Liveable Ottawa – Consultation on City of Ottawa master plans

The National Capital Region has so many layers of consultations it can be hard to understand what is important.

But the City of Ottawa is starting a review of all of its master plans, including the Official Plan.  This is actually the key set of documents that are the foundation for all development and planning in the city.  If you only contribute to one Ottawa consultation, this is the one to contribute to.

The theme they’re using is Liveable Ottawa (note the spelling).

The shortcut is ottawa.ca/liveableottawa

and the hashtag is #liveableottawa

There is a launch event January 29, 2013 at City Hall, starting with display boards to view at 5:30pm and then presentations at 6:30pm.

You can keep track of the progress on the plans by signing up for a mailing list.

You can provide feedback through:

The city provides free Planning Primer courses if you want to understand more about how thinks work.

They have structured the consultation around 12 themes.

You should pick the themes that interest you and focus your feedback around those themes.

This is a difficult process.  All levels of the NCR consult again and again and again, and bring in expert after expert, and write reports and studies, and it’s often hard to see that any progress is being made on modern planning when it comes time to implement anything.

The reality is Ottawa was a prosperous lumber town.  With emphasis on town.  It never was a city, with city built form and culture.  The NCC wanted to turn it into a monumental capital, a sort of sterile display piece.  And the leading thinking of the era was all about separation of functions.  Work separate from residential.  Recreation (riding a bicycle) separate from transportation (driving in a car).  Everything in its own space for its own purpose, isolated.

So they deliberately built a suburban city, with a dropped-in Central Business District for M-F 9-5 work and suburbs around for all of the residents, and a highway and highspeed arterials in the heart of the city, to move people between the two.  This was not an accident or a mistake.  This was the leading planning theory of the time.

It will be a long struggle, particularly with a giant amalgamated city that spans all the suburbs and out into total rural areas, to get from suburban city to compact walkable mixed-use urbanism.

It’s easy to get caught up in fights of suburban vs. urban or cars vs. pedestrians, and I don’t think that’s useful.  Focus on a few key areas:

Key Areas: Cars

1) Fast cars in a city are incompatible with residential life and comfortable pedestrian and cyclist circulation.  Many cars in a city take up huge amounts of space, often public space.  Within the city boundaries the goal must be fewer cars, going much slower (ideal speed for urban core is 30km/h or less).  Many fast cars on highway good.  Many fast cars in city bad.

Key Areas: Start Experimenting

2) Stop theories and start experiments.  Ottawa likes to write endless plans and have endless debates about every possible change.  One way streets, what will happen, blah blah blah blah.  This is ridiculous.  You can make a one-way street with some paint and signs and traffic cones.  Just fucking do it, for six months, and MEASURE WHAT ACTUALLY HAPPENS.  I have to give huge kudos to the city for actually doing this with the Laurier Separated Bike Lanes.  Temporarily build.  Measure.  Decide.  We need to do much much more of this, for all kinds of things, all over the city.

Key Areas: Report on Walkability, Cycling Access, Transit Access

3) Be honest about what you’re building.  If we’re building unwalkable, uncyclable, transit-unfriendly buildings in the 21st century, let’s at least tell the truth about what we’re doing.  Ottawa is very big on “city spirit means never questioning”.  This is bullshit.  The CE Centre (Ernst & Young Centre) may be a necessary building.  It may serve a useful function.  But let’s be honest.  Its front porch is a sea of parking.  It is built to be driven to.  Try walking to it (even from the nearby airport).  Try cycling to it.  Try transit to it.  We built yet more 20th century car infrastructure.  If we’re going to be honest, EVERY building, EVERY refurb, EVERY new construction needs to have, upfront, some real measures: pedestrian level of service, cycling level of service, transit level of service.  (And maybe walkscore, bikescore, transitscore.)   And everyone who plans and cheerleads for the building should have to walk to it, cycle to it, and take transit to it, at least once, to see what the actual experience of the real building is.  And every building should have a one-year review, to see if the levels of service, and the traffic studies were ACTUALLY TRUE.  If we’re lying to ourselves about the city we’re building, we will never make any progress.

