What Makes a Great Urban Village?

Over the last many months (and years) there has been a lot of talk about the commercial nodes and villages of Victoria. The most notable has been the resistance in Fairfield to greater density in Cook Street Village. There are only a few Large Urban Villages identified in the City's Official Community Plan and Cook Street Village is one of them. The OCP does attempt to identify the elements needed to identify an urban village, though mostly in attempt to differentiate between a large one and a small one. It made me start thinking about what really makes a great urban village. I think it comes down to three core principles: Where it is, What it does and How it looks.

Where It Is 

By where it is, I actually mean a few things. Location is important both within the fabric of the city but also in relation to the people around it. Cook Street Village is a good example. Here you have a village that is far enough away from the downtown that local residents need a commercial hub nearby. The village is also within walking distance to Beacon Hill Park and the waterfront along Dallas Road. Furthermore, surrounding the village is a significant and dense population. These elements provide a local population, a reason for the local population not to go elsewhere and a draw for outside population to come through the village.

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In contrast, when you think of the Rock Bay and Hillside/Douglas areas, despite being almost as far from the edge of downtown as Cook Street Village, a cohesive village hasn't formed. This is because it is missing some of the key elements for the location. There is little local population and there are no clear draws for those from outside the area to stop there, spend some time and explore. 

Many of the urban villages around Victoria actually owe their existence to the street car network and because of this, are for the most part fairly well spaced out around the region. 

What it does

What a village does can actually be an impetus to create some of the requirements for location. If a village does things well people will want want to visit and maybe even live there, but there is a little chicken and egg in that for some things, a local population is necessary to give a reason for at least businesses to locate there. 

When I say, what a village does, I mean, what does it provide for those that go there. Can locals get everything they need in the village or do they need to go elsewhere to get a haircut or go out for dinner? Does the village have places where kids can play, dogs can be taken for a walk and visitors can window shop? 

In Victoria, while we have many urban villages, there are few if any that can say they do all of these things. Cook Street Village has most of the things you need, but no hardware store, bank or community centre. North Park Village has most of the commercial pieces you need (though it could use another place to go out dinner), but the park area is not quite welcoming enough and most of the ground floor commercial is service related rather than stores selling products that you can browse. It has been set-up to be a get-in-get-out village, which does not promote vibrancy. One of the best ways to make a village do more is to improve its physical characteristics. 

How it Looks

The way a village looks is in someways the least organic of the elements and the one that can be most easily changed by the City. Each village has some specific components that contribute to its visual appeal: built-form, the pedestrian realm, and visual space including parks. 

When you look at the built-form of many of the urban villages and commercial nodes in the City of Victoria and surrounding communities, they have some similarities. These commonalities are mostly due to the fact that many of them owe their existence to when we had an extensive street-car network across the city. This led to many of them having very urban buildings built right to the sidewalk with large windows for the businesses to show off their goods. This was a good start. There are a few exceptions where large car-oriented space has been placed in the middle like James Bay Village or Quadra Village, but hopefully over time this can be fixed. 

The pedestrian realm is what is going to move a village beyond just being a place to buy things to a place to spend some time. Again if you contrast Cook Street Village with its broad sidewalks and boulevards with North Park Village with its narrow sidewalks tight to the street, you can see why one is a regional destination (I will say that there have been significant improvements recently in North Park Village though). When walking down a street you should feel comfortable walking next to someone and when in a urban village you should feel that as a pedestrian, you are the primary focus of the street. 

The final piece that makes a great village, is the way it looks specifically. This can mean green-space with large green trees in the boulevard; a series of art pieces through out like in Oak Bay Village; a specific form of street furniture and banners along the posts as you see in Quadra Village; or a beautiful park or square. This element done well and uniquely, can make a village a destination.  

This is my list of things that I think make a great urban village, what do you think? What else can we do to make them great?