What goes into making a walkable neighbourhood? In my far-flung suburb of Stittsville, Ontario, even a fifteen minute walk won’t get you to the nearest cup of coffee. Here, in the automobile’s natural habitat, an obvious answer is scale. So I was surprised to learn of a local Jane’s Walk of downtown Ottawa, that even human-scaled communities may struggle to become more walkable.
The first challenge they face is culture. Jane’s Walk leader Chris Bradshaw, a funny guy and retired planner, has been a strong advocate of walkable neighbourhoods since the 1980s. Back when the idea of walking from your downtown home to the office was still novel, Bradshaw was organizing pedestrian associations and advocating for car-sharing programs. His local Ottawalk group was the first of its kind in North America, and helped bring walking culture from the margins to the mainstream.
Today, it seems that everyone is yearning to spend less time in their car, and more time on foot. But even with pedestrian culture firmly in place, the form of the neighbourhoods we build may still challenge the aspiring walker. Stittsville, like many of its twin suburbs across the continent, is an obvious case in point. But what about downtown neighbourhoods like Uptown Rideau, the setting of my Jane’s Walk?
Although dense and appropriately scaled, Uptown Rideau’s form fails on other counts. The architecture is mismatched, with adjacent buildings drastically differing in style and ranging from two to fourteen storeys in height. Some are set further back, while others jutt further out. Here and there, the urban fabric is interrupted by parking lots. Even the sidewalk is not continuous, and is interrupted along its length by utility poles.
But just as Bradshaw had tackled culture, so too are the city’s urban planners tackling form. The Rideau Street Renewal Project began in 2012 and is introducing wider, continuous sidewalks, underground cables to replace utility poles, pedestrian lights, street furniture, and public art. But even when these changes are finally in place, it will not be enough. Even if people want to walk and can walk on Rideau Street, what is still missing is a place to go.
The final obstacle to walkability is the content of the street. With businesses few and far between in Uptown Rideau, many of the residents’ basic needs cannot be met by local commerce. Indeed, it was often a trek between one store and the next. Bradshaw explains that, if they cannot buy the things they need on main street, even downtown dwellers will drive out to the suburbs.
Today, a new community design plan is underway for Uptown Rideau. Bradshaw is working with city planners to ensure that all different shades of commerce gets written into the plan: conveniences like grocery, laundry and repair shops, as well as banks, restaurants, and furniture stores. Only when these amenities are located a short walk away from their homes will residents of Uptown Rideau have enough reason to kick the car habit and hit their new sidewalks.
What approaches are activists and planners taking to make your city more walkable?