The Good, the Bad and the Yogi

If you were following Twitter the other night, you may have seen yet another transgression against the public space at Lansdowne. The Citizen’s David Reevely (who found some drivers behaving badly the other week), was at the park and found the Aberdeen Plaza closed off so that it could be used for diplomat parking. (This is nothing against diplomats, per se, but there’s clearly a class issue going on.)

There are many unfixable problems with Lansdowne Park. It was a severely flawed design, and the public and private realm were very poorly integrated (in that they pretty much weren’t). However, Aberdeen Plaza is the one huge problem that could be easily fixed. First, either close off traffic at Lansdowne or close off the strip of “street” between the plaza and the pavilion. Either way, the Aberdeen Pavilion will actually be connected to the Aberdeen Plaza. It’ll be a much better situation.

Second, put some damned chairs and tables there, and add some awnings, umbrellas or canopies to offer a bit of shade. Hell, maybe even put in some strips of grass. But, of course, if you did anything to make the plaza particularly enticing, it couldn’t be turned into parking at a moment’s notice, and the city and our leaders won’t have that.

Reevely happened to find the mayor coming out of the VIP event. With his usual petulance, our worship chastised Reevely–a reporter, resident and neighbour to Lansdowne–for caring about the bastardization of public space.

I miss Rebecca Pyrah.

The thing of it all is, I didn’t want to write a Lansdowne-bashing post (you’ll have to wait until the next issue of the Glebe Report to hear my naked, undiluted anger at the development). No, I wanted to write about something good happening at Lansdowne, so that’s what I’m going to do now.

I was at Lansdowne Saturday evening. This was during a Yoga Festival. Sure, there were some annoying things going on; some cars were parked in pedestrian areas; there were too many ugly barricades guarding against more cars parking in pedestrian areas; the entire Great Lawn did not to be fenced off for what was a relatively tiny yoga session, but…

…This was Lansdowne as it was supposed to be. All those irritants (along with the usual ones of too many cars and a stupid valet service) were quite minor compared to what was actually going on.

The Aberdeen Plaza was busy. Holy shit, I’m not telling a lie, it was actually busy. And I mean, truly busy, not just full of cars. Many groups of people were walking around, chatting. Some had stopped and were just enjoying the evening. People were spilling out into the shared “Pedestrian Priority Zones”, and, ya know, cars weren’t totally dominating the place.

People were popping in and out of restaurants and cafes. People were heading to the movies. I’m sure there were people doing some shopping. It was great.

I was there with my daughter, who wanted to go to the play structure. It was pretty full…and full of little kids, not adults goofing around and breaking things, not teenagers dominating a child’s play structure, not skateboarders bored of the skatepark (which, thankfully, does not happen too often).

The skatepark, of course, was full, as it always is. So, to, the basketball courts, which have clearly become a favoured attraction.

After playing on the big green tubular monolith, my daughter wanted to head over to the water plaza. It wasn’t really hot that night, but it was warm and it’s always fun running through sprinklers, amirite? So she played, as did a bunch of other kids. Adults came and sat for a bit, and chatted. There were rollerbladers going by. There were people on bikes. And everyone was moving at a reasonable pace. Everyone had space to do things. Except for the handful of cars, there was room for everyone (except on the lawn, but oh well).

And everything was happening. There was a festival, and that was clearly a big draw. There were people who were coming for the commercial attractions. There were tons of people just interested in the public realm. And everybody moved through the park. And the different users were intertwined, to an extent. Activities weren’t silo-ed off. There wasn’t the usual segregation of users (except, again, for the lawn, but, again, oh well).

I have been going to Lansdowne since the day it opened, literally. I am there somewhere between three and ten times per week (because no matter how bad it is, it offers some utility, and my eldest daughter has developed an emotional attachment to the place).

I have never–never–seen Lansdowne like this before.

This is the only time Lansdowne has ever lived up to its vision. This is the only day I have ever seen it be what it really should be. One day out of a thousand. I guess it’s something.

Advertisements

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.

CityFolk

I’ve been hearing a lot of mixed reviews in the media about the recent CityFolk music festival at Lansdowne. At times, the promoter has made it sound like an unmitigated success (this is clearly false, and at other times he has given a more nuanced view, but I think we can understand why he might feel pressure to focus on the positives).

