July 30 2014

Ottawa is Suburban: Why Imitate Downtown Development?

Canada is a suburban nation, and its suburbs continue to grow. This is the primary conclusion of research conducted at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario, which found that 90% of population growth in Canada between 2006 and 2011 was in car-oriented suburbs or commuter towns. This is no different in Ottawa, where the urban core represented only 12% of the city’s population as of 2011.

Farmers' market in Kanata, Ontario (suburb of Ottawa), Canada

But given the fear around the economic, health, and environmental consequences of suburbs, it is no surprise that planners are challenging them even as they grow. The resulting conversation often focuses on the densification of urban cores, but the study at Queen’s University suggests that this is barely making a dent in our suburban way of life. Planners must address the suburbs themselves.

I experienced one such challenge at a public consultation on the rezoning of Carling Avenue, an automobile-focused arterial road that runs west of downtown Ottawa. Carling will gain more of a “downtown” feel through Arterial Main Street zoning, which will permit buildings as high as nine-stories, significantly increasing density. Large portions of Carling will be rezoned with Active Street Frontage requirements, deliberately contributing to the development of a more pedestrian-, cycling-, and transit-friendly environment, akin to what is found in older neighbourhoods.

These requirements include bringing buildings closer to the street by limiting setbacks and dedicating a minimum percentage of the lot width along the street to building-walls. These in turn must be at least two-stories high, include a main entrance, and a minimum proportion of the surface must consist of windows. In other words, no more blank, big-box walls sitting behind vast parking lots.

Fruit kiosk in Kanata parking lot, Ottawa, Ontario, Canada

But sometimes I fear that this approach, while no doubt useful, seems to stifle other possibilities. It asks us to take an idealized model of living, usually found in the older parts of our city, and replicate its general principles in suburban areas. I propose that alongside this effort, we must also engage in an original rethinking of suburban space, divorced from attempts to imitate denser urban areas. This rethinking should exploit the unique features of suburban space itself.

In some Ottawa suburbs, there are early signs that this is happening: on Hazeldean Road in Kanata, a parking lot is transformed into a Farmers’ Market every weekend during the summer and fall. Big box retailers are joining this trend by renting out parking spaces to permanent food trucks and kiosks selling local produce. I asked the owner of a restaurant that has been selling burgers and fries in the parking lot of a Canadian Tire for the last eleven years why he chose to be there. His answer came as no surprise: this is where his customers were.

Permanent food truck in Kanata parking lot, serving customers, Ottawa, Ontario, Canada

These moments of grassroots innovation are common across all suburbs in North America, but it would be nice to see more of them.Why not turn part of every parking lot into a permanent outdoor market or community garden? Aging and vacant strip malls could be turned into multiple housing units with room for large facilities and shared spaces. Entire residential areas could be rezoned to allow commercial uses, encouraging walking and cycling. Instead of turning suburbs into half-hearted, phony downtowns, we could create radically new, unexpected, and surprising forms of living that are dynamic and exciting in their own right.

Do you agree that suburbs have unique and untapped potential? What are the obstacles preventing us from radically rethinking our suburbs?

Credits: Images by Nour Aoude. All data linked to sources.

Nour Aoude

After graduating from Princeton University with a degree in religion that challenged him to think critically and humanely, Nour has pursued work at nonprofit organizations whose missions are aligned with his personal beliefs. His adventures soon took him to Toronto, where he first experienced the joys and challenges of an exciting urban life. He has since decided to focus his efforts on building a career in urban planning and innovation. Nour's dream is to build cities that accomplish social justice, environmental sustainability, and a positive life experience for their citizens. He enjoys assessing the visible strengths and weaknesses of his city, such as walkability, bikeability, public transit access, urban aesthetics, and street culture. Through his work as an urban planning blogger, Nour hopes to delve further into these topics and develop the research and writing skills required for high-quality urban journalism. His work on The Grid will focus on Ottawa, a small but growing Canadian city with unique approaches to problems of sprawl and transit.

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This entry was posted on Wednesday, July 30th, 2014 at 9:09 am and is filed under Community/Economic Development, Environmental Design, Land Use, Nour Aoude, Urban Development/Real Estate, Urban Planning and Design. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.

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