Posts Tagged ‘news and comment

04
Feb
10

Does Terry Fox Drive really need extending?

As I browsed through the Ottawa Citizen yesterday, I couldn’t help but notice this article, on the extension of Kanata’s Terry Fox Drive being fast-tracked despite a number of environmental concerns. I instantly knew I had to look it up and attempt to understand why it’s so important this particular project has to be pushed through and I came away baffled.

Helpfully, the extension already seems to be marked on Google Maps, so it was easy to get an idea for what the new roadway would look like. As described in the article, it will arc through forest, marsh, and farmland as it makes it’s way from the neighborhood of Kanata Lakes to Morgan’s Grant. And so far as I can tell, it will serve no useful purpose besides creating sprawl and potentially destroying a rare habitat. Not good, to say the least.

The endangered Blanding's Turtle, which can be found in marshland west of Kanata. Image from Canadian Wildlife Service, by Ryan M. Bolton.

I think what we have here is a case of the Greenbelt doing more harm than good for the environment. While I’d rather see the urban boundries of Ottawa’s suburbs frozen where they are for the time being, for growth to be concentrated inwards, it would seem to me that if Kanata has to expand, there are far more suitable areas to the east. There’s a lot of farmland out there, especially north of the 417, land that is for some reason protected, while the land to the west is not. While I hardly advocate paving over farmland for suburbia, it can’t be denied that there is a lot more of it around Ottawa compared to rare turtle habitats.

What strikes me about this is that we seem to have some very screwed-up priorities here. Is it really this important to build a shiny, four-lane monument to urban sprawl? Surely there must be some other piece of infrastructure that this stimulus money can be spent on—something that won’t harm an endangered species. That’d be something I could go for.

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.

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.

20
Jul
09

Making cycling safer

By now, I’m sure most of you have heard about the terrible hit and run in Kanata yesterday that left five cyclists injured, two critically. What’s especially terrifying about this, if you’re a cyclist, is the fact that this occurred on a road with a good, wide bike lane, and during a fairly quiet time of the week.

I hope that all those injured recover fully, but I also hope that something positive can come out of this as well: an examination of our strategy for cycling here in Ottawa. While bike lanes are nice, I’ve always felt that they don’t really do much to truly protect those of us that cycle on a regular basis. After all, what is a bike lane but a small reserved section of the road that is usually on the right side of the street? Or, more basically, where cyclists end up riding most of the time anyway.

I’ve often felt that bike lanes offer a false sense of security. Cyclists see them and think that since they have a reserved right of way, they’ll be safe from cars, and drivers see them and think they have to worry less about cyclists as they are “protected” between the solid white lines of the bike lane.

However, I think this sense of protection is mostly an illusion. As we’ve seen with this case in Kanata, it doesn’t take much for a vehicle to cross into a bike lane and strike cyclists (though, as yet, the police have not said why they believe the driver of the minivan in this case to have swerved into the lane). In addition to this, bike lanes tend to do little for cyclists at intersections, with the lines often becoming broken to allow drivers to move into turning lanes, or, in some cases, disappearing altogether to leave cyclists to their own devices.

So what can we do to protect cyclists? As I see it, there are a few major options. The simplest is to work on building a very extensive network of bike paths. The NCC already maintains a number of them, of course, but generally they’re only useful to a small percentage of cyclists, and many areas of the city go uncovered by this network, as the NCC focuses on destinations and routes attractive to tourists. Meanwhile, there are a number of places in the city where good bike paths could be constructed parallel to major arteries. March Road would probably be a good place for this kind of project, actually, given how much empty space can be found along both sides of the road.

Of course, this simply won’t work along somewhere like Bank Street for most of its route; it’s simply too heavily built-up. In cases like this, I think physically separated bike lanes are the best option. These would help protect cyclists from traffic, and give them a defined space on the road that can be called theirs, not something as poorly demarcated as a simple painted line. These aren’t perfect, of course: pedestrians can be a danger if they have a way to easily access the lane, and there are still issues surrounding interaction with motor vehicles at intersections, but overall it would represent a step forwards.

The other potential option would be to do something similar to Vancouver, which operates roadways with traffic calming measures in effect parallel to major arteries (such as the example pictured here). The main problem I see with this is that it would probably entail difficulties in finding good parallel streets—most of Ottawa’s major roads don’t tend to have streets which run alongside them for very long, due to the way our city is split up.

