Density, Development Patterns, Infill

Ladner’s Founders Made Better Decisions Than Ladner’s Changers

You are walking through Ladner Village and you notice that you’re not alone. The Village is bustling with everyday users! It’s not a Farmer’s Market day but all around you there’s activity. Pedestrians are scurrying around doing their errands. Children are riding their bikes to the ice cream shop. Neighbours are having a conversation on their adjoining balconies. A busker is trying out a new song she’s writing. A group of veterans are finishing off their pints at the Legion. A man is painting a landscape on a bench. A woman is tending the streetside flower box that she cares for year-round. As you round the corner onto Delta Street, you see your butcher shop, bakery, and candlestick makery are a stone’s throw from each other – which is good because you need something from each of them.

I’m describing a reality that does not yet fully exist. I’m describing a reality that is at risk if we make a series of bad choices in the coming years in the effort to revitalize Ladner Village.

I’d like you to consider a future for the Village that is shaped by the two great assets the village has: its historic street layout and small lot sizes. These are the overlooked secret ingredients for a great town that hide in plain sight in Ladner Village. They are the reason that Ladner Village has continued to be a jewel in our city. After all, it’s remarkable that the Village is still a draw for villagers and visitors alike even though this jewel has been tarnished by long stretches of neglect and some bad decision making in the ’50s, ’60s, and ’70s.

Now, you’re asking, what do street layouts and lot sizes have to do with the success or failure of Ladner Village?

The layout of our streets and the determination of the width of a property are critical parts of the success or failure of a town. Our ancestors knew this and they refined, over thousands of years of experimentation, a practice of establishing and maintaining communities that are still on display in Ladner.

The Traditional Development Pattern

The traditional development pattern that was being followed when Ladner Village was first laid out was a pattern that measured distance on a human scale. The division of the space into lots was measured from the perspective of a walking person. The result was an average lot width that allowed for a varied street-front. Each street would be occupied by lots of different types of shops instead of being taken up by a single large building. The exception, as we can see in this map of Ladner in its early days, was for significant public buildings like schools, churches, and community halls which would occupy a more prominent position in town. This was the traditional development pattern that was drawn upon when Ladner was established as a town. It was the same pattern and practice of development that was applied to cities, towns, and villages throughout the world over millennia. Ladner’s founders followed this pattern and we are still able to appreciate the wisdom and fundamental soundness of the decisions they made.

1948 –  Ladner looking south from the harbour towards Delta Central School on 44th Avenue, and from Elliott Street west to the corner of Georgia Street, with views of homes and businesses on Delta, Westham, and other streets of old Ladner (Delta Archives – 2009-040-001)

Today, Ladner Village is doing alright but its future is at risk because of a different pattern of development – the auto-oriented pattern of development or modern development pattern. Ladner’s changers embraced this pattern and any future changers who follow their playbook will inflict even more damage on the Village.

Many of the buildings on Delta Street were torn down by a single developer who built the River Reach & Turnbuckle Wynd Complex. Many more buildings were torn down on Elliott Street to create the Ladner Harbour Centre Shopping Mall. This image is from 1976 – Growth of Ladner’s downtown area illustrated by an aerial photograph. (Delta Archives – 2004-003-039)

But if we understand the harm of auto-oriented development we can be the new generation of changers who build a place of greater prosperity, vitality, and beauty. We can accomplish this by keeping our lot widths narrow. We can embrace the fine-grained network of streets and clustered buildings that are a feature, not a bug, of the traditional development pattern.

The Auto-Oriented Pattern of Development

This auto-oriented pattern of development has dominated North America since WW2. This pattern measures distance from the perspective of a car-user. This pattern prioritizes automobile access (speed, parking availability, and orderly movements of cars, people, motorized wheelchairs, and bicycles). This is the pattern that has been followed in Ladner at the London Drugs/Freshco complex (Trenant Park Square), the Save-on complex (Ladner Centre), and the Jarry’s Market complex (Ladner Harbour Centre).

