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Why the 'Trick-or-Treat Test' Still Matters

Why the 'Trick-or-Treat Test' Still Matters
Steven Depolo/Flickr

Once a year at Halloween, community designers and urbanists conjure up the "the trick-or-treat test" (guilty as charged) as a way into sparking discussion about where we live and how our communities are designed.

The test, which all stems from the concept of how easily kids can find the front door to a house on Halloween and then move on to the next one, has been useful in getting a broader range of people thinking about how suburban house design relates to more livable, walkable streets. It helps make the case for building houses with rear garages instead of front, often off a lane, and having true front doors. Once the garage is moved, the door can be moved closer to the sidewalk. The lack of driveway curb cuts allow for street trees, uninterrupted sidewalks, on-street parking, and slower speeds for residential traffic, illustrating the ripple effects that suburban-style garages can have on the public realm, walkability, and yes, trick-or-treating.

When it comes to candy-collecting efficiency, kids are very smart, and read communities well. They know the streets where the doors are close together and well-lit, what I call "Halloween Door Density."

Parents are smart, too. They recognize neighborhoods designed to be safe for walkers when they see them: Tree-lined streets; enough density and community completeness to activate what I call "the power of nearness"; good visual surveillance through doors, windows (and I don't mean windows in garages), porches and "eyes on the street"; connected, legible streets that let you “read” the neighborhood easily. All of these are great for walkable, healthy, economically resilient communities year-round.

Kids are often said to be an indicator species for great neighborhoods; Kids in costumes on Halloween night are an indicator species, too. In many suburbs, kids and families have given up on trick-or-treating in the traditional door-to-door sense. Trends like suburban shopping malls giving out candy, or even the "trick-or-trunk" trend where parking lots and candy-filled car trucks replace neighborhoods, can be pragmatic alternatives to un-walkable communities.

We tend to picture ground-oriented densities and forms as the "sweet spot" for Halloween-friendly door density, with taller buildings, despite their many smart-growth qualities, seeming less accessible or street-oriented.

Does it have to be that way? As with suburban environments, the answer largely rests in the design choices. In many urbanized environments (downtowns, town centers, transit corridors and nodes), the street-level experience for mid and high-rises can be either retail, or, too often, dead and blank. Landscaping may soften the blow of a door-free landscape, but it does little for eyes on the street, activity, or trick-or-treat-ability. Long, door-less streets with no bells to ring. Not great for walkers on any day, really.

Part of our urban design ethic here in Vancouver is to always have real doors on the street in mid- and high-rises. Doors make streets safer and more interesting for the walker, and most definitely better for Halloween. Stacked townhouses and podium mid-rises can make for a more urban streetwall, with ground-oriented homes at the street level.

These are real doors, and "eyes" on the street, with good door density. There's no reasons why higher-density, more urban settings like downtowns (traditional or suburban) and transit nodes can’t pass the trick-or-treat test.

What about all those homes above the first floor? In the past, in many mid- and high-rise buildings, kids could go from floor to floor. But with the evolution of building security, often one floor is all you get, and only if you live on it.

Can’t these buildings be more Halloween friendly? Floors could be opened up. Common amenity rooms can be used in the same way that suburban parking lots are, but the magic of knocking on doors can only be recaptured if floors are accessible, and buildings become similar to connected, legible "neighborhoods."

In downtown Vancouver the street-level pattern allows for trick-or-treating, and we know there are kids downtown – about 7,000 kids, as a result of the city's number-of-bedrooms requirements, kid-focused amenities and design, schools and daycare facilities. But do they trick-or-treat downtown?

I recently posed that question via Twitter. In Vancouver’s Yaletown for example, one tweeter pointed out there may be more dogs than kids in the neighborhood now, and another noted that the Business Improvement Area (BIA) puts on great events that draw many kids and families, with “most of the action at the retail stores.” Still, I was told that there’s "more Halloween buzz in Yaletown than most single family neighborhoods."

Other responders debated with each other in neighborhoods like Vancouver’s West End – reports ranging from “I don't see a single kid” to “my kids can't carry (all the candy) home! High rises are dope, they pool candy!”

What’s clear is that Halloween can still be a catalyst for a much-needed discussion on what great neighborhoods, of every scale and form, are made of. No wonder Halloween is my favorite holiday – which other celebrates the public realm, walkability, and successful urbanism, and helps us think about how urban design affects our lives?

Top image: Flickr user Steven Depolo

Brent Toderian is President of TODERIAN UrbanWORKS, a Vancouver-based city planning and urbanism consultancy, and a global consultant, writer, teacher and speaker. He was past Director of City Planning for Vancouver, Canada (2006-2012), and is founding President of the Council for Canadian Urbanism. All posts »

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