Last night’s lecture entitled “The Healthy City: Shaping the Public Realm” by Suzanne H. Crowhurst Lennard, Ph.D. (Arch) presented suggestions on how to improve North American cities and create healthier urban spaces for the public.
Dr. Crowhurst Lennard advocated that economically and socially diverse cities can support a healthy ‘social immune system’ in individual citizens and the collective community. When we frequently interact with others in the public realm and form relationships within our city, we become more cheerful, informed, and fulfilled citizens.
Children and the elderly tend to have the widest range of social and economic urban design needs when it comes to the city: children need open spaces safe for playing and socializing; the elderly need safe routes for walking to shops and interacting with friends. Dr. Crowhurst Lennard suggested that designing cities to suit mobility and social needs of children and the elderly is one of the keys to a socially healthy city. Indeed, city planning must be careful to take into account the needs of all generations.
One common theme throughout the lecture was the belief that the creation of public social spaces, such as the urban plaza or square, designed for serendipitous and unplanned meeting was what made a city socially healthy. Giving people the opportunity to interact, celebrate, and even eat together is imperative to building relationships and forming bonds among neighbours, thus creating stronger communities and eventually stronger cities.
Urban plazas, located at the center of neighbourhoods and cities provide the most opportunity for serendipitous community building because they support festivals and celebrations along with the needs of daily urban life, such as markets and dining. It has been suggested that Ottawa’s public markets, squares, and centres are a bit lack luster or uneventful, and that we need to figure out how to better support them so that they may thrive and grow. Urban spaces such as Sparks Street and the Byward Market appear to be either tourist destinations or 9-5 hubs. One observation Dr. Crowhurst Lennar — who was in town from Portland, Oregon — shared from her visit to the Byward Market was that the abundance of cars and the significant (though locals would disagree) allocation of land to parking spaces may be hindering the Market’s potential to become a truly great urban space.
Shifting priorities for independent mobility, for all generations of citizens, to favour first pedestrians, then cyclists, then mass transit, and then finally cars was, as can be expected, Dr. Crowhurst Lennar’s most controversial point of the evening. In her view, healthy cities were compact, dense, built to a human scale, and they thrived socially and economically from a more democratic and inclusive stance on transportation.
The planning of the LRT and the development of lands surrounding the stations may well be Ottawa’s opportunity to create the safe, socially healthy, accessible, enjoyable, multi-functional spaces Dr. Crowhurst Lennar’s lecture reminded us to strive for. How will these spaces be paid for, maintained, and kept secure? How can we accommodate more democratic means of transport in this very car-oriented city? How can we ensure that designed spaces promote physical health as well as the social? How can we make urban living more attractive to young families and first time home buyers who are preferring to make a life in the suburbs? And most important to achieving truly socially diverse urban pockets throughout Ottawa: how do we lessen the effects of gentrification to avoid alienating those who would most benefit from walkability, the security of eyes on the street, and economic and social stability of a healthy urban social immune system? These are the questions that planners, developers, public health workers, designers, elected officials and citizens alike need to consider to nurture a healthy evolution in urban Ottawa.
Article co-authored by Brynne Campbell and Kristina Corre
Image by Ian Muttoo
The Urban Forum is presented by the City of Ottawa, the Ontario Professional Planners Institute, Architecture Canada, the Ottawa Regional Society of Architects, and the Ontario Association of Landscape Architects. It is the longest running free urban lecture series in Canada.