Ultimately, I think the best solution is a combination of all three of these methods. Bike paths are the ideal, but where they are not possible they should be supplemented by well-designed bike lanes or perhaps traffic-calmed side-streets which emphasize bike travel. No matter what, though, there’s no question in my mind that we need to seriously look at bicycle safety here in Ottawa, and come up with a long-term, comprehensive strategy for cycling in Ottawa.

Edit: I feel I should open a call here, as well: what do you want to be done to make cycling safer here in Ottawa? Are better bike lanes the answer? Better education for drivers and cyclists? Tell me your thoughts!

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.

12
Feb
09

*shakes head*

I try to be an advocate for this city as much as possible, but it’s difficult, sometimes.

City revises bus rider incentives (after canceling them altogether, at one point)

Council meeting spirals out of control

As far as the bus incentives are concered, their decision is basically the worst of both worlds. Discounted bus fars won’t be anywhere near as effective at luring people back onto buses, but at the same time the transit budget will still be way out of balance. On top of that, I’m that transit riders are probably going to end up confused by all the changes and back and forth.

On a positive note, at least the Lower Duck Island bridge proposal seems to have been quashed, and hopefully for good. Of course, the fact that they’ve left it open to reconsideration means that it will probably be put back on the table and then dropped again at least two or three more times.

In short, it’s a wonder that this Council gets anything done sometimes. Reading the Citizen’s coverage of the meeting makes it sound as if it routinely dissolved into petty squabling and sniping across the room. And you know what, guys? That isn’t the way to run a city. City Council should be all about working together, and finding solutions that work for everyone (or at least as many people as possible). It’s time for City Councilors to start taking a holistic view, and working out what’s best for the city as a whole, not just for the constituents of their ward. I realize that it’s a political balancing act, but something obviously needs to be done, as I think it’s fairly self-evident that the confidence most Ottawans have in their city’s government is starting to slip.

04
Feb
09

Ontario wants to help Ottawa curb sprawl

According to the Ottawa Citizen, Ontario is ready to help step in and grant Ottawa an exception to rules that force it to set aside land on the fringes of the city for suburban development. Some choice quotes:

As part of the land-use planning process, the city intends to set aside 850 hectares for new development. Construction on the land is expected to consist of a number of single-family homes in low-density subdivisions.

At the same time, the municipality is attempting to boost population density as a means of stemming sprawl and improving the efficiency of the public-transit system. Several provisions in the plan, and an associated transportation plan that emphasizes light rail, aim to promote intensification in areas that have already been developed. Some councillors, however, have said an 850-hectare expansion of the city’s growth boundaries will undermine that end.

But Councillor Peter Hume, the chair of the planning committee, said Monday that space for low-density projects is required by the “provincial policy statement,” a declaration under Ontario’s Planning Act that sets the ground rules for local land-use plans.

André Sorensen, a professor at the University of Toronto, says the city doesn’t have to banish suburban development to become more densely populated.

“You can’t entirely change the trajectory of how cities get developed,” Mr. Sorensen said in an interview. “What we want to do is shift to a higher and higher percentage of new housing units being built as intensification.”

This last quote is something I particularly wanted to point out. I’m obviously something of a booster when it comes to densifying cities and changing the way we develop urban areas, but at the same time I know that it’s not something we can change instantly. We’re fighting against about a hundred years of inertia, where the ideal life has always been seen as owning a house in the suburbs with a big yard and white picket fence. It’s not easy to tell people that everything they wanted is wrong and that they would, in fact, be much better off doing something completely different. Really, it’s not something that we can do.

So the trick will have to be to change attitudes slowly. We can’t just sit down and eliminate suburban development entirely, in fact, I don’t think we should. As Sorensen mentions, suburbs won’t just go away, and we’re going to have to work with them if we want to densify cities. They’re already built, what we need to look at when it comes to suburban areas is making them more like urban ones: for instance, how can we combine living spaces with working and shopping spaces better, rather than having them as separated clumps, like they are in so many existing suburbs? I don’t have the answer to that, but I think it’s questions like that that we’ll need to be answering in the future.

Going back to the original article, I’d like to see Ottawa have minimum density targets set, like municipalities in the Greater Toronto Area. Basically this requires existing developed areas to hit a certain target for population density, while new development is also held to higher-density standards. This forces developers to change their strategy for new proposals, and seems to be working so far in the GTA, albeit slowly. It would be at least worth looking into in Ottawa, if you ask me.




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