L. Delta Archives: Elliott Street in the 1970s R. The 2020s

The width of a lot in an auto-oriented pattern of development doesn’t really matter very much when we assume that everyone will drive from one site to the next. Spend a bit of time at the Tsawwassen Mills complex and you’ll be inclined to hop in your car to go on to the next store or side of the mall that you need to go to. There are many other sites like it where you’ll see cars moving through parking lots without leaving. Even at the Trenant Park Square complex in Ladner, I’ve been tempted to hop in my car when traversing from London Drugs to Starbucks. The assumption of designers of auto-oriented development is that users will reposition their cars to get access to whatever other sites they need to visit.

When we are primarily on foot, a circumstance that those who don’t drive are well acquainted with, the sheer distance that you need to walk to get from one store to the next in an auto-oriented development is noticeably different from the distances in an intimately scaled neighbourhood. The feature-less facades of many wide buildings bore us and make the distance seem longer than it would otherwise be. Shopping mall designers recognized this decades ago and they pay careful attention to the width of storefronts in their stores lest shoppers become bored or skip sections of the mall. Savvy mall managers put up attractive cladding over the windows of vacant stores so that the impression of variety is maintained even when no tenant is using the space. In contrast, walking outdoors in complexes designed for automobiles is an exercise in … well, exercise.

Why are auto-oriented developments so wide? They need to be in order to accommodate the parking of customers’ transportation equipment: the 2,871 lbs of metal, plastic, and rubber that we auto-dwellers use to propel ourselves around town. In order to accommodate these automobiles, a wide parking lot is preferred to a deep one. That width corresponds with the width of the frontage of the building. The builders of auto oriented development know that their buildings cannot accommodate too many other smaller shops in that frontage. More shops equal more cars competing for close parking spots. You can see this in action at the London Drugs in Ladner. There’s a lengthy portion of the sidewalk that is devoted to the blank walls of the London Drugs building as a measure to keep other stores from ‘claiming’ those sections of the parking lot that abut the London Drugs. Customers in cars want to park close to the store they’ve chosen to drive to. Auto-oriented developments like Trenant Park Square and the Tsawwassen Mills complex feature wide lots and wide buildings because cars need access to the frontage of the outside of the stores without being forced to be too far away from the front doors.

The Risk to Ladner Village

At its founding, Ladner’s plans were drawn up following the accepted wisdom of the traditional development pattern. Buildings were constructed with narrow frontages and it made perfect sense to squeeze as many buildings next to each other as possible to draw customers and make good use of the land. Setbacks from the street were used for buildings with less public uses but most buildings opened directly onto the sidewalk. The lot sizes were narrow and deep – not wide and shallow. There were few square lots and the majority, as you can plainly see, were deep rectangles.

The risk to Ladner Village’s future can be seen in buildings that were constructed in the more recent past. The redevelopment of the Ladner Harbour Centre brought at least 10 lots together into one big parcel. The redevelopment of the River Reach/Harbourside site brought 16 lots together into one big parcel.

By consolidating these lots into larger land assemblies, the property developers become responsible for a much larger swathe of the town’s streetscape. Instead of 26 small bets being made, Ladner was exposed to the outcome of two big bets on projects that were designed in the auto-oriented style. Instead of 26 individual property owners, these parts of Ladner were now controlled by two big owners.*

The risk with big projects and big owners are much more concentrated than the diffuse risk posed by hundreds of small projects with small-time owners who are more likely to be locals, more likely to use local labours and supplies, and more likely to build projects that match well with local needs.

Another risk is that it is much harder to make upgrades to a large complex built all at once than it is to upgrade individual small properties. The large complex is designed and built in a singular fashion. The small properties are designed and built by a host of different builders who use different materials and methods to achieve their client’s goal for the building. Then, as things begin to decline, the prospect of introducing any changes is much more daunting with the large projects as compared to the small projects. As Charles Marohn has explained, one major shift in the auto-oriented development pattern is the assumption that buildings should be built all at once and to a finished state. This results in a pattern of development that freezes neighbourhoods and sets them on an identical trajectory of decline over a generation or two.

