The perils of event space

I participated in a panel discussion hosted by the Council for Canadian Urbanism yesterday. One topic discussed was the state of Canadian urbanism. A fellow panelist, the Globe & Mail’s Frances Bula, raised the concern that too much urban placemaking revolves around big events, street parties, festivals and those sorts of things…events that are often loud (and maybe a little intrusive for the host community). She warned that this could send a message that urban living is only for those who want to be regularly involved in these large festivals, when, in fact, there’s so much more to urban living than that.

I was quite happy that she raised this point, as I had been thinking of bringing it up, too. It’s a definite problem, and one that most definitely afflicts Ottawa.

It was fitting/ironic that the discussion was taking place in the Horticulture Building at Lansdowne, since Lansdowne is clearly falling prey to this phenomenon. Throughout the spring and summer, and into the fall, there seemed to be a constant stream of events…concerts, a circus, football games, soccer games, a ball hockey tournament, CityFolk, an Asian Festival…it goes on.

But at the times that these events aren’t going on, you get very little activity on the grounds. Yes, certainly, people would visit the Farmer’s Market (well, at least on Sunday, if no other days), but when I arrived at Lansdowne, there was no one enjoying the place, and there’s a pretty simple reason; for all the talk of creating an “Urban Village”, Lansdowne is being turned into an even destination. They have not—and are not—building a place where many people just come to live and be. Aberdeen Plaza, which should be the prime public space is regularly empty…when the city isn’t allowing it to be used as a parking lot.

I’m going to double-back and correct myself. There were some people enjoying Lansdowne when I arrived yesterday: skateboarders. The skatepark at Lansdowne was being used. The skatepark is almost always being used. It might be the most popular part of the entire site.

In the summer, the children’s play area would get consistent use, too, and, at times, the great lawn and the berm. All the truly public areas tucked at the back of the park are being enjoyed by our greater community. It’s the commercial area, the plazas, the Horticulture Building and, depressingly, the Cattle Castle that aren’t being properly used or enjoyed.

Some of this should change as more people move in, and as more of the office space is filled. Lansdowne needs people there throughout the day and night to make it hum. We don’t make vibrant places with events; we make them with people.

Ottawa, of course, has an even better/worse example of the desolation of event space, Sparks Street. A pedestrian mall in the heart of downtown, one block south of Wellington Street, Sparks Street should be a treasure. It should be lovely, with a dynamic life unto itself. Unfortunately, most days it’s a parking lot or a cafeteria for bureaucrats. And when it’s not, it’s hosting some silly “-fest”. Sparks Street has Ribfest and Poutinefest (a second Poutinefest in the downtown in Ottawa); it has Ribotberfest (the third ribs festival in downtown during the year), the Busker Festival and LatinFest (at least these last two change things up and aren’t about food).

It’s not that there’s anything wrong with these events. They can be quite enjoyable (I love Ribfest, though I hate the portmanteau-inflicted Ribtoberfest). But the problem lies with the rest of the year. When you devote this space to these –fests, you leave nothing for the rest of the days, weeks and months. There are few other draw unless you want to go to yet-another Irish pub or drink overrated craft beers.

And, I should note, I say this as someone who loves Sparks Street. I will always—always—choose to walk down Sparks Street rather than other street if it’s not particularly out of my way. I desperately want Sparks Street to be the gem of downtown.

But we don’t build it up to be something great. It’s a sideshow. Grab some beers, grab some wings, litter, then drive away.

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One thought on “The perils of event space

  1. Your concern about how Lansdowne is being turned into a constant event space is one that I share.

    In addition to the multiple -fests that the City & OSEG have staged, in order to get more people to come into the vicinity of the businesses at Lansdowne, and to justify the City’s mall-led redevelopment scheme, I am concerned by the extent to which the City has been cramming late-ending events into its facilities at the Aberdeen Pavilion and the Horticulture Building.

    Despite the fact that the City’s noise bylaw specifically states that amplified music/noise shall not be played after 11 pm in such a way as to disturb nearby residents, practically every weekend there has been a wedding reception, electronic dance music party, or some other event booked into the Horticulture Building, typically ending around 2 am. This is in addition to the disruption that the noise from the patios of Local, Jack Astors and other bars at Lansdowne has also caused for residents on Holmwood Ave and Adelaide St.

    The Horticulture Building is less than 20 m from the nearest existing residences, immediately across Holmwood. And although it has been handsomely rehabilitated, the Horticulture Building is still a large, echoing space, with no apparent sound deadening included as part of the renovations.

    I live about 90 m away from it on Adelaide, but certainly can hear and feel the booming bass of these events. It should be no small surprise then that all three of the houses immediately across from it on Holmwood are currently for sale, their owners likely fed up with the noise, parking hassles and disorderly conduct of event attendees and bar patrons.

    I have spoken to the onsite manager, who seemed to believe that it was immune from the City’s noise bylaw, and Bylaw officials who suggested that I should somehow convince the the DJs of the events or the brides & grooms to turn off the music. It’s not their fault, it’s the City that is renting this venue until 2 am, knowing full well that the renters will be playing music until that time, contrary to the noise bylaw, and the onsite management that does nothing to get the renters to turn the music down at 11 pm.

    Yet another example of how the development and management of Lansdowne relies on existing neighbouring residents to have to put up with the negative externalities – whether they be illegal parking, public urination or late-night loud music.

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