A lot of the negative reviews are rather predictable – space issues, not enough port-a-potties and poor transportation to and from the park. Some of this is likely just growing pains. It’s the first year at Lansdowne, and Lansdowne, itself, is still figuring a lot of this out. (In the future, these festivals shouldn’t be allowed to hi-jack a public park for weeks at a time.)

The city, OSEG and OC Transpo need to figure things out. Outside of RedBlacks games, there are never enough buses running along Bank Street. This problem pre-dates Lansdowne, but it has become more acute as more and more special events move into the park.

But let’s put all that aside. Coming in, I was most worried about the disruption to the neighbourhood. Bluesfest is known for ignoring the concerns or comfort of the Lebreton community, and last year, CityFolk was ridiculously loud, prompting a number of complaints from various neighbourhoods, including (but not limited to) Old Ottawa South and the Glebe. CityFolk responded by trying to mitigate the sound at first, then cranked the volume for the final Sunday.

So I was ready for a festival that would be a giant middle finger to the neighbourhood.

On the first night of the festival, I heard nothing. I’m a few blocks away, and I can usually hear the crowds cheering at RedBlacks games, so I was ready for a bit of noise, but, no, nothing. Still, I wasn’t ready to commend CityFolk on their sound…not even when Thursday night was quiet, too. I knew, these festivals sometimes turn it up on weekends. So I was prepared for a disruptive weekend.

But it never materialized. I heard a bit one evening when I was outside, but I really had to listen for it. It wasn’t disruptive at all*. There were the usual disruptions of drunks pouring out onto Bank Street (after being over-served at Lansdowne, as per yuse), but that’s as much on the city and OC Transpo as it is on CityFolk. Hell, the AC DC crowd was much worse.

So, to my pleasure and slight surprise, I can say that none of my major worries about CityFolk materialized. Good on them.

This doesn’t mean CityFolk should come back next year. It may not be the best spot for them, and Lansdowne needs fewer special events and more everyday draws. However, if they are back, I certainly won’t be too concerned.

*It is quite possible it was disruptive for those living closer, or in a different direction from the park. I can’t speak for them.

Parking and Driving, Driving and Parking

Kathryn Hunt does a great job of writing about biking and infrastructure matters in Ottawa. She’s thoughtful and she knows what she’s talking about. For these reasons, I was a little surprised by her recent column:

Recently, someone asked me if I thought motorists would drive through parks, over lawns and on sidewalks if there were no dedicated space for cars (as cyclists do, at times). At the time, I didn’t know what to say. Since cars need flat surfaces and a lot of room, it was hard to imagine. There just isn’t room on a sidewalk for a car.

Luckily, the current mess that is Lansdowne set her straight.

But even without Lansdowne, it’s obvious that Ottawa drivers will go wherever they please. I see cars driving and parking on the sidewalk with great regularity. It probably happens at least once a week on my street. And this past Victory Day, we got some lovely evidence that drivers will take over parks if they feel so inclined:

Capture

So, yes, drivers will drive anywhere.

“Why is there no braille?”

IMG_1839On Saturday, my eldest daughter and I headed through Lansdowne. She’s learning to ride her bike, so we were out an about the neighbourhood. Going through South Court between the Pavillion and the lawn (and, yes each part of the park has its own name), we came across the plaque dedicating the opening of the park last August (pictured left).

But, there was something missing.

My daughter (who is still learning to read), turned to me and asked, “Daddy, why is there no braille?”

It’s a good question. Sure, braille isn’t an official language. And sure, it’s just a plaque, not emergency information or anything. But it would make the park a little more welcoming and a little more accessible.

So, Mr. Mayor, why is there no braille?

What is Bob Monette thinking?

The other day, we were treated to an update on Lansdowne transportation. We were told that the transit plans for RedBlacks games were a resounding success. Yes, there were fewer people biking than was anticipated (though some people would park off-site and walk a block or two to the game) and the shuttles weren’t as popular as intended, but lots and lots of people used OC Transpo, so it’s kind of a wash.

So, we learned, special event transportation worked as well as could have been hoped (and, from what I observed, this is generally true…though with relaxed parking restrictions late in the RedBlacks season, a lot more people started driving…and drinking and driving).

What we didn’t get (at least not from the city or OSEG) was an update on the day-to-day traffic issues, and there are a few. There’s no doubt that Lansdowne has caused traffic problems in the Glebe, and I can only assume Old Ottawa South, too (in the past few years, traffic in Old Ottawa South always seemed worse than the Glebe, at least in my journeys).

