Archive Page 2

15
Oct
09

Book review: Wrestling with Moses

Hello again, everyone. It’s been a while since I’ve written anything here, other obligations (namely a certain other publication that I write and edit for)  having taken up a fair amount of my time lately. However, I recently finished reading Anthony Flint‘s Wrestling with Moses, and felt I needed to share my thoughts, as it’s a fascinating read on the roles of both citizen activism and top-down development schemes in North American cities.

Wrestling with Moses, by Anthony Flint. Image copywrite Random House, Inc.

Wrestling with Moses, by Anthony Flint. Cover image copywrite Random House, Inc.

As you can probably tell from the cover, the book has nothing to do with Ottawa in any direct sense, but it’s an interesting read nevertheless. It tells the story of famed urbanist Jane Jacobs‘ battles with urban development czar Robert Moses during the 1950s and 60s in New York City. Jacobs and Moses squared off several times, notably over the redevelopment of Washington Square Park and Greenwich Village, and over the construction of the Lower Manhattan Expressway. Flint recounts the history of these conflicts by interweaving biographical details about the lives of both Jacobs and Moses with the details of each of the fights.

The contrast between the two figures is incredible, with Moses epitomizing the auto-centric, developer-friendly attitude that reached its height during the period following the Second World War, and Jacobs the grassroots, community-first urbanist theories which many people—myself included—subscribe to today. Flint is able to tease out how both of these figures came to their influential positions (Moses through careful political maneuvering, Jacobs  through cultivating the support of her fellow city-dwellers) and how their came to their respective beliefs. We’ve seen both these forces act upon the history of Ottawa, as well, with the National Capital Commission taking on a Moses-esque role—witness the destruction of LeBreton Flats, and the vast network of “parkways” that criss-crosses the capital region—and Jacobsian community forces leading to the rise of neighborhoods like the Glebe and Westboro.

What I find truly interesting and refreshing about Flint’s approach to this somewhat-familiar urban conflict is that he does not vilify Moses to any great extreme, nor does he deify Jacobs, both of which are far too easy to do. Instead, he presents them as people—neither was perfect, and neither was entirely right nor wrong. In the case of Moses, Flint makes the interesting point that while it’s easy to focus on his large-scale failures, like the aforementioned battles with Jacobs and the Cross-Bronx Expressway, he also did a lot of good for New York City, opening hundreds of public parks and swimming pools, and it’s impossible to deny that even amidst the backdrop of the Great Depression, he was able to get infrastructure built. Of course, he did so while railroading it past communities and with little regard for things like public transportation, but Flint is still able to elevate the man beyond a two-dimensional cartoonish urban villain.

On the Jacobs side of the equation, while it is impossible to deny her far-ranging influence on urban planning and urbanist thought, Flint still acknowledges some of the weaknesses in her ideas, like the fact that she was never able to truly deal with the problem of gentrification. In addition, he also makes the case that Jacobs-style community activism can sometimes go too far, blocking projects that would otherwise be good for cities and neighborhoods, or neutering them so that their impact is thoroughly mediocre, and neither positive nor negative. Ultimately, Flint argues that the best way to plan cities may be by reconciling the two viewpoints—those in charge of developments need to work with communities, but communities must also work with those in charge to ensure that projects meet and adapt to their own needs.

Overall, Wrestling with Moses is an engaging read, and an excellent history of how Jane Jacobs was able to change the face of urban planning through her work in New York City. Flint’s own viewpoints are mostly unobtrusive until the final chapter, where, his history complete, he allows himself to ruminate on the impact of Jacobs and Moses. If you’re at all interested in the history of urban planning in North America, and are curious how these now 40-year-old ideas apply to the modern city, then I highly recommend picking this one up—you won’t regret it.

