Cappucino urbanism: battling out neighbourhood identity


In the oh-so-eager-to-be-hip neighbourhood of Westboro, there’s a skirmish for the community’s identity being played out over retail development: do you side with Starbucks, the aggressive imperialist; Bridgehead, the local free trader; or Tim Horton’s, the traditional and, in comparison, down market, coffee pusher that wants to open an outlet in the neighbourhood?

Meanwhile, in my commuter suburb of Barrhaven, tens of thousands are satisfied with a retail power centre where you must drive from the Indigo to the Tims to the Wal-mart – even though they’re all a hundred yards from each other.

Out here, the concept of community is not embodied by shared experiences at our local stores – unless you count the Wal-mart greeter having a particularly bad day.

It’s as if the developer of our power centre recognized the potential of the urban lifestyle centres being developed in the United States and Great Britain, but decided that we need more parking, less sidewalks and very few trees.

The latest issue of Harvard Design Magazine discusses the hope for a revitalized urban envrionment in great detail, and William Saunders floats the idea of cappuccino urbanism in his editorial:

“…To be more specific: in most revitalized or new American urban nodes (e.g., “lifestyle centers”), one can shop in stores with good and interesting merchandise, enjoy a sophisticated meal, find amusements like movies, stroll outdoors in clean and tastefully decorated parks and streets, and end up comfortable and content under a street tree sipping cappuccino. And this is certainly a big step up from being surrounded by cars, street-level blank walls, surface parking lots, huge empty plazas, and office towers. But do the comfortable passive pleasures of cappuccino urbanism suggest anything but a tiny portion of a life well lived? …” (Harvard Design)

The contrast between our two Ottawa neighbourhoods could not be greater, but it also represents the reality of life in most North American cities:

” … our hope for revitalized urbanism and a more fulfilling and meaningful city life through a return to the patterns, texture, look, and scale of certain pre-20th-century cities has created innumerable delusions and falsities. One can create small-scale urban zones that combine places to live, work, shop, dine, and play, zones that make being on streets appealing again, that are softer, safer, and prettier, but these zones will merely put an old dress on social, psychological, cultural, economic, and political realities that are as new as each new day…” (Harvard Design)

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