WWJJD? Centretown through Jane Jacobs’ eyes

Editor’s note: How powerful is the written word? Sometimes to gauge the impact of a writer we have to imagine what our world would be like without their contribution; without Jane Jacobs it is possible to imagine that there might never have been an urbanist movement in North America. In New York there probably would have been a six lane road instead of  Washington Square, in Toronto  an expressway right through the Annex, and in Ottawa, perhaps a 17-lane  freeway instead of Laurier Avenue, as was on the drawing books of our road planners in the mid-1960s (see above). That these neighbourhood–killing projects never came to pass  is still in large part credited to a discourse that began with Jacobs’ stinging critique of post-war urban planning.

Certainly  without Jacobs there would be no Spacing Ottawa blog,  and so to mark this week’s launch of Ottawa’s third season of Jane’s Walks we asked contributor David McClelland to consider the Jane Jacobs legacy from the point of view of an Ottawa neighbourhood. He chose Downtown/Centretown.

When it comes to urban thinkers, there are few names that are quite so revered as Jane Jacobs. She’s cited in nearly every passionate debate about urban issues in North America, and The Death and Life of Great American Cities, her 1961 attack on modern urban planning policies, is still required reading at countless universities around the world. And though she died in 2006, her legacy lives on: Jane’s Walks are held around Canada and the United States, which celebrate urban life and her passionate, incredibly observant view of cities.

But in spite of all this, many people do not seem to be familiar with what exactly her ideas were. Many know the gist of what she writes about in Death and Life, but aren’t as certain in their knowledge of the ideas that underpin them. And while it would be nearly impossible to summarize all of the ideas in the book (as, while very readable, it’s also densely packed), one section of the book is on the four conditions that make for diverse neighborhoods. So to better understand the ideas of Jacobs, why not take a look at downtown Ottawa through the lens of these four conditions?

“1. The district, and indeed as many of its internal parts as possible, must serve more than one primary function; preferably more than two. These must insure the presence of people who go outdoors on different schedules and are in the place for different purposes, but who are able to use many facilities in common.”

To anyone interested in cities today, this seems obvious: a good neighborhood has mixed uses. But when Jacobs was writing in the 1950s and 60s, this seemed less obvious. It was widely believed that a healthy city was a segregated city—people should live in one place, work in another, and be entertained in a third, and so on. However, Jacobs didn’t buy into this, realizing instead that the more services a place could offer, the more attractive it would be, both as a place to live and a place to visit. Simple, but revolutionary nevertheless.

Thankfully, downtown Ottawa generally features a good mix of uses. The very heart of the CBD is far too dominated by government offices, of course (and this has a great deal to do with why Sparks Street is so dead outside of the business lunch rush), but it is still surrounded by residences, condos, shops, bars, and so on. So while it could be better, it could be a lot worse—one only needs to look at Tunney’s Pasture to see the effects of a strict, single-use area.

“2. Most blocks should be short; that is, streets and opportunities to turn corners must be frequent”

This is one of those things that tends to stop people up for a moment—it’s not instantly obvious what this has to do with good neighbourhoods. But when you think about it, it makes a lot of sense. After all, more opportunities to turn mean more ways to walk to your destination, further meaning you walk down more streets regularly. And it almost goes without saying that more people on the street is both better for business and for the general atmosphere of the sidewalks.

Again, Ottawa does fairly well here. Downtown is a fairly consistent grid, which keeps the length of blocks to around 200 metres, and affords many different routes for crossing the core. Occasional sidestreets help keep the grid from getting repetitive, too, and ensure many options for pedestrian traffic.

“3. The district must mingle buildings that vary in age and condition, including a good proportion of old ones”

Realistically, this has less to do with the buildings themselves, but the rents for space within them. Basically, new buildings cost more, thus it’s more expensive to live or set-up shop in them. Simple enough, and it serves to aptly explain why Shopper’s Drug Mart springs up on the ground floor of new condo towers and used book stores don’t.

So how does downtown Ottawa do? Again, quite well. Granted, it’s tough to compare our downtown to somewhere like Manhattan (where Jacobs lived when she wrote her book) due to our high percentage of government offices. However, when you look at, say, residence buildings you can see a clear mix: from brand-new condos, to 1980s apartment buildings, to restored turn-of-the-century housing. Centretown certainly has a healthy mix of new and old housing.

“4. The district must have a sufficiently dense concentration of people, for whatever purpose they may be there. This includes people there for residence.”

Again, this is pretty simple and straightforward: the more people in an area, the more vibrant it will be. This does seem obvious today, but at the time Jacobs wrote her book, density was viewed as a bad thing, often explicitly connected to urban poverty. The truth, of course, is far more complex than this

Density is certainly something Centretown has in spades. As defined by Census Canada, the neighbourhood is just over two square kilometres, but with over 20,000 people living within its boundaries. At the same time, the area hardly feels crowded: it’s busy, but there’s a lot of space, and a lot of quieter streets to be found.

Of course, this is but the briefest of introductions to Jane Jacobs’ ideas and no substitute for actually reading what she wrote. However, examining  these four conditions as the reveal themselves in  downtown Ottawa serves to illustrate what is possibly the most important lesson to take away from Death and Life: observing the city closely is the best way to know it. Even if you never get around to reading it, by doing that one simple thing, you are following in her footsteps.

3 comments

  1. I finally went out and bought her book (“Death and Life”). Financing is a huge issue also. And then I just finished reading “Suburban Nation” by the folks who planned and built Seaside, Florida. Also fascinating reading, about how you can’t get there from here without a car, and now, with so many cars, you can’t even do that. And how the requirement for families to have a car for each adult impoverishes the family. And so on.

    When I looked at that hideous drawing that starts this post, the initials that sprang to my mind were not “WWJJD” but WTF.

  2. It’s true that Centretown scores fairly well, but it falls short in a few areas. The highest residential denisty is in those few blocks of very high towers around Laurier near Bronson, yet they are the most isolated from commercial and retail services. Yet along the south end of Bank Street, there isn’t really enoug density to support a healthy commercial strip. Hopefull the new Central condos will help there (they seem to have already brought the Royal Bank back to the neighbourhood).

  3. Just commenting on the image: a 17-lane, sunken expressway that would “marshal” all traffic?  *Trap* all traffic would be more like it.  Imagine trying to get a tow-truck or emergency services down there.  It’s a recipe for the ultimate traffic jam, with no way for traffic to route around an obstruction, so I’m very glad it was never built!

    I’d like to see someone use Jacob’s work coupled with network insights — I think that’s a very fruitful intersection.

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