is a selling point for some of these properties.

    1. To some degree I imagine the benefit is not having people looking in your ground floor windows. But more likely the walls are the result of developers looking to save a few bucks on parking garage construction. Those walls result in a metre less of excavation and they make it wayyy easier to vent the garage.

  6. I agree with your reasoning, and about that ugliest building in Halifax: did you know there is an exhaust vent on Gottingen street at sidewalk level that revs up like a jet engine regularly,i suspect venting the underground parkade… It’s a nightmare but the developer obviously went ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

  7. I’ve been to Jo’burg and the blogger is correct.

    Thing is one could argue the jo’burg rationale for the walls makes sense from a strict security sense – self preservation and the like.

    Halifax developers have no reason whatsoever for doing what they are doing and there is no excuse for the city planning office to allow these affronts to a walkable city. But then there is Queen’s Marque, that egregious monstrosity across from the Hydrostone and the Nova Centre.

    Our civic leaders have sold out our heritage for “world class” development and given carte blanche to our “world class” development community.

  8. This not just private development or even a new development that is building inhospitable streets. Even where we may need walls, they are ugly, with no fun, no plants or interest. Stadacona and the wall along Citadel Hill are also pedestrian unfriendly zones. Then all of the construction that is allowed to proceed willy nilly, with their barricades. All these walls and unfriendly pedestrian facades, kill any remaining local businesses because no one really wants to walk next to construction or a wall. So what we are in effect killing is our economy and our community. A recent study in the States found that if construction of new buildings exceeds 15% of an area, neighborhoods and businesses die. See: http://forum.savingplaces.org/blogs/forum-online/2014/05/15/older-smaller-better-new-research-from-the-preservation-green-lab The data from that study showed that:
    i. Older, mixed-use neighborhoods are more walkable.
    ii. People of all ages and backgrounds are drawn to neighborhoods with older buildings;
    iii. Nightlife is most alive on streets with a diverse range of building ages;
    iv. Older business districts provide affordable, flexible space for entrepreneurs from all backgrounds.
    v. The creative economy thrives in older, mixed-use neighborhoods (Older, smaller buildings house significantly greater concentrations of creative jobs per square foot of commercial space. Media production businesses, software publishers, and performing arts companies can be found in areas that have smaller-scaled historic fabric.);
    vi. Older commercial and mixed-use districts contain hidden density. (Streets with a mix of old and new buildings have greater population density and more businesses per commercial square foot than streets with large, new buildings and have significantly more jobs per commercial square foot.)
    Unfortunately in HRM’s rush to become a global city, we may be missing a more nuanced discussion of what it means to be a walkable city and what density really means.