Archive for the 'thoughts' Category

23
Jul
10

The little things: Simple ways to make Ottawa better

Well, it’s been a while, and for that, I apologize. For whatever reason, I just haven’t been getting around to blogging over the past few months, but I’ve decided to make a return to form and start posting content again.

For today, I thought I’d get away from the big issues, quite literally, and look at a couple of little details that could make Ottawa a better place. For starters, there’s this post on the OC Transpo Livejournal community, which talks about how the City is potentially not scheduling its hybrid buses effectively. As the poster notes, there are more than enough buses to cover the downtown and core routes where they’d be most efficient, yet it seems they are not always being used on those runs. To me, it seems like it would be a relatively simple task to prioritize hybrids for those runs, so why isn’t OC Transpo doing so? I certainly don’t have the answer, but it would be nice to know their justification.

My second item for today is an even smaller one, but it could be seen as emblematic of a larger issue. I was crossing Elgin Street recently at Slater, and as I dashed across the last section to beat the sudden onset of the flashing hand, I began to wonder why all the crossings on Elgin from Laurier to the north are so poorly timed for pedestrians? Granted, that part of Elgin is one of the few places in the City with good pedestrian islands, but the crossings are done so that when the “Don’t walk” begins to flash, even a quick walker only has enough time to reach the island before the light changes.

The problem here is that, generally speaking, you should have enough time to fully cross the street when the signal begins to flash. Instead, if you begin crossing at that point on Elgin, you’ll find yourself stuck in the middle of traffic, forcing you to wait for at least one full traffic cycle to finish crossing—more, if you want to cross the perpendicular street, too. I believe it’s something the City should look into changing, or that they should at least consider installing countdown signals there, so that pedestrians won’t be surprised by the quick timing of the change. It would certainly be a big help towards improving one of the most unfortunately pedestrian-unfriendly streets in downtown Ottawa.

My question to you, then, reader, is what little things do you notice that could improve day-to-day life in Ottawa? I’m sure we all encounter them, and I’d love to hear what your ideas are.

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07
Aug
09

Default: Parks

David Reevely has an interesting post up about parks over at Greater Ottawa.

“Not that I’m against parks, at all. It’s just that I don’t think they’re automatically the best use of any vacant space. They can be hubs of community activity, sure, but only when they’re placed and configured right. The long spaghetti strands of greenspace we get along our waterways where commerce and other activities are all but forbidden, also thanks to the NCC, are a grievous underuse of places with tremendous potential.”

I have to agree with him on this. There is a tendency to default towards a “Well, let’s build a park, I guess” attitude whenever some major parcel of land is up for re-use. Like Mr. Reevely, I have no problem with parks; in fact, I love a good park. I even intended to do a series on Ottawa’s best parks over the summer in this space which unfortunately never got off the ground. But at the same time, simply defaulting towards parks is not necessarily the right way to go about development.

For instance, I’ve noticed that it seems to be common to make a park the focal point of new suburban developments. In some of the very new ones, you’ll find a sort of pseudo-roundabout with a medium-sized park in the middle, sometimes surrounded by townhouses or small apartments in an all-too-rare suburban nod towards smart growth.

An example of a suburban park with a roundabout in Orleans.

An example of a suburban park with a roundabout in Orleans.

You’ll notice from this example that the park is really just sort of there. It doesn’t act as any kind of focal point for the neighborhood, and doesn’t really give people much reason to go there, other than to let their dog have a run or toss around a football. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, but wouldn’t this particular piece of land be better used if there were, say, a few shops there? A convenience store, a coffee shop and a doctor’s office actually might create a place where people need to go, and act as a centre for the neighborhood, giving it some extra definition. Parks could still be built, and should be built, but as neighborhood centres, they tend to be failures.

