What We Can Learn from Harry the Dirty Dog

The most difficult part of advocating for walkable communities in this age, is painting the picture of what they might look like. Since the Second World War, all over the world, “growth” and “development” have been nearly synonymous with accommodating more and larger vehicles. For many people, growth and development have become dirty words.

"Much reaction to Ottawa’s new Official Plan has been straightforward: no growth and no change in my backyard."
"One useful source of urban streetscape images comes from children’s books. The implausible antics of Dennis the Menace, Curious George and Archie Andrews require exactly the kind of mixed-use streetscapes that characterize fifteen-minute neighbourhoods."

Much reaction to Ottawa’s new Official Plan has been straightforward: no growth and no change in my backyard. For my part, I generally applaud the NIMBYs in our midst. At least they care about their back yard. The more worrying phenomenon, in my view, is among people who assume that if their back yard is ruined, they’ll simply move on. In the last few years, Mother Nature has sent us a number of signals that we’re running out of places to “move on” to. We’d be wise to stop squandering the land we’re already sitting on. On the other hand, if development could come to mean “adaptation for an era of less fossil fuel use”, this would have to include accommodating more pedestrians and fewer cars. But what does a walkable neighbourhood actually look like?


One useful source of urban streetscape images comes from children’s books. The implausible antics of Dennis the Menace, Curious George and Archie Andrews require exactly the kind of mixed-use streetscapes that characterize fifteen-minute neighbourhoods. In order to concoct the kind of gags and incidental encounters packed into these books, you need narrow, connecting streets, with many parallel routes (escape routes!), large trees overhanging the street, back alleys full of bric-a-brac, sidewalks, short setbacks, and a reasonable chance that you will encounter George Wilson on foot.



I consulted my husband, who I believe owns the largest collection of French language comic books in this hemisphere, for examples from the French-speaking world. He tells me that Benoit Brisefer, the story of a ten-year-old with enormous strength, has the best streetscape examples in the Bande Dessinée tradition. Benoit is authored by Peyo, best known for the Smurf comics. The Smurfs are essentially rural dwellers, but Peyo’s artistic gift really shines in his depictions of Benoit’s fictional home town of Vivejoie-la-grande.

"I don’t propose we hire Dennis the Menace to design our cities... but it is no accident that the classic design of narrow, intersecting streets, short setbacks, mature trees, and a mix of uses and demographics is necessary to the action of these ever-popular stories..."

However my favourite urban picture book of all times has to be Harry the Dirty Dog. Harry lives on a tree-lined street in a compact neighbourhood with easy access to a main street, where he can get into all kinds of trouble. The shops on Harry’s main street all have big beautiful windows with low sills, and front doors level with the sidewalk, allowing for unlikely but adorable action between Harry and the rest of the town.



In all of these books, cars occupy a minor presence in the background: not absent, but not playing much of a role. Words to live by. I don’t propose we hire Dennis the Menace to design our cities, and there is more to a neighbourhood than setting up good gags. But it is no accident that the classic design of narrow, intersecting streets, short setbacks, mature trees, and a mix of uses and demographics is necessary to the action of these ever-popular stories because it is all about providing opportunity for interaction. This time-honoured design is also a necessary backdrop for Ottawa residents of all ages and abilities to get out there and fully participate in civic life.


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