Posts Tagged ‘the future

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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!

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.




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