MIGUELEZ: Five Reasons Intensification Will Work

Apartments, townhomes, condo lofts: well-established Hintonburg intensification, on site of abandoned factory - 3 minute walk from rapid transit.

Editor’s note:

For residents of Ottawa’s core neighbourhoods, change is in the air. Mainstreets from Westboro to Centretown have being rejuvenated, residential towers are shooting up in the Rideau Street/Market area, the Wellington-Richmond corridor is booming with condo construction, and long-dormant brownfield sites near Carling and Preston are attracting some of the tallest building height in the city. From Churchill Avenue in the west to King Edward Avenue in the east, everywhere it seems intensification is gathering pace and actually happening, after years of being talked about.

But if Ottawa has indeed reached a tipping point where intensification has been accepted as the way forward, what will it actually mean for the way we live in our city?

Are there dangers? If so, what are they? And should the opportunities intensification provides outweigh them? What are those opportunities exactly?

To find out, we asked two well-known urbanists to take sides on the debate. In today’s installment, urban planner Alain Miguelez makes the case for intensification. Tomorrow, long-time community activist Jay Baltz will look carefully at the possible dangers and pitfalls of Ottawa’s intensification strategy.

Here’s Alain:
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1. PROXIMITY

Humankind can expend lots of energy and brainpower to make “far-ness” more “sustainable” (electric cars, for instance), but if we’re all driving clean-energy vehicles and are still stuck in traffic on the Queensway, we’re no further ahead. Building “green” buildings that recover all the rainwater that falls on them and draw geothermal heat is good, but if we have to road-rage on highways for half an hour to get to them, they’re not really “sustainable”. Achieving “near-ness” is the real answer. Having human beings live near the things they need and want is the true sustainable way to build cities.

2. CRITICAL MASS

How many local residents are needed to justify a new library, community centre, frequent transit service, a grocery store, a school, a liquor store, a hardware store, a pool? Asking that question, and finding ways to link the achievement of those critical masses with the provision of proximity services, is an emerging concern in Ottawa’s urban planning. There are neighbourhoods today that are walkable, but not yet populated enough to make them “full-service neighbourhoods”. “Density” may be a dirty word for some, but in practical terms, the choice is either to aim for local critical mass at the neighbourhood level, or leave them “intact” and have everyone continue to rely on the car. It’s either “far-ness” by design or “near-ness” by design. It’s either “leave me alone so my streets don’t get busier and I can continue driving freely”, or “bring on new neighbours that will strengthen my neighbourhood so we can all benefit from the improved nearby services that our population will justify.”

3. WELL-MANAGED COHABITATION

Human beings are social animals. They thrive in groups. They whither and stagnate when isolated. As Jane Jacobs pointed out in Cities and the Wealth of Nations, truly sound urban economies only flourish when opportunities for human interaction are multiplied. In daily life, this presents challenges. Noisy students partying in rented houses next to parents with young children; night shift workers coming and going when others are asleep; music festivals with stages near residential areas; people parking on side streets to go shop on mainstreets; all these interactions have to be well managed. The answer is not mindless segregation, it is socialization. The sharing of urban space has to be done with courtesy and respect. We should sanction anti-social behaviour and disrespect, and let the majority enjoy the benefits and joy of lively and diverse urban neighbourhoods. That is the true definition of citizenship.

4. PEDESTRIAN COMFORT

For “near-ness” to be functional and enjoyable, pedestrians have to instinctively feel comfortable. This means making choices that place the public pedestrian realm as top priority in planning. The biggest challenge to pedestrian comfort in North America is how we accommodate the car. We know that cars are and will be part of our cities for the foreseeable future. How we store them, how we make them interact with pedestrians, how fast we let them drive, still reflects a car-priority bias. The changes being prepared by the Planning Department to the zoning rules for the design of infill housing in established (pedestrian-friendly) neighbourhoods is one of many initiatives Ottawa is pursuing toward making intensification more pedestrian-friendly. Signing the Pedestrian Charter would be a natural next step. Fixing dozens of rules and legacies from the car era is what awaits us in the next decade. I’d love to see a “Front Yard Parking Elimination Incentive Program”: every property owner with legal front yard parking receives a 10-year free street parking permit and two trees if they re-green their front yard. We should also be expanding on-street parking: parked cars slow traffic, add pedestrians (drivers coming and going from their parked cars) and therefore eyes on the street, and introduce a buffer between moving traffic and people (maybe children on tricycles) on the sidewalk. There should be police blitzes targeting drivers who park on sidewalks or on bike lanes.

5. URBAN DESIGN AND ARCHITECTURE

The city, above all, must look good. Density, ultimately, is just a mathematical calculation. How we integrate a greater number of residents into an established urban fabric boils down to how good the street looks and how well it functions once the new construction is in place. Good urban design doesn’t always mean making new buildings look exactly the same as the ones already there. Respect for scale and mass are important, but demanding that everything be the same scale and mass is sometimes an incomplete solution. Being able to smartly integrate larger buildings into their context, where appropriate, is an art form, and it can be done. More experienced cities amply demonstrate this. Other needed ingredients in urban design are reaching critical masses, achieving proximity, making good neighbours of new buildings and their residents, and enhancing the pedestrian realm for all. A mature urban design dialogue starts with acknowledging that our future is urban. Expressing that urbanity well is the real substance of that dialogue.

3 comments

  1. Alain is right that transportation is critical to a better city. Cars, their roads and parking spots, need to be given less space and lower priority. Good public transit, bikes and walking need to be prioritized. Density can have positive effects, economic, social, environmental. But how it is done is important. Jay Baltz in the accompanying article has a point that much of Ottawa’s recent planning is site by site, chaotic, and architecturally of mixed quality.

  2. NICE TALK — BUT WHERE’S THE ‘WALK’???

    The Overbrook community association experience with M. Miguelez and City Planning on an intensification process in our area. The project in question ‘Lepine development’ was of no benefit to the community — but a cynical ploy to shoe-horn a hi-rise rental apartment building (excessive height of 59m/15 storeys and high density) into a small site that backed onto existing single family two-storey houses — with inadequate spacing and set-backs that failed to meet the ‘voluntary’ design guidelines of the City — and with a dedicated driveway access to the Vanier Parkway (to promote private vehicle use) that violated the 1974 NCC-City Agreement on the transfer of the Vanier Parkway for ‘parkway’ arterial use. The community were not/not offered recourse to a Third Party Design Review process — because (so we heard) the project didn’t meet the criteria for that review. But WHY was that? Well might you ask! Because the criteria for Third Party Design Review are identical criteria as for Intensification under the City’s Official Plan — and the project didn’t meet those either….!!!!!! (CONFUSED?) No amount of City Planning Staff logic could every solve that little conundrum. The site was inappropriate for intensification — except if ‘intensification’ means getting whatever you can get by the Planning Committee with the help of Consultants who are former City staff — and of great help to City Planners…… WAIT TILL YOU GET TO SEE IT!!!!. A MONUMENT TO ALL THESE GREAT PRINCIPLES…………..

  3. WALK THE WALK — DON’T TALK THE TALK My Overbrook community saw no evidence of any high principles when an intensification project (59m height / 15 storeys / 300+ units) was shoe-horned into a tiny site — with inadequate minimum set-backs and a bit ‘middle-finger’ to the neighbouring single-family two-storey homes. What would Jane Jacobs have said to that???????

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