Posts Tagged ‘infrastructure

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.

02
Feb
10

Trains to return to Ottawa’s Union Station?

Ottawa’s Union Station: it’s a majestic old building, a half-scale replica of New York City’s old Penn Station, and unfortunately underused. Since 1966, when the National Capital Commission removed rail from downtown, the building has been used as a government conference centre, rather than a hub for rail travelers. However, a recent article on CBC News reported that trains may yet return to Union Station, in the form of a station on the new light rail system—taking the place of the Rideau\Sussex station in the proposal.

Ottawa's Union Station. Image by spotmaticfanatic on Flickr.

Certainly as it stands right now, Union Station is a tragically under-appreciated piece of infrastructure. As a government conference centre, the average Ottawan has few opportunities to go inside the structure. As the main hall of a transit station, commuters would be able to use this suddenly re-opened public space on a daily basis.

But in my mind, that’s not all that could be done with the station. I don’t know the interior dimensions of the building, but I would imagine that a transit station would only take up a small portion of the available volume, and other transportation infrastructure (commuter rail, and intercity bus and rail) probably won’t be able to serve the location, meaning no space would need to be set aside for them. So with that in mind, what could be done? One of the things that Ottawa lacks is a real civic place, one to celebrate Ottawa itself. Over the years as a national capital, the federal government has eclipsed the city, and it’s only been in the last few decades that we’ve really begun to find our identity as a municipality instead of as a capital.

So why not this: in our hypothetical, future train station, you walk in the front doors to a lobby, with transit facilities to one side, and perhaps benches and chairs with the odd cafe or two along the edges of the area. Taking up the rest of the space inside could be a City of Ottawa museum, celebrating our history, from rough logging town to major Canadian metropolis. It could even include artifacts that tie in with the location, like the old streetcars OC Transpo is slowly attempting to restore. Granted, we do already have the Bytown Museum, but it could still comfortably fill a role as a museum predominantly about the canal, while the Union Station museum could be about the rest of the city.

This, of course, is just a suggestion—a museum is just one option, but the overriding point is that we may have an opportunity to create a fantastic new public space, and the standard option of renting out space for shops and restaurants would be a tragic waste. The simple return of transit, of course, would benefit the building enormously by itself, but I can’t help but feel we could do so much more. These kinds of opportunities only come along once and a while, and I think it’s important to jump on it when and if we can.

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.

20
Aug
09

No parking—not if it’s a guitar, at least

It’s kind of slipped under the radar here in Ottawa, but if you haven’t heard 2009 is the last year that buskers will be able to freely set-up shop in the ByWard Market to play for passers-by. That’s because—as of next year—they will have to purchase a permit from the City in order to play. Costing either $10 for a single day, or $100 for the entire season, buskers will then be able to play for up to six hours a day, provided they don’t spend more than one hour in any one location. According to the City, this will be put in place to minimize disputes that may occur between buskers over prime locations.

Now I don’t exactly spend hours every day observing the activities and interactions of the buskers in the market, but in the four years I’ve lived in this city, I’ve only ever seen one argument over whether or not someone can play in a particular spot (it was right in front of the Beavertails, incidentally). Furthermore, any time I’ve seen buskers interacting, it’s looked pretty amicable to me, and I can’t ever recall seeing a situation where City workers or the Ottawa Police had to intervene. This is all anecdotal, of course, and I’m an outsider to the busking world, but that’s my perspective on the matter.

At the end of the day, though, I can’t help but find this a little disturbing. Sidewalks, especially in an area like the Market, are one of the city’s most fundamental public places. It’s where urban-dwellers, suburbanites, tourists, the rich, the poor, and everyone in between brushes up against one another, and they are traditionally the place where people are able to excercise their right to freedom of expression. And, of course, their right to perform, which can include things like sidewalk chalk drawings, people pretending to be statues, and music, whether it be a beautiful classic violin piece or someone hacking their way through a Neil Young song. No matter what, buskers and street artists are invaluable in adding vibrancy and colour (sometimes literally) to the street.

This move to require buskers to purchase permits smacks of the City trying to manage just who comes out to busk. The Market attracts many highly skilled buskers, but also those who are less talented. The latter category, from my observations, seem to be more likely to be homeless or down-on-their-luck, and are precisely the sort of people who would likely be unable to afford to invest in a permit. It reminds me far too much of the way the underpass between the Government Conference Centre and Sussex Avenue is turned into a regulated art and performance space during tourist season in order to discourage homeless people from gathering underneath it. In both cases, an “out of sight, out of mind” attitude appears to be the prevelant one, which I find to be unfortunate.

My other major concern here is that overregulation has an unfortunate tendancy to negatively impact public spaces. I’m not expecting the death of the Market, but it might just lose a little bit of its vibrancy if buskers find it tough to set up shop. You only have to look at Sparks Street to see what happens when a public space is too tightly controlled; in that case, the National Capital Commission has regulated a formerly integral part of the downtown core nearly to death. It’s a cautionary tale, and a policy direction that should be avoided if at all possible.

Just one more quick note, I wanted to extend my thanks to Ottawa Start for including me in their list of 30 essential Ottawa blogs. There are some good reads in there, and I recommend browsing through and checking some of them out.

14
Aug
09

The City weighs in on Intensification

The City released an interesting educational video recently (it might have been today, I can never tell as the City doesn’t date anything on their website) on the role that LRT and intensification could play in the future of the city. You can find it here.

