Shoppers Drug Mart in Osborne Village is expanding, crowding out its neighbours, a Vietnamese restaurant and a popular video rental store. The expansion will turn the entire ground floor of the new building into a pharmacy. Some cosmetic touches planned for the front of the building will fail to conceal the fact that three separate businesses at street level will be replaced by one.
In other words, diversity at street level will be replaced by uniformity. That’s what Jane Jacobs – a Torontonian who set the world of city planning on its ear – would be saying if she were still with us. In her classic Death and Life of Great American Cities, she argued…
…that the unique virtue of cities, and the singular secret of successful city neighbourhoods, was diversity. What makes cities and neighbourhoods great, she said, was that many people gathered in the same places for many different reasons.
This gathering of many people, on the street, in parks, in public squares or buildings, made these places lively and interesting. Liveliness in itself attracted still more people, who came to watch other people or be seen. We can see for ourselves how her theories come to life any evening in the spring or summer on the streets of Corydon Village and Osborne Village.
However, Jacobs – a believer in capitialism who didn’t wear rose-coloured glasses – saw a problem: A conflict between diversity and the automatic workings of free markets. Diversity attracts people while markets seek profit. On any diverse street, there are bound to be some businesses that are more profitable than others. Entrepreneurs understand that diverse, crowded streets offer opportunities to do business, and, as wise investors, they seek to invest in the most profitable opportunities.
As a result, lower-profit businesses tend to be bought out and replaced by higher-profit enterprises. The result is a paradox: The very diversity that made the street a good place to do business in the first place is crowded out by the pursuit of those business opportunities. As more profitable businesses buy out less profitable ones, diversity fades into uniformity and the street loses its attractiveness . That’s exactly what’s happening on Osborne Street.
By deciding in favour of the Shoppers expansion, the Board of Adjustment has agreed to the death of street-level diversity in part of Osborne Village. If this decision becomes a precedent for future decisions, it will herald the slow death of the diverse Osborne Village we know – and perhaps after that Corydon Village. If the pedestrian traffic on Osborne is driven away by what Jacobs called the destruction of diversity, the management of Shoppers’ Drug Mart may yet have reason to wish that the Board of Adjustment had not been so pliable.