Orleans councillor Bob Monette had an… interesting… idea:

During a transportation committee meeting Monday, Orléans Coun. Bob Monette suggested transit use to Lansdowne in the winter might not be as high simply because people don’t like walking. Allowing parking in the stadium could reduce the traffic congestion on Bank St., Monette said.

This is, obviously, ridiculous (and not just because the idea of turning your professional sports field into a parking lot is ludicrous).

First of all, creating an inducement to driving (more parking) will just result in more traffic, not less. I imagine Monette might be thinking that it will keep traffic flowing as people don’t stop to park on the street. But this assumes a finite number of people driving to Lansdowne. There’s no reason to think that’s the case (or that we’re at that limit). We’re Ottawa; we’ll always find more cars if we need to.

Under this proposal, we’ll have people driving to TD Place to park, driving around to park on neighbourhood streets, and, soon, driving to the parking garage mobility hub they’re building down the street.

Further, Monette’s argument has an internal contradiction. He is suggesting that people don’t take the bus in the winter because they don’t want to walk a few blocks. If that’s actually the case, then they wouldn’t be parking throughout the neighbourhood in order to walk a few blocks to Lansdowne. But this is exactly what is happening.

Monette’s solution to the traffic problem is predicated on the notion that the exact cause of the traffic problem doesn’t exist.

This is why we’re in our current traffic mess. All of our solutions–more roads! more lanes! more parking!–exacerbate the problem.

Lansdowne and Ottawa’s War on Pedestrians

Whenever someone suggests that Ottawa infrastructure needs to accommodate pedestrians or bikes a little bit better (or at all), there is typical response from certain folks decrying the so-called “War on Cars“. From this perspective, any attempt to slightly reduce the massively favoured status of cars–offering a bit of safety for other people–is a sinister plot destroy our very way of life.

Of course, this is absolute bullshit. There’s no war on cars, even if there should be. We build highways through communities. We spend millions to expand roads and build bridges. We subsidize driving and parking endlessly. Rideau Street is a bit of a death trap, yet with the recent re-design, we couldn’t make it safer for everyone; lord knows massive transport trucks have to go through downtown.

No, the real “war” is on pedestrians and cyclists. It is almost impossible to get proper infrastructure built. And even when it is built, the city doesn’t want to maintain it. In the recent budget debate, any spending on bike infrastructure would have to be discussed later, as a possible special project. Meanwhile, the road construction budget passed with nary a raised eyebrow. Our tribute to traffic must not be impeded.

The most recent example of this (at least, the most recent example I’ve noticed) comes from Lansdowne. I popped over to the park last night, and this is what I noticed on Marche Way:

IMG_1777Marche Way is a multi-use space. It is for cars, bikes and pedestrians. There are pedestrian-only sidewalks, but pedestrians are free to walk wherever they please, and drivers just have to learn how to deal with it.

And, to their credit, most drivers have. There was some initial idiocy (and there are still some people who seem to get lost in this “urban village”, and drive around aimlessly), but for the most part, drivers have learned that they can’t speed through Lansdowne. There will be people walking around, and they will have to defer to these people, rather than run them down.

But now the city has put large ugly lines and arrows on the brick street. If you look at the street now, it really looks like something that was built for cars. All the paint signals that this is where cars get to be, and everyone else needs to stay out of the way.

(It’s also really ugly. I know that’s not as big a deal as safety, but we’re trying to build nice, welcoming public spaces, and aesthetics matter. Also, this paint isn’t going to increase anyone’s safety. It’ll likely just lead to more aggressive driving.)

What is perhaps most comical/sad/depressing is the need to include the arrows. This is basically a statement declaring that drivers won’t know that they can only turn right. They won’t be able to see the median in the middle of Bank Street blocking a left-hand turn, and they won’t understand the sign in the middle of that median telling them they can only turn right. Basically, this paint says that the city thinks Ottawa drivers are morons.

Hopefully, this will be a short-lived situation. Lansdowne won’t survive as a haven for cars. It’s on a major bus line and it’s in a very walkable and bike-able neighbourhood. If anything, we should just be banning cars from the grounds completely. It’d make for a much nicer space, and it would better live up to the promises made by OSEG and the city.