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22
Sep
09

Found: Animated TTC vehicle map

This comes from out of town, but I needed to pass it along. It’s a video of the Toronto Transit Corporation’s scheduled vehicle movements throughout the day. It’s cool and rather hypnotic watching the grid burst into life in the morning, move steadily through the day and then die off into the evening. Be interesting to see what this would look like for Ottawa—certainly not as neat and orderly as Toronto’s wide grids.

(I recommend watching this one full-screen, by the way as it’s hard to make out in the normal size)

22
Sep
09

Urban Barrhaven?

When Ottawans think of dense, urban neighborhoods, chances are good that Barrhaven is not high up on the list. In fact, most of us probably wouldn’t even put it on the list in the first place. However, it seems that Minto is trying to change things with a proposed new town “centre” for Barrhaven. I’m chosing to put centre in quotation marks simply because this development is not so much central as it is stuck on the southern end of the suburb, but it is an intriguing proposal nevertheless.

First, let’s take a look at the proposed location.

Image courtesy of maps.bing.com

Image courtesy of maps.bing.com

Located south of Strandherd and west of Greenbank\Jockvale, this is very plainly a new development. There’s no real urban fabric on the site right now, as it’s merely a collection of fields south of a big box\power centre development. Unfortunately, this means that it is a greenfields development, and one that pushes the boundary of Barrhaven further south and west, which is the proposal’s most negative aspect. However, this is balanced by the nature of the proposal.

As described in the article linked, the development will be reasonably dense and mixed use, with 1,200 residential units. Even taking the most conservative population numbers (assuming one resident per unit) that represents a population density of about 95 people per hectare, putting it right up with many of Ottawa’s dense neighborhoods in the core. The addition of office and retail space, as well as nearby transit infrastructure with the southwest Transitway extension definitely makes this a very progressive proposal for an area like Barrhaven. And provided it complies with the City’s urban design guidelines, it could become a genuinely urban space.

I’m not without my reservations, however. It’s becoming more and more common for developers to claim they are building a “new downtown” somewhere—it’s currently happening all over the Greater Toronto Area in reaction to Ontario’s Places to Grow initiative—but it remains to be seen if any of them achieve a true urban experience. Perhaps the best case study we have for this kind of suburban downtown is Mississauga, which is quite dense and actually has one of Canada’s most significant concentrations of high-rise development, but is a long way from vibrant.

Downtown Mississauga. Image courtesy of sherrybrandy.

Downtown Mississauga.

(Image courtesy of sherrybrandy)

While dense, Mississauga is still fundamentally suburban in character. Roads are wide, and cars are still the prefered transportation mode, while buildings ignore the street. It’s a common shortfall of these kinds of developments, and one which the Minto development should strive to avoid. Mississauga is not a perfect analogue, of course, as there is no mall anchoring this development, and the overall height is lower, however there are lessons to be learned. Keep roadways narrow and stops for cars frequent, so that pedestrians have priority over traffic. Don’t forget the sidewalk, and have plenty of shops and buildings fronting directly upon it, while removing parking lots that face right onto the street.

Creating a downtown instead of having one growing organically is always a challenge. I think it can be done, given good design and by paying attention to the mistakes of the past. This is a potentially important development for Ottawa, and hopefully Minto can come up with something interesting and urban.

16
Sep
09

One step forward…

If you’ve ever wondered why it seems like nothing ever seems to get done in Ottawa, look no further than this story. Essentially, John Martin, a Glebe business owner, has filed a legal challenge against Lansdowne Live, claiming that it violates the City’s purchasing bylaws.

Now, I’ve remained quiet on the latest version of Lansdowne Live until now, but I think it’s time I said my piece. I’ll get back to the legal challenge in a moment, but first, let’s take a look at the plan itself.

The proposed site plan for Lansdowne Live

The proposed site plan for Lansdowne Live

So what do I like about the plan? Well, it’s mixed use—in accordance with the City’s master plan and stated goals to control sprawl through intensification. It adds a significant amount of greenery what is currently a concrete wasteland, preserves the heritage aspects of the site, provides space for the farmer’s market, and will provide amenities that the area is currently lacking, such as a modern movie theatre (which is Ottawa’s urban core sorely lacks). Of course, it will also completely refurbish Frank Clair Stadium, which is currently in a fairly decrepit state.

