Last week, a couple of our research team members: Stuart Dow, Mike Wakely and myself went to Victoria for a site visit of Dockside Green, a neighbourhood scale development project which aims at an ecological form of urban living. Although I was excited to be in Victoria, I had come into the site visit with low expectations simply because the project had faced a lot of challenges and controversy in terms of funding for development and is still yet to be completed.
As you can see from the picture, this is the site we were entering (and no it’s not the buildings past the sign!) Indeed, we were greeted to a sea of gates and overgrown grass where the future developments were aimed to be. This was not the kind of site that breathed ‘eco-urbanism’ although the Dockside Green sign in the background made it clear that this was in fact the place which was still in development. Already, thoughts had popped into my mind thinking that this place might need another couple years before we can even begin to make any conclusions about the development itself. However, as we continued to progress into the development, things began to take a turn:
As we walked into the developed section of Dockside Green, I immediately felt immersed into a living breathing ecosystem. It honestly caught me a bit by surprise as minutes before, I was in an industrial zone. Right away I could feel a different energy in the air; the soothing presence of the large bodies of water, the vast amounts of diversity in vegetation and the tweets and buzz of birds and insects all fitting into a harmonious landscape.
It was fair to say from my experience that Dockside Green had clearly emphasized the importance of Green in their name. The trail, which suggested a walk in the park, also happened to feed directly into certain homes; a kind of backyard/park space shared by both the community and the public. The aesthetic feel of this site really excercised the potential for these ecourban developments and where they can go, demonstrating that integration of urban and natural landscapes is indeed possible. I cannot wait for more developments like these to pop up around the world.
Another sticking point of Dockside green which was oddly surprising was its essence of community. We came into the site visit knowing that there had yet to be a community centre built for the area and we thus had low expectations for connectivity as well. Therefore, I was oddly surprised to find Dockside Green to actually have a ‘community centre’ which happened to be the seating area of the Fantastico Cafe (The building from the picture on the left). There was a kind of social fluidity to Dockside Green that other areas did not have. For one, passing people in the trails of Dockside Green led to conversations, unforced but rather organic. This social connectivity extended into the Cafe as well, where our conversation with the barista gave us insights upon the residents of Dockside. She mentioned the vast familiarity of faces in the cafe and the strong sense of community in the area; and although it isn’t very scientific to take one relatively young woman’s word for how much community is felt in Dockside Green, we had our own experience to illustrate this feeling as well.
I quickly noticed that this development, in Jan Gehl’s words, was made with the human scale in mind:
As we can see from the Dockside plan above (and keeping in mind that only the right half of the development is completed), you may notice that the roads are kept on the outskirts of the development and that the core of the development is only shared by pedestrians. Cars are kept away from the shared living room and I believe this has dramatic effects on the behaviour of people inside, creating a kind of town effect inside an urban area.
Dockside pulls this off in a couple of ways, most importantly, they have established this zone as a place to be rather than a place to go through. Indeed, a vast majority of people who choose to enter Dockside green are predominantly bike users, runners, residents or tourists like myself. This relatively low amount of traffic which enters and exits Dockside Green allows it to remain a niche area for enjoyment where time actually felt slower (like that of a town or village lifestyle). In that sense, Dockside green successfully recreates that ‘slow vibration’ of rural life due to its seclusion effect from the surrounding area, resulting in the familiarity of faces inside.
With phases of Dockside Green being accidentally developed sporadically , the community has been ‘forced’ into gathering certain locations of the development; that being the cafe and the bakery on the right side of the development. Despite the lack of a community centre and a proper ground for these events, having such a small breeding ground for the community of residents might in fact of been a blessing in disguise.
Community is not something that can be easily ‘manufactured’ in our capitalist society. Although we might say that community needs room to grow, in cases such as Dockside Green, having one main space for residents to congregate would increase the likelihood of familiarity between people. In this case, rather than having programs or a dedicated community centre from the developers in attempt at creating such community, Dockside Green, simply by having a human scale design, has made enough of a breeding ground for its preliminary community.
If there was something I learned from this site visit, it’d be to try and visit every neighbourhood that I am analyzing. The internet can bring about so much information on a project which can be extremely useful in terms of actual scientific analysis, but nothing comes close to experiencing the neighbourhood for yourself. After all, if we are to analyze and form conclusions on how well such neighbourhoods are in terms of ecology and social sustainability, perhaps it would be wise to see how we would react if we were put into the neighbourhood ourselves; nothing beats experience. But don’t take my judgments of Dockside green as the truth. See it for yourself!
– Luc Bagneres