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.
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.