Clare Street is short, sweet, one block long and made up of 24 single family homes. It is located at the edge of the City of Victoria and the District of Oak Bay. It is home to seniors, families with children, home businesses, and a child care centre. It is a stone's throw from a busy main street, and a short walk to all the amenities. The original street was probably built 100 years ago, however most of the homes were built in the 40s.
Clare Street is at once beautifully common and remarkably unique. The bones of this neighbourhood are not unlike any neighbourhood in any city across the country. Solidly built wartime era homes, reasonably-sized back yards, narrow sidewalks, a narrow boulevard and mature trees. But when you look closer, there are small signs that this street is different. You'll notice that there are few fences in the front yards isolating the passer-by from private property. And you'll see the backyard fences have gates into their neighbours'. While you're peeking... notice the chicken coop in one yard and the storage of straw and the exercise range in the other's. They're obviously sharing the responsibility. That old house now has a studio in the back -- and it has a moss roof with a water catchment system. The driveways are being systematically converted into patios; one car families don't require a lot of asphalt. You'll notice benches and chairs placed to create conversation areas. In some areas, it's hard to tell which is public space and which is private. This must be "The Commons". There are tree swings and hammocks, and the street signs have colourfully painted animal shapes affixed to the top of the post. Hand made banners and the occasional sculpture positioned for all to enjoy. "Slow down cars!" is the inferred message. And that's not all, of course... located mid-way along the block is a beautifully decorated bookshelf box, stationed right in the boulevard. Another treasure in the commons. It's bursting with interesting books, for all to share and exchange. This Boulevard BookBox is quintessentially Clare: an example of what evolutionary biologist David Sloan Wilson believes is a pro-social community. He argues (New Scientist, 27 August, 2011) that all the great human traits that are "good for the group" (like altruism and cooperation) can evolve in our species if we create spaces where people are geared towards the care and welfare of others. In these places, society is promoted. This is the concept of pro-sociality, the love-child of evolutionary biology and urban planning!
This street has entirely evolved on the steam of its residents. One of the early resident champions is a woman named Angela Evans -- a well-respected sustainability planner. There are -- perhaps coincidentally, perhaps not -- other city planners, architects and engineers who live on the street. Agency champions, those who have made notice of Clare Street and use it as an example, include: Focus Magazine (two extensive articles) Fraser Basin Council, Way to Go!, Capital Regional District -- Rainwater Tour (including PIBC South Island Chapter, FCM - Sustainability Conference), and Fairfield Community Association -- Project Streetlife, to name a few.
One of planner Angela Evans' s first activities after arriving in the neighbourhood was to try to calm the through traffic. "If we design our roads like gun barrels, people will drive like bullets," she is famously quoted. She began to incrementally find ways to encourage activity on the street and ultimately, take ownership of the street. Through this process, she brought the City's engineering department into the fold and managed to reduce the speed limit to 30 km/h -- one of only a handful of streets that has that as a default speed. The success of Clare Street is legendary as a community with heart and chutzpah -- it recently has captured the imagination of a small group of planners who were invited to a White Dinner Street Party that was spontaneously thrown together for one of the residents in need of a lift after hearing some hard news. In short order, the most magnificent Diner en Blanc came together much to the awe and admiration of Angela's planner friends who live in other neighbourhoods. Not only was it the best party they had ever attended, it was patently clear that such an event could not have come together on such short notice, with such grace, ease and unabashed creativity, without there being a thriving, pumping heart, holding the community together.
The White Dinner party changed the lives of the visiting planners -- who are, by the way -- the nominators of this street. They made a film to capture the evening- and have begun the process of exploring further, the pro-sociality of this street through a documentary process. The fledgling documentarians recently hosted a community-building (literally) workshop with eight different families from eight different neighbourhoods. They came together to make Boulevard BookBoxes using found and reclaimed materials. They are currently being decorated and stationed all over Greater Victoria. The awestruck planners will follow the life of each of these bookboxes with their cameras and microphones, to observe and report on, the impact these little seeds of pro-sociality, have on a neighbourhood. They plan to report out on their findings at an upcoming planning conference.