All right. As announced some days . . . er, weeks . . . ago, I have decided to work my way through the patterns in A Pattern Language, by Christopher Alexander, Sara Ishikawa, and Murray Silverstein (and others), as a way of training my eye to understand architecture better, increasing my photography skills, and, I hope, learning about things to look for — or create — in my One Day House.
I’m going to go fairly quickly through the first set of patterns. This is because they are on the level of countrysides and entire towns, and, apart from being difficult to photograph, are also less immediately relevant to me. I’m not involved in creating towns at the moment except in my fictional universes (where these points do, I admit, come in handy). There is also the problem that there are 253 patterns in A Pattern Language, and I want to work my way through them all by next year. As I don’t intend to do one every day, obviously I am going to have to a few at a time.
So, to begin: Patterns 1 – 3.
Pattern 1 is Independent Regions. These are the subsections of a country, or in my case a province; we can see that they are naturally so organised just in conversation. Here in Nova Scotia we’re part of the Maritimes, a big region, quite separate from Quebec or the north-eastern United States, though there are similarities, of course, or perhaps contiguities — things that touch and blur together, like colours on a spectrum — between h
ere and there. Nova Scotia is different from, but yet similar to, New Brunswick and Prince Edward Island and — a little farther off — Newfoundland.
Within the larger unit of Nova Scotia, which is fairly small for an independent region for Canada but nevertheless is larger than, say, Switzerland, at least geographically (Nova Scotia’s population is under a million, so much smaller in that respect), there are some obvious breaks: Cape Breton Island, the North Shore, the South Shore, the East Shore, the Bay of Fundy, the Annapolis Valley, the area around Halifax, the less clearly defined bits in the middle that aren’t near the sea. (These are mostly forested.) Most of my examples are going to come from the area near Halifax and from the Annapolis Valley, because that happens to be where I’m living — on the one hand — and where I’m considering living — on the other — with a few notes from Prince Edward Island and other places depending on my travels.
So, we come down a level from Independent Regions and find ourselves at pattern #2, the Distribution of Towns. Alexanderet al. speak of the need for a pattern that is not weighted too much towards small towns nor too much towards big cities. I personally very much like the distribution of places in Nova Scotia. There is one large city, Halifax (population 300, 000 in the greater Halifax Regional Municipality), a few large towns — Truro in the middle of the province, Sydney in Cape Breton, Yarmouth down at the tip of the South Shore — and the rest, small towns ranging down to hamlets and tiny villages. Other people feel it is much too rural and much too small.
Pattern #3, City Country Fingers is where we start to be able to have photographs instead of maps illustrating points. The basic point of this pattern is that it is much more pleasing to have the city and the countryside integrated. This does not mean letting the city sprawl all over the country side at a low density — Calgary, I am looking at you — but rather, to have an intensity of city close to a definite countryside. This is done by having ‘fingers’ of city reaching out — usually along roads and rivers, though it would be better — Alexander argues — to have them go along ridges, leaving the valleys for agriculture, but no matter that at the moment — and fingers of countryside reaching in. The Greenbelt in Ottawa or Toronto is intended to have something of the same effect, more effectively (in my view) in Ottawa than Toronto.
One of the things I’ve always felt very important in a city is being able to look out of it. Ottawa you can stand on Parliament Hill and see the Gatineau Hills across the river. In Calgary you can often see the mountains, even though the other directions perhaps all you’ll see is city. Toronto . . . oh, Toronto . . . unless you were high up in a skyscraper indeed and could see the lake, you could never see out of it. I found this claustrophobic.
I like that in Halifax I see out of it in my day to day activities. I walk to work, and down one particular street catch a glimpse of the Northwest Arm (water coming in counts as a ‘country’ finger — it is nature reaching in to us, nature semi-tamed, used by sailors and fishermen). I walk to the public library and see the Harbour. Climb Capitol Hill and see not only the Harbour but all the way out to treed islands, all the way out of the city to the woods in other directions.
I think the old city walls did this as well. In Burgundy once a friend of mine and I stayed a couple of days in a town called Autun, which had been built by the Romans. Some of its Roman wall was still there, the north and south sides — where the city was blocked from sprawling by hills and the river respectively — so you could walk across the city. From countryside to semi-wild hills, through gates that had been used for seventeen hundred years. East and west the city sprawled in the modern strip-malled way, with car dealerships and fast food restaurants and sad-looking hair salons, but that just proves the point, that cities should have clear boundaries to be pleasant.
Next time: agriculture!