Designing Riversdale: The 5 Foundations of a Great Neighbourhood

This blog post first appeared on the Element Urban Village project website.

A good city [or neighbourhood] is like a good party, people stay longer than really necessary, because they are enjoying themselves.
— Jan Gehl, Cities for People

The neighbourhood as an ecosystem

An ecosystem is a valuable metaphor for looking at the way cities and communities function. After all, neighbourhoods are just collections of people, bound by geography, whose behaviour is shaped by physical environments. At Shift, we pay particular attention to the ecosystem of neighbourhoods because we believe that physical spaces, environments and neighbourhood design can promote, or interfere with,  a healthy ecosystem.


One of our favourite reads is Happy City, which argues that urban design can actually influence our levels of happiness. Think about it! Does the design of your neighbourhood encourage you to walk or bike? Interact with people from diverse backgrounds? Connect with nature? Because these are the experiences that can reduce stress, give us a feeling of empowerment and connectedness and lay the foundation for inclusive communities! This is why we're such vocal advocates for things like parklets and bike lanes! 


Our mission is to build spaces that create the conditions for great urban lifestyles. And to us, that means building in neighbourhoods that include a cluster of residential and commercial spaces that serve a wide range of people and needs. This is why our love affair with Riversdale continues. We think it is a neighbourhood that gets it right, because its ecosystem contains such a diversity of people and places. And that is the building block for a great experience. 

The five foundations of a great neighbourhood

One of the most influential books on city-building, Jane Jacob’s Life and Death of Great American Citiespaints a poetic scene of the “sidewalk ballet”—a city street animated by people coming and going throughout the day and night. Some live there. Others frequent restaurants and cafes for lunch. Families come and go to work and school. Shops and bars draw others throughout the day and night, leaving a constant flow of people on foot or biking, keeping the streets alive, friendly and safe and contributing to an overall feeling of community. Here diversity is the lifeblood of a community. 

So let’s break it down. What are the building blocks for that kind of community to emerge? 


Jane Jacobs talks about the importance of old buildings in the ecosystem. The cost of new buildings prohibit risk and experimentation, whereas old buildings are the breeding ground of new ideas that are the heart and soul of vigorous streets and districts. (See our blog post on the rate of change in Riversdale for more on this!)

A blend of new and old in Riversdale: Chung Wah grocery, Escape SportsRose's FurnitureVillage Guitar & Amp.

When old and new buildings co-exist in a neighbourhood, old and new businesses/services/goods co-exist. Both are crucial to the ecosystem. New businesses bring in new ideas, new people, new investment—which then helps shore up the sustainability of old businesses which provide unique goods and services, and maintain the history, identity, and character of a place.


In March 2017 at a Walrus Talks event in Saskatoon, lawyer/writer/strategist Prasanna Ranganathan reminded us that it’s not enough to say we value diversity. We’re all diverse. What we really want to work towards is inclusivity. Sure we can have neighbourhoods populated with people of diverse backgrounds, ethnicities, income levels, genders, ages, abilities—but does everyone feel included, empowered, and valued in that space when they are there?

So we want to create inclusive neighbourhoods and remove barriers to engaging in city life. Why is diversity and inclusivity important for a neighbourhood? We learn and grow when we encounter people who are different than us. This is the building block for empathy and encourages people to take responsibility for inequality or injustice in their own backyards.


So if we want inclusivity and diversity, we need a range of housing options to serve unique lifestyles and needs in a neighbourhood. Single family dwellings, condos, townhomes, rentals, duplexes, high-rise and low-rise.


The trick to recreating Jacob’s “sidewalk ballet” and animating the streets with diverse people is giving them a number of different reasons to come, work, visit, stay, live, and play there. Let's see how Riversdale fairs on this front.

Riversdale is home to the farmer’s market, teaming with activity on the weekends. The city’s most interesting concentration of independent food/drink offerings reside here. We have a total mix of new shops and businesses (get beer from 9 Mile or juice from Thrive) alongside old businesses like Odessa meats or community centres like the White Buffalo Youth LodgeThe Friendship Inn serves up meals for people in need and the Food Bank is a critical part of our ecosystem. Parks and paths along the South Saskatchewan river line the neighbourhood. We have art and culture—from drop-in community art spaces to new galleries like VoidThe StorefrontAKA artist-run-centre, PAVED Arts, and the last atmospheric movie theatre in Western Canada, The Roxy. You can get a $150 coat rack from Green Ark or a $5 from Village Green. Add in Hot Yoga on 20thFreedom Fitness, and the Bartari videogame cafe. Get a haircut from Michael at Halo. Get your bike tuned at Spoke 'n Sport or Bike Universe.  Birthday cards and crafts at Soul Paper. And we're just getting started!

What have you got? Dozens of reasons to come to the neighbourhood and a number of points of engagement when you get there. You have an opportunity to walk or bike between destinations, which enhances your engagement with the community. This leads to our next point. 


We’ve written before about the idea that walkability enhances our overall enjoyment of and engagement with a community. When you look at the research criteria, you realize that walkability isn’t just about being able to get around on foot. It’s about laying the foundation for a certain kind of lifestyle that is active and connected to the pulse of the neighbourhood.

We want bike lanes. We want better bus routes. We want streets designed for people first and cars second. This is how to create options that satisfy the needs of a wide range of people.

Get to know the Riversdale ecosystem

This lengthy blog is really just scratching the surface about Riversdale, why all our projects are there (within walking distance of our office), and what drives us as developers to see what we can bring to the sustainability and health of a neighbourhood.

This is the first of 5 blogs we're going to launch about building in Riversdale and we invite you to tag along for the ride by following us (FacebookInstagramTwitter) and/or joining our newsletter. STAY TUNED!