Next City Cafe: Seeing the Suburbs

The last Next City Cafe of the season looked at what Suburban Ottawa is really like for the people who are daily involved in these spaces and what needs to be done to make the suburban landscape better.  Five fantastic panelists along with an enthusiastic audience talked about their experiences working, living, developing and planning suburban Ottawa.

The participants were asked about their personal perspectives of Suburban Ottawa and discussed the challenges and benefits of suburban living and what drives people to move to the suburbs.  Discussed were difficulties with public transportation, the need for better access to community and social services and the desire of most suburban residents to live in more walkable, healthier communities just like their urban neighbours.   One participant talked about the popsicle test – a test of walkability where everyone should be able to walk to the store to buy a popsicle and walk back to their house without it melting.

Many of these points were further highlighted by the five panelists.

First to talk was Julia Valley, the Youth Community Developer at the Western Ottawa Community Resource Centre. She works with youth, parents, schools, and community partners to address youth-related trends in the regions of Kanata, Stittsville, West Carleton, and rural Goulbourn.  She discussed the misconception that poverty doesn’t exist in Suburban Ottawa.  Through her experiences, she has seen the reality of suburban poverty where a lack of funding for social support services increases the pressures of poverty.  This is exacerbated because suburban neighbourhoods are not identified as priority neighbourhoods by the City of Ottawa and are disconnected from the central Ottawa neighbourhoods that house these services.

Next to speak was Marc Magierowicz, a planner with the City of Ottawa who works in the Ottawa West Suburban Area.  Marc talked about the need to retrofit suburbs to increase their density, allow for viable commercial centers that can be easily accessed without a car and promote job growth that reduces the need to commute long distances for work.   He also discussed the challenges City planners have promoting the construction or retrofitting of healthy communities when working with developers who only want to develop part of a community – either the residential or the commercial but do not have the skills or the desire to work to integrate the two.

Akash Sinha, president of Dharma Development, spoke next.  Many participants were surprised that his ideas and thoughts about suburban development were in agreement with the City planner Marc Magierowicz.  He said that many of the reasons that developers don’t work harder to build suburban communities that are complete and walkable communities has to do with city regulations.  He cited the snow plow regulation as one that was particularly problematic.  Having to design a community around the snowplow, for instance, eliminates opportunities for more creative development in the suburbs.  Parking regulations are another barrier that force developers to plan for a certain number of spots instead of building more dense communities.  He also agrees that developers need to do more to be innovative.

Arras Hopkins, an actor, director and theatre teacher recently moved to Orleans from Hintonburg with his wife and two young sons.  His perspectives on arts and culture in suburban Ottawa shed light on what makes a healthy community.  He remarked on how important it is to peel back the layers of suburban life to see, the often vibrant, culture within.

Finally, Mandy McCrone, recently led a Jane’s Walk in the community of Barrhaven where she lives entitled “Barrhaven without a car”. She believes that it is possible to live in parts of suburban Ottawa without a car but there still needs to be a push to design or retrofit suburbs so that people have less of a reason to get into their cars.  This means making suburban communities walkable- including easy access to groceries, services and bus routes.  It also means identifying the barriers that currently exist – such as an inhospitable highway overpass that links suburban Barrhaven to transit – and making changes that allow for more pedestrian friendly access.

After the panelists spoke there was an interesting discussion where some provocative questions were raised:

-How do we avoid the cookie cutter approach to development and promote innovation in suburban Ottawa?
-Is it possible to retofit a suburb into a complete community?
-What are some suburban community models that are succeeding?  How can we incorporate these models into Ottawa suburban development?
-What is needed to build community in the suburbs?

During the last few minutes of the evening, participants were asked what they think Ottawa needs to do to make the suburbs better.   Here are some of the ideas:

  • create public squares and spaces in the suburbs
  • make sure regional transit becomes a reality
  • prioritize the creation of social hubs within suburban communities to connect people and help residents themselves build their communities
  • encourage home businesses, basement apartments to create more employment options within the suburbs
  • bring the arts to the suburbs -create affordable artist studio space for artists being pushed out of downtown by gentrification
  • see the suburbs as an opportunity to recreate affordable, walkable communities

We look forward to seeing you next year at the Next City Cafe.  If you have any topic ideas or want to help organize a session please contact Allegra Newman at allegra.newman@gmail.com

One comment

  1. like the popscicle test! would love to know what came out of the reimagining green spaces panel awhile back!

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