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.