It’s about 15 minutes long, and it briefly covers a number of topics, including:

  • A brief history of Ottawa’s development and subsequent suburbanization
  • The problems that suburbanization has caused, and why intensification is important
  • The definition of intensification, and how it would affect Ottawa
  • Which areas of the city are best-suited to intensification
  • The consquences of not intensifying the city

It’s a surprisingly balanced video for a release by a government on an important piece of policy, and does a good job of covering many of the issues that are likely to come up for urban development over the next 20–30 years. It’s also rather interesting to note the tone of the video, and some of the arguements made, as it’s very clearly directed at changing the opinions of suburbanites. The video makes a strong financial arguement in favour of intensification, and notes that places like Kanata, Orleans and Barrhaven will require higher population densities before LRT can be built out to them—infrastructure bribery, I guess. It’s also fairly critical of the car-dependent lifestyle, and really plays up the importance of walkable neighborhoods.

At any rate, it’s an interesting glimpse at how the suburban inertia of development is finally starting to shift towards a new paradigm. It’s certainly a fascinating time to be an urbanist, as we watch cities come to grips with the reality of the future, and attempt to adapt to changing attitudes. This video certainly shows that even though we’re ahead of the curve as far as North American cities go, we’ve got a long way to go before we get where we’re going, even if we don’t necessarily know where that is.

12
Jul
09

Main Street and wires

Despite it’s name, Ottawa’s Main Street hardly looks like one. Originally the main street of a tiny suburban village called Archville, the name was simply held over when the community amalgamated with the City of Ottawa in 1907. Today, Main Street is the central artery of Old Ottawa East, but it somehow feels  incomplete. Despite it’s very urban location, Main Street cannot really be characterized as a pedestrian-friendly area. Large open spaces and parking lots break up the few commercial spaces in the area, and the street’s two educational institutes, Immaculata Secondary School and St. Paul University, both seem to shun the street, preferring to look inwards towards their own campuses.

In spite of all this, it is ostensibly the goal of the City to turn Main Street into—well, a main street. North of Clegg Street, the street is zoned as a “Traditional Main Street”, meaning that the official plan calls for moderate density, mixed use buildings which front directly on the sidewalk to encourage pedestrian traffic, similar to Elgin Street, Bank Street through the Glebe, and so on. However, a recent proposal to build exactly that kind of building at 162 Main Street has been turned down. Why? Well, it would seem that Hydro Ottawa can’t allow a four-storey building at that site because it would interfere with their overhead wires. The developer has come up with a compromise plan, but it would involve reducing the number of apartments in the building, making it three storeys instead of four, and removing an outdoor arcade designed to allow outdoor tables at a street-level cafe. Additionally, the building would have to be five metres back from the sidewalk, instead of fronting it directly—it doesn’t seem like much, but it would definitely make the building less attractive to pedestrians.

The issue here is that this should be something that can be easily fixed, by burying power lines. However, the City makes no budgetary allowances to do so, even when it would seem to be logical. For instance, in Hintonburg right now, Wellington Street has been dug up for some time due to construction work, but it would appear no effort is being made to bury power lines at the same time. This is unfortunate, as it would likely reduce the cost of doing so significantly by combining it with other work. And these missed opportunities will add up—the more that slip past us, the more it will cost us in the long-run to bury wires.

And let’s face it, there’s no good reason for us not to be trying to bury lines. They clutter up the street, making it visually unattractive, and the poles often create obstacles for pedestrians on the sidewalk. And of course, they can block or harm valuable projects like the one at 162 Main. For the sake of our city and its neighborhoods, we need to start thinking about these issues, and being more proactive towards solving them.

A quick aside: I moved to a new apartment this weekend, and currently have no internet access there. Thus if anyone comments and it requires moderation, it may be some time before I can get to it.

31
May
09

The Many Faces of the ByWard Market

About a month ago, I noticed that the fire hydrant just down the street from my apartment was looking considerably happier than it had in the past.

 

Looking a little more gap-toothed, too.

Looking a little more gap-toothed, too.

Since then, I’ve noticed at least a dozen similar faces all over the Market, on mailboxes, streetlights, transformers and more. While the faces themselves are varied in expression, they always follow the same basic design; simple colours, generally bright, often subtle or hidden if you’re not looking at the right side of something, and always adding a splash of character to the streetscape.

 

Looking embarassed on Clarence

Looking embarassed on Clarence

One interesting thing about this random street art is that it always shows up on public property. I’ve yet to notice anything like this on, say, newspaper boxes or on private businesses. And perhaps even more remarkably, I’ve seen little evidence of effort to remove these faces, which is fantastic because they really make parts of the sidewalk interesting, adding some life to objects that are normally fairly boring and—pardon the pun—pedestrian. It’s also a joy to come across ones you haven’t seen before. Each one is unique, and though I’m no art critic, it appears that a fair amount of effort has gone into making them look interesting.

 

This streetlamp on Dalhousie looks as though it's come unhinged

This streetlamp on Dalhousie looks as though it's come unhinged

This kind of thing is why I’ve always been against any kind of blanket laws regarding graffiti. I can understand why it’s something that many people attack—after all, tags from gangs and messages on underpasses informing us that Frankie was there aren’t exactly a desirable part of the urban landscape. But at the same time, there are street artists out there who genuinely make the city a more interesting place to live, but unfortunately they often get lumped into the general category of “graffiti”, and their work is removed from the street. I don’t know who is responsible for these faces scattered around the Market, but whoever is has my thanks for making streetlights and trash cans something I occasionally find myself stopping and smiling at rather than simply ignoring. And that’s something I will always fight for having as an important part of any urban area.

 

Being a mailbox can get you down sometimes.

Being a mailbox can get you down sometimes.

For the rest of the faces that I’ve found (11 so far) head on over to my Flickr page.




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