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Old Posted Sep 29, 2017, 2:51 PM
megadude megadude is offline
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What makes a small downtown "charming"?

Firstly, I'd like to say how great this forum is. I'm no architect, but in recent years I developed an interest in buildings and neighbourhoods. Particularly since I started working in commercial real estate. The Amazon second HQ announcement is what brought me to this site.

So many of the topics on this forum really appeal to me. And I rarely have anyone else to talk to about these things.

Though as with any forum, there is often too much bickering, though it does make for some good entertainment until it strays too far off topic and becomes tiresome. Gotta take the good with the bad!


I've passed through a lot of towns over the years on my various roadies through ON, QC and 35 different states. Plan on doing out east in the near future!

Only in the past couple of years have I really started to pay attention and appreciate the intracacies of each town and neighbourhood, good and bad. Whether it's the downtowns or old neighbourhoods of the GTA suburbs or the main streets of small towns I pass through or stop in.

Last couple of years did a lot of driving through the cottage countries of Kawarthas, Muskoka, Huron from Kincardine to Sauble, up the Bruce Peninsula from Wiarton to Tobermory, and Georgian Bay from Owen Sound to Parry Sound.

As well, took various routes to Erie that took me through different towns like Dunnville, Smithville, Delhi, Simcoe, Waterford, Beamsville, etc.

Then there's some very interesting towns from KW and Amish/Mennonite country through to Stratford and St. Mary's.

And also passed through a few towns along Lake Ontario through to Prince Edward County and Bay of Quinte.

So many fascinating little places. The downtowns that are most intriguing to me are on the two extremes.

Charming places like Elora, Stratford, St. Mary's, Niagara on the Lake. Or in the GTA: Downtown Oakville and Burlington, Bronte Village, Streetsville, Unionville, etc.

And real dumpy, almost abandoned places, which I won't name. Though that's more in the Rust Belt and Appalaicha. Not good for the residents but fascinating for visitors.

Now the most bland downtown I drove through, which was two weeks ago, was Lucknow, ON. It was neither charming nor dumpy. This is not a knock on the place. It was not run down at all. Just an observation. Some towns don't even have a downtown, and so there's nothing worth noting.

https://www.google.ca/maps/@43.96050...7i13312!8i6656


It got me thinking, what makes a downtown of a small town "charming"? Here's what I think of:

- Old, but well maintained buildings/houses with character. Including an old church.

- Very low vacancy.

- Unique and colourful storefronts/facades all different than the next one. Whether they're original or fake.

- Ivy growing up some buildings helps.

- Sidewalks are lined with trees/bushes, big or small.

- Lamp posts have hanging flower baskets.

- Not too many franchised stores but rather some individual cafes and boutique stores.

- Narrow streets, which adds to the intimacy. Bad for driving in bigger places but fine for small towns as traffic is not an issue.

- Cobblestone would help but most places are not Old Quebec or Montreal.

- Overhanging sign or banners. Like a sign with the town's name on it or banners promoting festivals. Even having some wires crossing over the street adds to the closeness and intimacy IMO.


Anything else to add?


And as for Lucknow, I understand it's a very small place and is surrounded by farms. And to add the things I mentioned above would cost money to implement and maintain. And I'm sure there are more important things to pay for.

But I wonder, if a place did want to add the trees, flowers, overhanging signs, etc., is it the town council that pushes that agenda forward to try and improve the town's image or the local BIA to try and attract more shoppers to Main Street?

Last edited by megadude; Sep 29, 2017 at 4:25 PM.
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Old Posted Sep 29, 2017, 2:55 PM
megadude megadude is offline
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Here's a pick of Lucknow I found. The church at the one end is somewhat interesting:






Edit: Later on saw this mural in Lucknow somewhere online. It's something.


http://googlesightseeing.com/2013/04...of-ice-hockey/

Last edited by megadude; Jan 21, 2018 at 6:20 PM.
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Old Posted Sep 29, 2017, 3:25 PM
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Quote:
Originally Posted by megadude View Post
It got me thinking, what makes a downtown of a small town "charming"? Here's what I think of:
- Old, but well maintained buildings/houses with character. Including an old church. Agreed.

- Very low vacancy.

Yup. I think that goes without saying.

- Unique and colourful storefronts/facades all different than the next one. Whether they're original or fake.

Agreed. Although,
I would hope that the modern buildings have facades that reflect the contemproary styles of that era. Even a building from the nadir era of architecture (for me that would be the late 1970s to the early 1990s) would be unabashedly representative of that time.


- Ivy growing up some buildings helps.

If you have a climate that is conducive to this, then, yes. The emphasis should be on the word 'some'. Ivy covering all buildings would be weird.

- Sidewalks are lined with trees/bushes, big or small.

I'll disagree with you on this one. Trees are kind of overrated on commercial streets.

