What makes a good neighbourhood?

What Makes a Good Neighbourhood?

By Leanne Junnila | 4.15.2015

What makes a good neighbourhood? It seems we aren’t sure anymore. Much of the time that we could be spending enjoying leisure time is instead spent behind the wheel of a vehicle or in front of the television. We are forced to commute by vehicle to work and when we arrive home at the end of the day, our streets lack interesting features and amenities, so we gravitate toward staying home. Watching television is more destructive to social ties than employment-related time or money pressures[1]. The television has become the family’s primary connection with the outside world, and because it competes for leisure time, it is now the single biggest predictor of civic disengagement, across countries and races[2]. Second to the television is commuting by car[3].

Besides housing, neighbourhoods are essentially made up of ‘necessary’ and ‘optional’ activities[4]. Necessary activities could be going to the bank or the grocery store, and optional activities could be walking in a park, sitting at a café with friends, or watching an outdoor theatre performance. The best neighbourhoods have more optional activities, in other words people choose to spend time in public spaces in their neighbourhoods rather than leaving their homes only out of necessity. It creates an upward spiral in which the more optional activities people participate in, the more the quality of the neighbourhood improves, which creates even more optional activity, and so forth. The East Village in Calgary is a good example of this type of upward spiral. Better yet, this upward spiral is healthy for us; humans subconsciously gravitate toward other humans, and benefit from their proximity. When given the choice between a lively street or a quiet one, most people will choose the lively street because there are more people to be around[5]. People walking on the street don’t stop to look at shops that lack a human element, for example banks, but they often stop to look at children’s toys, photos, and items related to other people. In public areas, people mostly gravitate to areas where other people are participating in activities or where there are a number of shops with human related “artifacts [6]. City residents are happier when they feel connected to the people and places around them[7].

This feeling of connectedness to a social network is called ‘social capital’[8]. For example, in 2014 Avenue Magazine respondents rated the best neighbourhoods in Calgary to live and they were all selected based on the optional activities they offered (not how many banks and grocery stores they have): Arbour Lake for those looking for lake style amenities and walking paths, Hillhurst/Sunnyside for access to the pathway system and boutique shops, and Southwood for its shopping access and annual ‘Rhubarb Festival’, just to name a few.

Antonio Gomez-Palacio, a Principal at Dialog Design, found that a car-oriented neighbourhood has a 50% obesity rate and a pedestrian-oriented neighbourhood, a 10% obesity rate, give or take [9]. He says that pedestrians are an ‘indicator species’, meaning that in an urban “ecosystem” (a neighbourhood can be seen as a mini eco-system), more pedestrians equal a healthier ecosystem, and fewer pedestrians indicates a problem with that ecosystem. If developers design for people, the people will come (and so will the economic benefits). Calgarians need to demand a variety of amenities so that developers respond to the market. Start thinking about the types of amenities that might be lacking in your neighbourhood. Think big, Calgary. Let’s make this an even better city to live.

IMG_2262Leanne is currently completing a masters degree at the University of Calgary, Faculty of Environmental Design, on the public realm and how people interact in cities.






[1] Putnam, Robert (2000). “Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community”. Simon and Schuster, NY.

[2] Putnam, Robert (2000). “Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community”. Simon and Schuster, NY.

[3] Putnam, Robert (2000). “Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community”. Simon and Schuster, NY.

[4] Gehl, Jan (2006). “Life Between Buildings: Using Public Space”. Island Press.

[5] Gehl, Jan (2006). “Life Between Buildings: Using Public Space”. Island Press

[6] Gehl, Jan (2006). “Life Between Buildings: Using Public Space”. Island Press

[7][7] Leyden, Kevin, et.al (2011). “Understanding the Pursuit of Happiness in Ten Major Cities”. Urban Affairs Review. 47-6, 861-888.

[8] Grillo, Michae,l et.al (2010). “Residential Satisfaction and Civic Engagement: Understanding the Causes of Community Participation”. Social Indicators Research. 97-3, 451-456.

[9] Gomez-Palacio (2013). http://www.dialogdesign.ca/open-dialog/your-car-costs-more-than-your-house/

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