This also applies to “transit-oriented development”.  Step off the bus at Blair Station (or in future, step off the train).  Do you feel like anyone thought about you walking or biking from the station?  Or that you’ve been dropped at a mall in a sea of parking where no one considered you might not be in a car?  Go to Pinecrest Station and try to walk south to the mall and see if you don’t feel both terrified and marginalised as a pedestrian, in an environment built entirely for cars.  We need our planners and councillors and developers to walk and cycle the real city, wherever they build.  TOD is not just dropping towers at stations.  It’s making those stations part of a connected network for pedestrians and cyclists.

Key Areas: Just Build Mixed-Use Walkable

4) There is no magic bullet.  We need to stop thinking that if we can just consult enough, write enough reports, bring in enough experts, we will find some easy solution to our flawed urban design.  There are hard changes to make, against decades of established ideas and built form.  There is no magic: Always build compact, mixed-use, walkable urbanism, mostly six storeys or lower.  That’s it.  Don’t build single-purpose buildings surrounded by parking that are only reachable by car.  Again and again we have an opportunity to do this: at Lebreton, at CLC Rockcliffe, at Lansdowne (which at least an attempt at this), at the Booth Street Complex, at Tunney’s Pasture, at NRC Montreal Road, at Bayview Yards, and again and again we build 20th century buildings designed for cars instead.  If we never stop building 20th century buildings connected by ever-increasing, ever-expanding 20th century roads, we will never have a 21st century city.  Not in 2017, not in 2031, not in 2067, not ever.

Key Areas: Change the Built Form and the Culture

5) We are not a “world class city”.  I don’t even know what that means.  But we must remember we were a small town.  A lumber town.

Lumber piles in Ottawa

The NCC erased all traces of the trainyards and lumberyards, but that is our DNA.  A small town, with brick houses for prosperous people, and department stores for shopping on Sparks and Rideau.  We were never Montreal, or Toronto, or New York, or Paris, or London and we never will be.  We can be a 21st century capital, but we need to look to small Scandinavian capitals, to Helsinki and Copenhagen, and we need to BUILD LIKE THEM.  With bike lanes, and trams, and trains.  With stairs in the centre of low-rise or mid-rise buildings, and the elevator tucked around the corner.  But more importantly, we need to ACT LIKE THEM.  We need not just the right built form, we need an urban culture.  Otherwise we can build all the towers we want, people will just sit in them staring at their giant TVs, instead of living in the spaces of the city.  In New York you could open a tiny pocket park, not advertise it, and it would fill with pedestrians within minutes.  In Ottawa we already have green space that sits empty even on beautiful summer days.  That means hard work of changing the culture.  Face the truth of our empty streets and bleak storefronts and work, year by year, to reurbanise not just our form, but how we function.

We know the dysfunction: a (crumbling) train station that the LRT will pass right under, that will never be a train station again.  A museum in the centre of a downtown that takes park space and turns it over to paid parking (while subsidizing its employees to park).  A reconstructed street that has just as many crashes as before it was reconstructed.  A brand-new recreation centre that will only be reachable by car.  A national library downtown surrounded by parking.  A riverfront transportation space that denies access to a commuter train.  A brutalist arts centre that turns its face away from the sidewalk.  And on and on and on.

We not what not to do.  We need to actually make the right choices.  That means dollars and leadership, year after year, FOR DECADES.  We have lots of money.  We have a billion dollars every decade for roads (at a minimum).  How about we use that money for things people actually want instead?

Or Ottawa 2031 will be Ottawa 2000 which was Ottawa 1980 which was Ottawa 1960 which was the same disaster car-centric clustercuss as every single other city that did urban redesign in the 1960s.  And as a consequence of that Futurama city we will have generation after generation of fat sick kids.

One thought on “Liveable Ottawa – Consultation on City of Ottawa master plans

  1. What a great article Richard, it is a must read for anyone involved in this process. I am always wondering why we need all these consultants and all these extra overpaid people to do this simple process! I am now going to read the post-consultation meeting article.

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