Small is Beautiful

By Ryan McGreal
Published March 07, 2005

Sunday's Toronto Star ran a wonderful article that explored some of the small, quirky urban spaces that give character to neighbourhoods.

The article profiles a store with 169 square feet of floor space, a house built in 1890 that's just over eight feet wide, and other charming oddities, arguing that this pattern of idiosyncratic growth is making a revival.

Nooks, crannies, holes in the wall — the city's older neighbourhoods are home to an astonishing number of shops and houses squeezed into spaces quirky and slight. With addresses that sometimes share someone else's street number — adding an A or a B or a 1/2 — they are resolutely local, teeny threads in the wider fabric of a neighbourhood. Notice one, really look at it, and you start seeing them everywhere, quietly defying the very notion of urban sprawl.

The piece quotes U of T architecture professor Larry Richards saying "The North American view was always about wide open spaces, the big chunk of land, the next horizon..." and then claiming that Toronto is starting to take its cues from denser cities like London and Tokyo.

The author concludes, after looking around older neighbourhoods, that Toronto itself developed along these organic lines "before it was interrupted by automobiles, highways and the strictures of post-war urban planning."

Hamilton is similarly home to quirky spaces and elegant, if non-standard, architecture. Unfortunately, echoes of the 1960s-era penchant for demolishing city blocks and plonking down massive megaprojects in their place are still reverberating through our city council.

As usual, it's up to citizens to remind our officials that cities are organic systems and need to be allowed to grow and develop without too much top-down regulation. As professor Richards explains, "People spend more time outside their living units, which is good for the life of the city, because people are spending more time in cafés and public spaces and theatres and so on. There's a whole dynamic that gets unleashed from people living in smaller spaces."

Ryan McGreal, the editor of Raise the Hammer, lives in Hamilton with his family and works as a programmer, writer and consultant. Ryan volunteers with Hamilton Light Rail, a citizen group dedicated to bringing light rail transit to Hamilton. Ryan wrote a city affairs column in Hamilton Magazine, and several of his articles have been published in the Hamilton Spectator. His articles have also been published in The Walrus, HuffPost and Behind the Numbers. He maintains a personal website, has been known to share passing thoughts on Twitter and Facebook, and posts the occasional cat photo on Instagram.


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