The Little Things That Make a City

Outside Rolf’s Cook Street Barbershop on a winter’s day.

I was struck by how little things truly make a difference in a city at our neighbourhood barbershop this week.

Under its previous owner, the Cook Street Barbershop had become grimy and seemingly unloved.  Walking past on the way to the grocery store next door, there was never a reason to pause.  The windows were dirty, the inside looked grim and it always seemed habitually empty or closed.

Things started to change about this time last year when the barbershop began a transformation under new owner Rolf.  The old antique chairs are still there but are now shined up and set off by fresh colourful paint.  Squeaky clean windows let you see the people inside and quite often in warmer weather there are folks sitting outside, including a regular guitar player.

New owner Rolf inside his refurbished shop.

New owner Rolf inside his refurbished shop.

Where once me and my family rushed past what looked like a sketchy storefront, my fellas are now regular customers.

Waiting for my sons to finish a post-Christmas haircut last week, I sat trying to itemize what exactly had made the difference in terms of the shop’s overall vibe and the roll it plays on the street.

Here’s what I came up with…

“Start with the petunias”

When I sat and thought about what had made the biggest difference, the main thing I kept coming back to was principle #9 in the Project for Public Spaces‘ (PPS) 11 Principles of Placemaking: “Start with the petunias.”  By this I mean it was a bunch of little, relatively inexpensive things that had most transformed the barbershop’s appearance and thrown open its welcome mat to the larger world.

Check out what’s going on in this picture alone:

  • A table and chairs invite people to linger and acts as a bridge between the private realm of the shop and the public street.
  • Likewise the small bulletin board invites folks to have their say and use the space as a hub.
  • The ferns and plants outside show that someone cares about this space and adds a splash of color  (winter pansies were just on the point of blooming in the photo).
  • Finally, I’m sure it was more of an investment but the spinning barber pole is a nostalgic touch and let’s everyone know what’s happening here.
  • AND, there’s color!! Red chairs, cheery spinning pole, bright yellow and turquoise coming through the window from inside: all things to brighten up a street scape that would otherwise be winter grey.

Of course, there’s a lot of other good stuff going on here, too.  From a transportation perspective, there’s a bus stop right out front, bike parking on the corner and car parking at the side of the building (instead of out front).  The awning gives shelter to passersby and would be customers.

With a mix of commercial uses down below and residential up top, there’s also no doubt that the building itself has great bones.  It’s a great example from my hometown of the type of development that historically rose up around streetcar lines, in this case the old #3 Springridge line on its way along Cook St. and Caledonia Avenue to what is now Fernwood’s Gladstone Square.

But all those larger elements–good building bones, awning, location, access to a mix of transportation choices–were also there before when we used to scurry past the empty shop. So, these big things undoubtedly provided the foundation for change but the small ones acted as catalysts.

It’s this idea of catalyst that Jay Walljasper touches on in his description of Start with the petunias” in his fun and very useful summary of PPS placemaking ideas and steps The Great Neighbourhood Book. He writes that “little things can set the stage for big changes, especially by proving to local skeptics that change is indeed possible.”

And beyond just catalysts, the PPS placemaking ideas and steps that Walljasper outlines in his book remind us that these smaller elements and actions are achievable and doable by each of us: “Go for a stroll.” “Smile. Wave. Greet everyone.” “Offer people a place to sit.”

Project for Public Spaces has since added on to principle #9 with “Lighter, quicker, cheaper,” which is a call to action to just get started with change, be iterative and make something happen.  I think that mantra is a great one especially for public agencies, larger groups and projects that may get mired in the details and the pressure to get everything right from the start.  However, on the citizen level, I think there’s still great merit to remembering the line about petunias and all the little, personal actions they entail.

And it was the tangible version of these little things that were adding up in my impromptu case study of Rolf’s the other day.

Passing time at our local barbershop was an excellent reminder that building great cities takes bold steps, vision and investment on the large scale. AND that the small changes add up when we recognize that each of us has the capacity and the calling to help make the places where we live truly great places indeed.

About Tania Wegwitz

Senior Transportation Planner & Transit Lead for Western Canada's Watt Consulting Group, in both my professional life and as a community volunteer I'm passionate about making cities more connected and vibrant. With 20+ years experience, I've worked with over 70 communities to shape their sustainable transportation networks. Thoughts and my blog my own.

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