- Lamp posts have hanging flower baskets.

That's a nice-to-have, but, again, I don't think you need to have flowers or shrubbery everywhere to make an attractive commercial landscape.

- Not too many franchised stores but rather some individual cafes and boutique stores.

Not sure I agree completely. If chains (not banks, though) choose to locate in the downtown of a small city, it is a sign that the downtown is an important retail destination in the region for people with disposable incomes. For example, Kingston - which has the best downtown of a city of its size in Ontario - has an Urban Outfitters and a Lululemon on Princess Street. I think chain retail follows vibrancy, rather than the other way around, so I'll say that it's more a symptom of a good downtown than a cause.

- Narrow streets, which adds to the intimacy. Bad for driving in bigger places but fine for small towns as traffic is not an issue.

Absolutely. North American downtowns would be so much better if their streets were narrower. I think that's part of the reason why we have an affinity for skyscrapers on this board. On a certain level, they make our wide, straight streets feel hemmed in, which, I feel, is something we gravitate to without even knowing.

- Cobblestone would help but most places are not Old Quebec or Montreal.

I personally don't care for cobblestone. In our climate, it's a major pain in the ass to shovel/plow, it's terrible for bicyclists, wheelchairs or strollers, and since our cities don't have a history of building cobblestone streets, it can come off as inauthentic and faux. Smooth stone paving systems are better IMHO. Honestly, I don't really care too much about what the sidewalk is made of. Concrete is fine if it's well maintained. The worst were those interlocking brick pavers from the 1980s that come loose or have weeds poking through them.

- Overhanging sign or banners. Like a sign with the town's name on it or banners promoting festivals. Even having some wires crossing over the street adds to the closeness and intimacy IMO.

Okay, I disagree with you here. I find vinyl banners to be so kitschy and provincial, and they ruin the vistas of our streets. They're primarily aimed at drivers, anyway.


Anything else to add?

I think making sure that the main intersection in your downtown has a different type of business on every corner is important.
If all 4 corners are occupied by banks, it will be dead. If all 4 corners are occupied by restaurants, that would be interesting, but it would only be active at restaurant hours. Having a clothes shop, a bank, a restaurant and maybe a bar/cafe would be ideal.
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Old Posted Sep 29, 2017, 3:44 PM
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^^I'm a big fan of trees on main streets. I always like the trees around Gore Park in Hamilton (cut down a few years ago). Recently in Barcelona (not a small town obviously) I was struck by the large trees lining almost every street (they look like sycamores). A great example of trees making the downtown awesome is San Luis Obispo in California. The residential streets through the Prairies have a great canopy of elms, imagine if downtown streets had the same. I would like to see more trees in Ontario towns especially.
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Old Posted Sep 29, 2017, 3:52 PM
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Charming in the quaint sense? Tourism. Almost everything aimed at tourists in small towns is charming.

In addition to the required level of urbanity and architectural beauty:

They have to be pretty quiet and predictable. Lots of immediate families together doing whatever. Tourists that are mainly older or amateur artists. They need some kitsch thing - a particular treat or souvenir that the town is known for.

Charming in the handsome sense tends to be more aesthetic.

In the charismatic sense, it has to tickle your personal fancies.
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Old Posted Sep 29, 2017, 3:54 PM
megadude megadude is offline
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I can respect everything you said.

As for banners, no more than a couple would be my preference. And come to think of it, only for certain events. So on a temporary basis.

But I do like having a permanent sign or a "gateway". Even a simple structure that subtly lets you know you're now entering that neighbourhood.

Little Italy in Montreal is an example. Though I can't recall if that's right at the entrance or not:




Grandiose structures like Chinatown in Montreal or the one on Dundas in Mississauga (which is actually a plaza) fit well there but not so much for regular downtown.



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Old Posted Sep 29, 2017, 4:11 PM
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As for Kingston, I've only been once, in 2011. Being the nicest downtown for a city that size is immediately what I thought as well. Being the former capital and having Queens is a great advantage.

True that franchises are a sign of a downtown's vibrancy. Though some places don't really have them as a strategic way of maintaining a certain old charm to the place and to perhaps not compete with individual restaurants. Such as Old Quebec and Tobermory.

As for really small towns, I guess some are too small to have any. I thought Lucknow would have a Hortons judging by my past trips where I saw similar downtowns with them. The closest one is 15 minutes away. No cafe, but there is a family restaurant.
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Old Posted Sep 29, 2017, 4:14 PM
megadude megadude is offline
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I just noticed the remark about crediting images from the internet. I'm new here!
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Old Posted Sep 29, 2017, 4:36 PM
megadude megadude is offline
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To add to my statement about trees. Some trees spaced out along the sidewalks I think looks very nice.

Residential neighbourhoods in Britain, outside of London, I find very fascinating due to their complete lack of trees.