Frank Clair Stadium looking rather worse for the wear before a Gee-Gees football game on Sept. 6.

Frank Clair Stadium looking rather worse for the wear before a Gee-Gees football game on Sept. 6.

It isn’t a perfect plan, of course. The fact that it’s being built by a single developer means that the site could become very architecturally repetitive, which could make the site a little less interesting. It’s also somewhat unsettling that public land will be used for a private development, but then again it’s not as if the land will actually be sold, and it’s not like greenspace will be paved over or anything like that—in fact, it’s much closer to the opposite.

Overall, it’s a nice, solid plan that aims to accomplish quite a lot in a thoroughly urban manner. It isn’t flawless, but it also seems as though early fears over big box stores and power centres were rather unfounded.

The elephant in the room, meanwhile, is the procurement process, and the legal challenge I opened this post with. I’ll grant that we haven’t necessarily taken the best route to get to this plan, and that the design competition probably should have been cancelled. But I do think many people are romanticizing the design competition process.

For one, it was not a design competition in the sense of architects simply submitting ideas for the site, and the City selecting the one they liked best. Rather, it was a “rights to develop” competion, meaning that developers would be coming forwards with plans for the site, complete with a financial plan: how to fund the redevelopment, and how to keep it viable afterwords. That’s why the Lansdowne Live plan was such a knockout when it first appeared, as there was very clear local financial backing, as well as a tenant for Frank Clair in a resurrected Canadian Football League franchise, something that no other developer would be able to offer.

Another aspect of the competition worth mentioning is the fact that any Request For Proposals would very likely have called for a site plan that included both Frank Clair Stadium and the Civic Centre, as the City did not have any plans to move either facility. As well, removing the stadium would cause Ottawa-Gatineau to become North America’s only metro with a population greater than one million with no large stadium facility—not a situation we’d want to be facing. The stadium is notably missing from Martin’s own proposal for the site, meaning it likely would have been rejected from the competition. Martin did propose building a stadium at Bayview instead, but there are far too many unknowns for that to be a viable alternative right now.

So while we may not have taken the ideal route to get where we are, I don’t think it’s anywhere near as disaterous as people like Martin and Clive Doucet are making it out to be. And I fear that taking legal action against the plan will lead to the delay of it’s implementation, while an extremely valuable piece of Ottawa’s infrastructure crumbles before our eyes. Furthermore, if it is blocked, then it will undoubtably be years before we see any action at the site, furthering Ottawa’s unfortunate reputation as a backwater that can’t seem to get anything done, and killing any hope of getting professional football and soccer into the nation’s capital any time soon. That’s a scenario that I’d rather not contemplate.

10
Sep
09

Ottawa, a green destination

The Mother Nature Network—which I had not previously heard of—has named Ottawa as their green travel Destination of the Week. It’s an interesting read, discussing as it does all the reasons why they feel that Ottawa is an interesting, environmentally concious city. A few choice excerpts:

The green is easy to see in Canada’s capital. Aerial photos of summertime Ottawa reveal a tree-covered landscape that would seem suburban if it weren’t for the unmistakably urban architecture poking through the foliage. Not even the legendarily frigid Canadian winters are void of natural charms. Waterways used for boating in warmer weather are converted into skating rinks, and outdoor festivities continue year-round, regardless of the ambient temperature. There are more than 60 annual festivals in the Ottawa metro area each year.