Another example, of course—if you’ll excuse me while I grab a can opener for these worms—is the debate over Lansdowne Park. The Friends of Lansdowne Park seem to want to see professional sports completely removed from the park, and have it reserved for small-scale events only, such as the Farmer’s Market, citing a desire to create a Lansdowne Park for all Ottawans to enjoy. While this seems admirable on the surface, I’m not sure that replacing a stadium with a park would do much for the vitality of the Glebe. Instead of Ottawans having a reason to come to the site (for football, soccer, concerts, etc), it would become just another park. Why would anyone want to visit it when there are any number of nice parks that already exist along the Rideau Canal and River?

The fact of the matter is we simply need to think twice about parks before we plop them down everywhere. They’re definitely a necessity to make the city livable, but they’re often not the only thing worth building and it can be quite valuable to examine the alternatives before making any kind of decision.

17
Feb
09

Weighing in on atheist bus ads

“There probably is no god. Now stop worrying and enjoy your life.”

Twelve words that have caused a lot of controversy, and not just in Ottawa. They’re the text of a series of ads placed on buses in a number of cities around the world, including London (UK) and Toronto. In Ottawa, meanwhile, the ads were flatly rejected by OC Transpo, citing an advertising policy that states: “Religious advertising which promotes a specific ideology, ethic, point of view, policy or action, which in the opinion of the City might be deemed prejudicial to other religious groups or offensive to users of the transit system is not permitted. Religious advertising will be permitted if the information is designed to promote a specific meeting, gathering or event and the location, date and time of said event.”

That’s all well and good, and I can understand that policy perfectly, if it weren’t for this, from another article: “In 2007, OC Transpo approved ads for Bus Stop Bible Studies, a campaign on panels inside buses quoting scripture and asking life’s big questions. Roughly 2,400 ads have run in Calgary, Burlington and Toronto, but the sponsor has not yet raised enough money to place the ads on Ottawa buses.”

Regardless of the fact that these ads have not yet run, they were approved in principle well over a year ago. Based on the description, they seem to promote a clear religious ideology, but without being overly pushy or blatent, much like the proposed atheist ads. Of course, the subtext here is that qualifer on the first part of the policy, where the officials can deem something offensive. By extension, then, OC Transpo has basically just gone ahead and called atheism offensive.

Now, I’m an atheist, so I have a clear bias here. I’ve always felt fairly lucky to live when and where I do, because I’ve never really felt discriminated against for my beliefs, but this is a slap in the face. Based on the precedent of approving the Bus Stop Bible Studies campaign, there is absolutely no reason why the atheist campaign should be rejected. Really, it just makes the city look very close-minded and conservative, which is certainly not the image we should be projecting as Canada’s fourth largest urban area and national capital. In short, the decision is ridiculous, discriminatory, and borderline offensive.

The larger question, of course, is whether or not religious ads should be allowed at all in the public realm, to which I would say no. Religious debate is a tricky thing, and by wading into it—as seen in this case—officials risk being seen as taking sides and causing conflict. In private publications and the like is one thing, but with government-owned organizations like OC Transpo, there probably is a line that should be drawn.

All of that aside, though, I will be following this debate and how it turns out very closely. With any luck, a solution that is equitable to all will be found soon.

20
Dec
08

What kind of Ottawa do you want?

The subject of this post is the challenge raised by the Ottawa Citizen‘s Ken Gray in his column today. Others have already posted their remarks on the subject, such as here and here (and, please, let me know if you know of any others) and I decided that I should chime in with my own thoughts.

First of all, I think that the biggest thing I want Ottawa to become is a city that Ottawans are proud of, not one we are merely content with. I want Ottawans to be able to love their city the way Torontonians, Montrealers, New Yorkers and Londoners do. People will say things like, “Sure Ottawa isn’t exciting like Toronto or Montreal, but there’s so much green space and housing is cheap”, but why can’t we be exciting, too?

