It's hard to take an ordinary stroll with architect Tye Farrow.
Yes, he's pleasant company, but you end up with a new way of looking at your neighbourhood that just might sour you to your surroundings.
Or not: We've exited a lovely independent coffee shop at the corner of Yonge Street and Roxborough Avenue and wandered north on Yonge to stop and take in the very pleasant 1914 Jennie Brooke Jarvis house at No. 1067. We then cast our eyes as far as the Summerhill LCBO and its glorious St. Mark's Campanile-inspired clock tower.
"There's something about this neighbourhood that's grown organically," Mr. Farrow said. "And that, I think, creates some sense of comfort or value that other neighbourhoods don't have."
Though we may not realize it, these "other" neighbourhoods can negatively affect our health. Whether it's because they're so uniform they seem to have been plunked down all at once, or that they offer expanses of blank façades, or because they have little to no greenery (or, worse, suffer from all three), they put us at "dis-ease."
The goal, then, is to create spaces that "cause health" – known as "salutogenesis."
To that end, Farrow Partnership Architects has come up with a set of "lenses" that anyone can use to diagnose his or her habitat, whether single-family home, rental apartment tower, condo building, workplace, school, or the community in which it is situated.
These are outlined in a video called "Salutogenic Places: Designed to Thrive" posted on farrowpartnership.com. They are:
Is this a neighbourhood that promotes a sense of discovery? Does it encourage creativity? Can one get a sense of the kind of people that live here? For an example of a place that doesn't do these things, the video shows the "so-called" lifestyle centre at Eglinton Avenue East and Laird Drive, which discourages "any sign of creative life" via its "deep, dark entrance arcades."
Do we feel we can stop and engage in social activities, or that we'd better move along? Big budgets or new infrastructure aren't necessary to achieve vitality: shots of Scadding Court's shipping container marketplace (covered in these pages in October, 2013) and the City Hall art show illustrate this.
What passes for "nature" in the urban environment is often laughable: a small bush imprisoned in a planter on a concrete streetscape. Without the soothing effects of greenery, it's harder to cope with the stresses of "visual pollution" and "frenzied, nervous design."
Things don't have to be old to be authentic, but things inserted into a neighbourhood should make an effort to fit in. This will "attract people who care about their community and have a personal stake in its future." Of course, having elements that root one to the area's past helps; speaking about his new workplace, Jonathan Nodrick of Rollout Design says: "In this building, we have a great historical wall [that] really gives you a sense of where the building's come from."
Just as many of us now take great care as to what we put into our bodies, we must also ask "How healthy is this place?" of our structures. "Well-designed, healthy, beloved places rarely become landfill; they actively contribute to the long-term health of the environment. These structures make use of natural systems to generate healthier water, air and land-use."
In other words, there's a reason people choose parks or dense, leafy high streets over industrial "parks" for their after-dinner constitutional. And there's no reason architects and urban designers can't implement these five "vital signs" when designing new homes, office buildings, or entire communities.
"Once you connect the dots, it's extraordinary," says Mr. Farrow. "The chains come off or the blind-spots that people don't see, they suddenly do see."
But what of budgets, of deadlines? Won't this hippie-dippy philosophy cause headaches for developers? During his initial "Common Ground Session" with members of a conservative Nova Scotia community embarking on a new hospital build, Mr. Farrow asked a simple question: "Why are we building this building?"
Of course, he got the usual answers about serving the community and helping seniors. But when Mr. Farrow suggested adding valet parking to the scheme, he was nearly run out of town on a rail. After the dust settled, however, the parking lot security officer got up to speak. The unpredictable maritime weather combined with the long walk to the hospital's front door, he said, meant slips and falls were commonplace, and perhaps the idea of valet parking wasn't so elitist after all.
"That project was on time and on budget," says Mr. Farrow. "But if you raise the discussion to what's really important, like the things that are on that list, people will not go backwards."
Back on Roxborough Avenue, walking slowly to admire the homes, Mr. Farrow reminisces about working for the legendary Eberhard Zeidler, and our discussion turns to the recent renovation of his Eaton Centre, which saw many original details obliterated, and the uncertain fate of Ontario Place.
As fascinating as this new topic is, my thoughts keep returning to health, architecture and the future.