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Districts versus spines

I was recently having a discussion on Twitter about midrise buildings and architect Dermot Sweeny raised the important distinction between creating “spines” and creating “districts.”

What he was referring to with “spines” was the way in which Toronto is intensifying its “Avenues” with midrise buildings. It is a kind of linear form of intensification which almost always means that each building must transition in some way to the low-rise housing that typically abuts our Avenues. This is far less relevant in districts.

We have started to increase housing supply in our “Neighborhoods” through things like laneway houses and garden suites, but in most cases, we are arguably not creating urban districts.

This is of course a touchy subject. But I think it’s an important discussion to be having for a number reasons:

  • Increasing housing supply is a good thing
  • Angular planes and other transition measures make housing more expensive
  • Urban places are, I would argue, better defined through districts rather than spines
  • Mixed-use (employment) becomes more viable with districts
  • Transit infrastructure is better utilized with radial density around its stations

Can you think of any others?

Photo: Old Montrêal (Shot on iPhone)

1 Comment so far

  1. Mark A. Olinger

    I would tend to agree that Districts work better than Spines because my experience is that Districts can create more diversity of uses, better design (I’m an optimist) and–very importantly–create more opportunities for meaningful interaction with jobs, services, housing, parks, etc. Districts (or Nodes as we called them) are the centerpiece of Richmond’s newest award-winning Master Plan, “Richmond 300.” If Spines or Corridors are not very deep, you end up, as you say, with doing the design gymnastics to try and squeeze stuff in and not impinge on the neighbors on the next street over. Creates real challenges. We had an area in Madison, Wisconsin where we did a significant Corridor plan which envisioned a significant mixed-use character with much taller buildings because the blocks were so large along the Corridor (roughly 330′ deep x 660′ long, if memory serves) making it possible to accommodate buildings, integrated parking (or none at all as is the case in at least one project), open space, etc. Truly a once in a career kind of planning (and implementation) project.

    One last comment, who the hell laid out these shallow corridors anyway?? 🙂


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