A few weeks ago, on a sunny September afternoon, I left the fluorescent confines of my Centretown office in Ottawa to indulge in a meditative outdoor lunch in the fresh air and gentle hum of the city. After choosing my food, I scanned the surroundings for the most obvious green space where I could enjoy my meal. And I scanned again. And again. I walked a few blocks east, then west. Realizing that my search was in vain, I settled for a large concrete planter on a side street and meditated on the contradictions of Ottawa’s downtown life.
Walking around Centretown, it is impossible to miss the brand new condominium developments poking through the neighborhood’s typical stock of low-rise buildings and aging modernist tower blocks. The names (Bowery, Soho, Tribeca) have an unabashed New York bias that offers a clear promise of exciting and dynamic downtown living. The entire premise of this lifestyle is that, by trading a degree of personal space, you will have the city as your playground. So what happens when this playground cannot meet the basic need for open green space?
Urban intensification in Ottawa is still in its beginning stages. Its potential benefits are manifold: curbing suburban sprawl, carbon emissions and cost of transportation, while creating affordable, desirable housing that attracts young professionals and combats Ottawa’s declining sense of community belonging. But unless the City sets effective regulations to ensure desirable living environments are produced where intensification is happening, the whole project may not find sufficient buy-in from residents.
City planners have identified the issue of open space in Centretown as a key priority for the neighborhood in the 2012 Centretown Community Design Plan (CDP). In the CDP, several planning tools are proposed to address this issue.
One of these is Section 37 of the Planning Act. This enables planners to offer increased height or density allowances to developers than would normally be permitted in exchange for their creating community benefits like open green space. Given that much of Centretown is subject to height restrictions intended to protect the visual integrity of the symbolic Parliament buildings nearby, it is a likely place for developers to seek more height and density than is normally permitted. According to planner at the City, however, to date the City has not secured a significant number of Section 37 agreements.
Since there are few vacant sites in Centretown, planners also considered the possibility of smaller “pocket parks” scattered across the neighbourhood. These can serve a large number of people without necessitating large-scale land acquisition. In the CDP, these parks are called “Small Moments,” and they would be privately owned, publicly-accessible spaces. A study was launched to explore the ways in which developers could be incentivized to create Small Moments.
In the end, however, the study group did not recommend that Small Moments be adopted as a requirement for all new developments in Centretown, nor did it provide sufficient incentive in the form of increased density for private developers who implement Small Moments. In a sad turn of events, Small Moments were not added to the Centretown CDP.
Both Section 37 and Small Moments have been of limited effectiveness. But perhaps this approach misses the broader point. Open space should not be set as a design requirement, nor should special incentives be created for developers who implement it. Developers should recognize that the success of their individual developments depends on the success of Centretown transforming, as a whole, into a viable urban playground. It is in their own financial interest to contribute to its transformation without the need for additional incentives.
After all, no one should have to eat their lunch on the edge of a concrete planter.
Does your city’s downtown core suffer from a lack of resident amenities? What is the city doing to address this problem?
Credits: Images by Nour Aoude. All data linked to sources.