Let’s create a city that can finally shed that label of being a sleepy government town. Let’s rejuvanate the CBD by building more condos and apartments to replace parking lots,  and encouraging the creation of bigger and better shopping and entertainment districts.  Maybe that way the streets of downtown won’t be virtually abandoned by 7 p.m. every evening.  Let’s make a city where people can live, work and play.

But we can’t end there. We have to dream big, and embrace the fact that we are Canada’s capital and the fourth largest city in the country and that our city should reflect that. Let’s build infrastructure that stands out because of how well it’s made: proposals like Lansdowne Live! and the DOTT are steps in that direction. Both show that we aren’t afraid to dream big, so all we need to do is start making those dreams a reality.

And while we’re at it (and I know this is a tall order) let’s try and cut down on the petty squabling. I’m sick of City Council fighting over the budget every year because they haven’t managed funds properly and threatening to cut programs that are important to the city’s health. Let’s get some real leadership at City Hall, people who aren’t afraid to get things done and know how to respond to the needs of the city.

Lastly, there’s one thing I don’t want to change. I want Ottawans to care about what goes on, like they did when arts funding was threatened during the budget deliberations. A city is meaningless without its citizens, and the more engaged we are in what goes around us, the city will be better for it. We won’t always agree, and some issues may even bitterly divide people between different opinions, but that, too, will just make Ottawa a better place. We have the potential to be—and really should be—a great world city. But unless we work together, it will never happen. And that would be a tragic waste.

18
Dec
08

Mapping neighborhoods

If you’ve taken the time to browse through the links on the sidebar of this blog, you may have stumbled across my ongoing project to map the neighborhoods of Ottawa, a project that’s gotten so big Google Maps split into two pieces on me. What I’m starting to find interesting as I spread out into mapping the suburbs is when I start to debate what these shapes on the map actually mean.

For example, here’s central Ottawa, which still includes a wonky little splinter of a neighborhood because of conflicting Wikipedia descriptions:

Neighborhoods of central Ottawa

Neighborhoods of central Ottawa

Again, I stress that this is a work-in-progress, hence there are gaps and things that need to be fixed. But I digress; what I want to get across with this map is that one only really needs a passing knowledge of Ottawa and the ability to read a map to know what some of these neighborhoods are. Places like the ByWard Market, Lowertown, Sandy Hill, Centertown and the Glebe are all clearly visible and easy to pick out. Now, here’s Kanata:

Neighborhoods of Kanata

Neighborhoods of Kanata

Can you pick out Beaverbrook? No? Howabout Katimavik-Hazeldean? Or Glen Cairn? Chances are—unless you recognize a street name—you can’t. I wonder if people who even live in these neighborhoods can even name them, even though I was able to find reference to them online. Do people living on Knudson Drive really know that just by crossing the street, they can move from Beaverbrook to Marchwood-Lakeside? And do they feel any different, between the two places?

What I’m getting at here is something that I’ve always disliked about suburbs (and if you read this blog regularly, you know I’m no great fan of suburbanism). We lose much of our sense of place when we’re in a suburban area, because it feels just like almost any other suburban area, barring differences of climate and geography. Yet if you plonk down someone who’s never been in Ottawa before and tell them to walk down Bank Street, they can probably tell the difference between the CBD, southern Centertown, the Glebe, Old Ottawa South and Billing’s Bridge. Why? Because they’re all appreciably different places with appreciably different feels to them, wheras one part of Kanata, Orleans or Barrhaven feels much like any other.

Now, the reality is, suburbs exist, and there’s not much we can do now but deal with that fact, but is it too much to ask to try and imbue our newly created neighborhoods with the same sense of individuality that our old ones have? There’s nothing quite like living in a place you can call unique; it tends to improve your relationship with the city and people around you, and increaing your appreciation of the city’s built form. Sure, it may not even by a concious thought for most people, but it still happens whether you’re aware of it or not. As we rethink how to build cities into the future, let’s not forget how important concepts of uniqueness and community can be.




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