It Takes A Village

A much-favoured term in property marketing is “village”. It’s easy to see why: it evokes a cute, low-rise, dense conglomeration of similar buildings that arose at a time when materials were sourced locally and no space was devoted to automobiles.



Since the 20th century, the term “village” has been used very generously to describe everything from residential subdivisions, to retirement complexes, to all-inclusive resorts. In these contexts, it is meant to evoke a small, interlinked community where people know and trust each other. The reality often disappoints.

"It was the interchange of functions, and the complex web of interdependency, that led to the formation of a village’s unique character."

True villages arose over time as a locus for the exchange of goods and services. Villages that evolved before 1945 almost universally host a market square where vendors from the countryside and from further abroad could bring wares to trade. Around this primary function grew up permanent civic structures – a town hall, a place of worship, a courthouse, and a post office, for example, which supported the trade activity.



Villages also provided processing functions for produce from the countryside: food preservation, milling, smelting, drying, weaving and pottery. It was the interchange of functions, and the complex web of interdependency, that led to the formation of a village’s unique character. Culture evolved from people’s learning to make a living from their surroundings. North Americans who visit pre-1945 villages anywhere in the world will describe them as “quaint”, “unique” and “historic”, which is exactly what they are.


"If everyone in these places owns a car, it becomes more than a non-village: it becomes an anti-village, which devours all the land around it, in its insatiable appetite for pavement."

The reason we have never built a true village since 1945, is that modern “villages” typically aim to have only one economic function: housing students, or seniors, or families, or golf-playing retirees. The inhabitants of these “villages” have to leave, to do everything from buying a shoelace, to watching live music. If everyone in these places owns a car, it becomes more than a non-village: it becomes an anti-village, which devours all the land around it, in its insatiable appetite for pavement.



Is the village concept worth saving? A number of urban infill projects slated to take place in Ottawa in the coming years present the chance to build around the true village concept. It would start with a central public square that prioritizes local trade. Around the square would be small lots for locally-owned retail, and civic services like libraries and daycares.

"...we need to ask ourselves why we keep marketing non-villages as villages, and whether some people might like to live in the real thing."

Over the stores on the square would be residences, conceivably housing some of the workers from the businesses below. In the hinterland of the square would be productive operations such as food growing, small-scale preservation and storing of food, baking, neighbourhood composting, repair services and art studios. The routes into the village square would be many and narrow, coming from all directions, and encouraging locals, visitors and tourists to participate in village life.


If this sounds like a foolish, impractical idea, we need to ask ourselves why we keep marketing non-villages as villages, and whether some people might like to live in the real thing. Because it actually takes a village to make a village.



~ JANET MARK WALLACE is a regular blog contributor for Walkable Ottawa