The movies that take place in London tend to take place in fancy neighbourhoods, while for other cities, they take place in lower middle class and below. So I don't recall if there are many London area neighbourhoods like this.

I'm watching the very excellent movie "'71" again. It takes place in Belfast. And like so many of these neighbourhoods, nothing has changed from back then to now.

https://www.google.ca/maps/@54.59555...7i13312!8i6656

I assume this is because there was no thought of greenery during the industrial revolution and so cities were built around and took after "industry".
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Old Posted Sep 29, 2017, 6:23 PM
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Downtown Cobourg is, mostly, tree-lined and I never really thought about it but I guess that is more of the exception than the rule.

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Old Posted Sep 29, 2017, 7:15 PM
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Nanaimo has a pretty good downtown (surprisingly).
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Old Posted Sep 29, 2017, 7:26 PM
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Quote:
Originally Posted by flar View Post
^^I'm a big fan of trees on main streets. I always like the trees around Gore Park in Hamilton (cut down a few years ago). Recently in Barcelona (not a small town obviously) I was struck by the large trees lining almost every street (they look like sycamores). A great example of trees making the downtown awesome is San Luis Obispo in California. The residential streets through the Prairies have a great canopy of elms, imagine if downtown streets had the same. I would like to see more trees in Ontario towns especially.
I think urban street trees are important in the right context. In Spain, I can totally see why they're welcome; the urban landscape is hard and stoney and, for much of the year, the sun is relelentless. Trees soften the landscape and filter out the harsh rays of the sun.

We have the opposite conditions, though: our urban landscape is a bit too sprarse and suburban, and for much of the year we would welcome as much sunlight as possible.

I think residential streets should, as a general rule, have trees, no matter how dense they are. But our commercial streets should be unabashedly commercial.

There are other things that I don't like about street trees on commercial roads: they take up space that blocks passage; they attract birds that then drop shit everywhere; their roots lift up the sidewalk. They are expensive to plant, and difficult to maintain. It is a major operation to clear the streets and sidewalks of their fallen leaves in autumn. They pose a risk in the winter as storms bring down branches. They hide the ornamentation of ornate commercial buildings, which are often best seen from the opposite side of the street. In an environment like Barcelona, these things are definitely outweighed by their benefits, but not in small town Canada.
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Old Posted Sep 29, 2017, 9:36 PM
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In addition to tourism, it also helps to have a theme, like this town in Washington:

https://goo.gl/maps/wcU7K5ygKi92
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Old Posted Sep 29, 2017, 10:04 PM
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In addition to tourism, it also helps to have a theme, like this town in Washington:

https://goo.gl/maps/wcU7K5ygKi92
I'd be embarrassed to live in a place like that. I wonder when they started Teutonically tarting up the town? Must have been in the 1960s, I imagine? Couldn't really have been before then.

Edit: Heh heh, I'm on fire. It was 1962 according to Wikipedia.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Leavenworth,_Washington
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Old Posted Sep 29, 2017, 10:23 PM
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I'd be embarrassed to live in a place like that. I wonder when they started Teutonically tarting up the town? Must have been in the 1960s, I imagine? Couldn't really have been before then.

Edit: Heh heh, I'm on fire. It was 1962 according to Wikipedia.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Leavenworth,_Washington
Have you been to Frankenmuth, Michigan?
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Old Posted Sep 29, 2017, 10:25 PM
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Have you been to Frankenmuth, Michigan?
Gawd no, but I know it's a kitschy Bavarian nightmare too. What's interesting about Kitchener is that it doesn't have any tacky German stuff going on at all, in spite of the fact that it has the largest Oktoberfest outside of Munich.
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Old Posted Sep 29, 2017, 10:27 PM
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Seems like a fitting name.
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Old Posted Sep 29, 2017, 10:36 PM
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Come to think of it, there are German-themed towns all over North and South America, but you don't really get this with other ethnicities, do you? I mean, there are no Italian-looking towns anywhere, or French, or Thai, or Jamaican, or what have you.

Why did this happen with Germans? Brazil and Argentina have the most Italian immigrants, but you don't have little Italian-themed towns anywhere, just German ones.

Weird.
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Old Posted Sep 29, 2017, 10:44 PM
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They have lots of German immigrants as well, even Low German (Mennonite, etc.) Especially in Brazil:

https://www.mwc-cmm.org/content/newc...nonites-brazil

And Germans were, by far, the most populous immigrant group to the United States for many decades. It was even a common second language until the World Wars. Still today, it's one of the largest at 40+ million:

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/German_Americans

I'm not surprised at all it'd be the Germans who are the kitsch village thing throughout the Americas. The Spanish influence is obvious, and all of southern Europe is so similar that anything Italian wouldn't really stand out all that much.
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Old Posted Sep 29, 2017, 10:48 PM
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Welcome to the forum.
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