I don’t know about you, but I think that a simple thought exercise is helpful here. Look at shops and interesting parts of Ladner: they are sited on narrow and deep lots. Look at the large complexes that haven’t aged well and require a major upgrade: they are sited on large, consolidated lots that previously contained the narrow and deep buildings we admire in historical photographs of Ladner.

Let’s Follow the Development Pattern Established By the Founders

The present-day push to consolidate and assemble multiple lots in to a single project is the most significant risk to the future prosperity of Ladner Village. We should push the City to encourage one hundred small-lot developments instead of one or two big developments. We should promote narrow, multi-story projects that bring back the form of streetscape that was historically prevalent in Ladner. We should encourage small shops or retail ‘nooks’ in our alleys. We should promote 3-5 story buildings that can be tied into existing buildings on either side.

Jane Jacobs, the brilliant writer and activist for vibrant cities and towns, explained that it is not the height of a building that jars our sense so much as its width. An imposing building is never a narrow building – it is always a wide and stocky one. The intimate scale of a city street which embraces people instead of catering to cars is made interesting by diverse shapes and uses.

Jacobs described this phenomenon in a speech in 1970: “Many streets, especially those intimately scaled, are disintegrated visually by an out-of-scale building… In practice, disintegration is almost always caused by a building too large, which does not necessarily mean too high. A big one-story building can be disastrous on an intimately scaled street. The relevant standard would be the length of the street frontage allowed a building; a small-scale frontage [as we see it in Ladner’s village core] automatically takes care of height in most cases. Differences of one or two stories in height, among buildings of similar width, are not what disintegrate street scale as one can easily see by looking at intimately scaled city streets. Not all streets need to be intimately scaled, but a city lacking such streets is a horrible and inhuman place.” (Jane Jacobs, “The Real Problem of Cities,” in Vital Little Plans, p. 216) 

If we allow big projects to be the only thing worth building (because of the barriers that currently prevent hundreds of small projects from moving ahead) we will starve the village and damage it even further. Once the ‘shiny and new’ badge wears off of the big consolidated developments, the Village could be stuck with more auto-oriented development like the Ladner Harbour Centre that ages poorly, disturbs even further the streetscape and internal economy of Ladner Village, and misses the mark for genuine renewal.

I plan to write more on this in the coming months and I would love to hear your feedback in the comments section or by getting in touch by email!

So, will you join me in chanting, “Design for people! And keep our lot widths small!” When we decide to embrace the small lots and historic street layout of Ladner Village, we will be able to give our property owners and developers a clear set of guidelines for the significant projects of redevelopment that will bring lively energy, homes for many, and greater prosperity to this great part of Delta.

Learn More

If you’d like to read more on this subject, I would recommend these resources:

Daniel Herriges, What is Traditional Development and What is a ‘Development Pattern’? (lots of example images in the latter)

Kevin Klinkenberg’s piece over at Strong Towns: Savor Small Parcels. And Create More of Them

The Incremental Development Alliance’s description of the philosophy of incremental development.

Great Idea: Lean Urbanism at the Congress for the New Urbanism

Gracen Johnson on Small Developers

Placemakers on Walkability: “A walkable neighborhood provides meaningful destinations & a walkable neighborhood is entertaining”

Andrew Price: The Problem with Helicopter Urbanism

~*I acknowledge that ownership may be varied in Turnbuckle Wynd but the whole parcel is combined under one authority (Century Group) or possibly two who have to cooperate to see any change occur.

**Cover photo is from Delta Archives – Item 1970-001-448 – Used with Permission

Ladner Village: Ladner Harbour Centre: Turnbuckle Wynd: Trenant Park Square: Ladner Centre