Sure, the subtle quaintness of Ottawa might disappoint those who’ve already been seduced by Toronto’s diversity or Montreal’s Euro-American vibe, but the capital city offers one of the most pleasant and user-friendly travel experiences in northern North America.
Ottawa doesn’t often boast about its green features. The city’s breathable air and alternatives for carless commuters speak for themselves, Its green urban landscapes and multitude of outdoor activities complement the natural charms of Canada’s capital city.
I’m always fascinated to read an outsider’s perspective on our city, mostly because we have a bad habit of getting caught up around infighting and petty bickering over urban issues that it can be tough to see the big picture. We’re not without our problems, but it’s worth remembering that your average tourist comes away with a pretty positive image of our city. Granted, a tourist isn’t here long enough to see or understand the problems we do have, but perhaps that says something in of itself.
Sure we spend a lot of time complaining about OC Transpo and debating over our future LRT line, but at the same time, we still manage to have one of the most extensive and best-used transit systems in North America. We worry about bike infrastructure and bike safety, but what we have, again, is much more developed than many cities in the world. And we’re concerned over sprawl, and how to effectively contain our growing population, but without destroying the greenery and charm of many of our urban neighborhoods with excessive density, but again, we’re doing much better at it than places like the American Southwest.
This is not to say that Ottawa is a perfect place, but it is a very good one. And sometimes, we need an outsiders perspective to see just how well-off we really are.
(Thanks to Transit Ottawa for passing along the link)
08
Sep
09

A satyr twin: The Transitway anagram map

A bit of fun for all you transit riders: similar to the subway\metro anagram maps that have been created for cities like London and Toronto, someone has created a Transitway anagram map. You can see it on a thread over at Skyscraper Pages. Be warned, some of the station anagrams are NSFW, so if your boss\IT department is particularly sensitive, you may not wish to click through until you get home.

Some of them are amusingly appropriate, too. My favourites are “Gasolene” at the Eagleson Park & Ride, “Rusty Senate Pun” at Tunney’s Pasture, and “Lone Mart” at Montreal. Campus is also entertaining, but I’m going to refrain from posting that particular anagram here…

03
Sep
09

On developers

I’m going to refrain from comment on the new Lansdowne Live plan for now, mostly because there’s a lot of kneejerk reaction out there right now, and I don’t think I can say much at this point that will add anything to the debate. Maybe in a few days, but for now, I’ll be keeping quiet about it in this space.

That aside, watching the reactions has got me thinking about the way we think about large developers like Minto and Claridge in today’s cities. To read some of the comments on the Citizen and the CBC (and yes, I know, comments at online news sites do trend towards being overly hysteric, no matter the viewpoint) you would think that there is a vast conspiracy at play at City Hall, and that anyone who speaks up in favour of Lansdowne Live is obviously a plant charged with playing up the plan. This, I think, all stems from the fact that to some, developers are inherently evil and want nothing more than to steamroll over our precious land and turn it into money factories.

Now I’m not necessarily saying that developers are necessarily good, either—take Minto’s gargantuan sprawling subdivision planned for Manotick, for example—it’s more that to paint them solely with either brush is, frankly, a little ridiculous. The fact is, developers are important to urban places, whether we like it or not. Without them, cities would be stagnant, as civic projects can’t do everything, and nor should they. Someone needs to build new homes, condos, shops and offices and the average private citizen doesn’t have the assets to do so themselves, which ultimately leaves it up to the corporations.

What I’m trying to say here is that we, as urban citizens, need to rethink how we interact with developers just as they need to rethink how they interact with us. We want the places we call home to be vibrant, liveable spaces, whilst developers want to be able to turn a profit off of constructing new buildings. What we need, then, is more dialogue: communities should interact with developers to tell them what they want to see, while developers should interact with the community to ensure that they’re going to be building something that people actually want.

Fortunately, this seems to be happening in some cases. Take the Westboro Collection project, for example, where the developer has openly posted the community comments they recieved on their website (PDF warning). It’s a small thing, but I think it’s exactly the sort of step we need to be taking both to improve the dialogue surrounding future developments in this city, and to ensure that those same developments will improve the cityscape. That, in my mind, will be a key element in making Ottawa a place people truly want to live.




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