Community identity and DNA - What makes Oak Bay, Oak Bay?


From the Oak Bay municipality website we get the following description: Oak Bay is defined by its attractive residential neighborhoods, strong sense of community, mature tree canopy, scenic shoreline to the east and south, natural environment, and historic character. The municipality includes Oak Bay Village, a vibrant hub of arts, culture, and business, and other smaller villages and commercial areas within neighborhoods. The community has excellent parks and recreation facilities that contribute to a high quality of life.

From Wikipedia: Oak Bay is a community of British heritage, and has a stereotyped reputation as a quaint, charming neighborhood with an elitist British atmosphere. Oak Bay has been referred to as being located "Behind the Tweed Curtain",[4] a lighthearted allusion to the Iron Curtain. Continued to be referred to it as "More English Than England Itself"

From these brief descriptions one can get a pretty good general idea about what constitutes the identity, the DNA of Oak Bay: Attractive residential single family detached homes, low density and quiet neighborhoods, historic character, mature trees, beautiful natural environment, beaches, strong British heritage, golf course, marina, relaxed rhythm, slow traffic, available parking space, community activities, social networking etc.

If a stranger were to imagine in their mind’s eye a picture of Oak Bay from this description, do you think that they could envision a building the likes of the proposed or existing developments that have taken place in the area? Highly unlikely, simply because the very architectural style of those buildings does not in any way fit the existing architectural style of the Oak Bay community, nor does it reflect Oak Bay’s identity, DNA.

As mentioned in the book: Livable Cities Observed By Suzanne H. Crowhurst Lennard Henry L. Lennard

“Every livable city has its own unique character that is expressed in its architecture and arrangement of streets and open places. It is not inappropriate to propose the metaphor that the livable city, like every living thing, has a genetic code, or a DNA structure.”

“In order to fit into the urban context, new buildings must respect this “genetic” code, reflecting at least some of the existing patterns, or interpreting them in a contemporary idiom.

As there used to be a consensus about a community’s values, so was there also a consensus about what materials, architectural and spatial forms represented the unique character of one’s city”

There are examples of architects who design context-specific buildings exemplifying the best of the city’s heritage, but unfortunately as mentioned by Crowhurst, In many North American and some European cities, architects and developers have been allowed to build structures that bear no relationship either to surrounding buildings, or the city’s character and tradition. Buildings compete for attention but do not pay attention to each other.

The dialogue among building is too often characterized by fragmentation and discontinuity, and the collage of buildings and public spaces creates a profound sense of anomic dissociation.”

Is this what we want to create for our communities? Erode our urban sense of identity? Is this the legacy we want to leave behind for future generations? A disjointed, aesthetically incoherent, non-specific community with a broken identity? An Oak Bay without an Oak Bay DNA?

“ A true sense of identity can only be maintained through a dialogue between community and architects, through community participation programs, and the development of design guidelines sensitive to each city’s specific historic heritage.  THAT GIVE A SENSE OF PLACE, IDENTITY AND MEANING TO THE CITY.”

We should have certain Bylaws in place that would ensure that a municipality’s identity and DNA is cherished and protected while at the same time allowing for further growth of the community to answer the needs of it’s present as well as future residents.

“Those cities that recognize their unique character are able to develop clear design guidelines for future development, specifying what building materials, palette of colors, architectural proportions and detailing will be accepted as appropriate.”

As mentioned by Crowhurst: “In cities and towns with a well-defined architectural identity the intrusiveness of an alien architectural form can seem overpowering…Inappropriate structures are not always identifiable simply by their size. Sometimes the overall height may be appropriate, but the materials, or the size and proportions of windows and doors may be entirely hostile to the building’s context…” and this is exactly the case with most of these new developments. The whole design has no relation to the existing architectural style, nor does it even remotely attempt to incorporate elements of it in the overall design.

This is not a war between modern and traditional architecture, nor against development. This is about common sense and wanting to preserve a harmonious environment with a strong identity for the future generations and if similar projectsare allowed to go through as is –without any modifications – it will set a precedent difficult to change in the future.

Susan Macdonald, Head of Field Projects at the Getty Conservation Institute said: “A critical issue facing decision makers and conservation professionals is accommodating change to heritage places and adding new layers to the historic urban environment in ways that recognize, interpret, and sustain their heritage values. Over the last decade, a vigorous debate has ensued regarding the appropriateness of contemporary architectural insertions into historic urban areas. This debate has polarized sectors of the architectural community, pitting conservationists against planners and developers. It has positioned conservationists as antidevelopment and anti-progress, responsible for stifling the creativity of a new generation of architects and their right to contemporary architectural expression.

Change, however, is inevitable. Buildings, streetscapes, and urban areas evolve and change according to the needs of their inhabitants. Therefore, it is important to determine the role of contemporary architecture in contributing to this change in ways that conserve and celebrate the special character and quality of the historic environment that communities have recognized as important and wish to conserve for future generations.”

Even though Macdonald talks specifically about historic urban environments, one can see the similarities with Traditional & Heritage communities such as Oak Bay as well as Victoria in general, or any other similar cities and communities.

She argues that: The design quality of new insertions in a historic area is important. One of the challenges in this debate on the role of contemporary architecture in historic contexts is that design quality can be seen as subjective. Assessing the impact of new development in a historic context has also been accused of being subjective. However, increasing development pressure has pushed governments and the conservation community to provide more objective guidance to secure what is termed "the three Cs," namely:

    CERTAINTY in the planning system about what constitutes appropriate development;

    CONSISTENCY in government decision making; and

    COMMUNICATION and consultation between government decision makers and the development sector on creating successful outcomes.”

In order to have the Certainty in the planning system about what constitutes appropriate development, we need to establish what we perceive Oak Bay to be and what we want it to look like in the future. Then we need to have Consistency in further decision making with the establishment of specific design Bylaws and finally and most importantly effective and meaningful Communication and Consultation between the different Commissions, the Public and Development companies.

Many people would argue -and rightfully so- that we need more affordable housing, new commercial developments. In beautiful heritage communities such as Oak Bay, prices are exceptionally high and unreachable for new and young buyers who would like to live in the community. The sad thing is that not only these new, modern developments are not fitting with the existing architectural style but are anything but affordable. For the same price one could buy a smaller detached home in the very same area, would the existing Bylaws allow so.

Smaller scale development of smaller detached or town homes with smaller gardens and legalizing secondary suites could very well be an answer to saving and preserving the existing architectural style and architectural identity of the community. A flexible yet creative approach by the municipality in collaboration with development companies that are actually interested in creating quality projects, suitable and within the context of the existing architectural style and identity of the community, could help safeguard the past and welcome the future.

Change and growth are inevitable, erosion and destruction of a community's heritage character and identity is not. There are solutions out there, if we are willing to look for them.