Pedestrians First on Sparks Street, Ottawa

Normally this term I wouldn’t be writing a blog post on a Monday afternoon, but due to the flooding situation in the region, my office building was closed for the day. I had already spent the whole weekend in my house due to the rainy weather, so today I decided I wanted to make use of this opportunity at another day off to go out and explore. Thankfully the weather was somewhat cooperative: it was slightly snowing and a bit chilly, but this was better than cold, constant rain.

Naturally the tourist in me wanted to visit the Byward Market area first. I explored around there for a while – I’m not really the kind of person to visit the shops so much as the kind of person to just admire the buildings and enjoy being around people on the street – even if the weather is not as friendly as they are!

Additionally, I enjoy leaving my phone in my pocket on these sorts of walks. I am a rather stubborn person, and I like checking the map app only when I think I really have to (this is mostly to strengthen my very poor sense of direction). I managed to find my way down Wellington Street (heading West), and remembered from past visits to Ottawa many months ago that Sparks Street is close by, which features a pedestrian promenade called the ‘Sparks Street Mall.’

Where I grew up in Belleville, there is no such thing as this type of grand pedestrian infrastructure. Pedestrian infrastructure is often limited, as it is in many cities and neighbourhoods across the globe, to sidewalks and trails only. The system we have built dictates pedestrians are the ones who must wait to cross a street after clicking a button, and after they are given clearance to go there is a measly 20 or 30 second limit to walking to the other side. Had one not pressed this button, cars would be free to cross the intersection as long as they would like – it is often only when a pedestrian comes does the light change. This tells me that the system is built for automatic transportation first and pedestrians second – there is a hierarchy built into the system which favours those in big metal boxes with wheels.

Of course I am not saying that this system is 100% bad. It does often make sense at many intersections to have traffic stop for pedestrians only when it needs to, perhaps because there are only so many pedestrians desiring to cross the road and otherwise traffic would be heavily interrupted causing jams throughout the network. However, this system is simply not completely optimized for both very valid forms of transportation – active and passive. Rather than creating a hierarchy – which, in turn, gives rise to poor attitudes about who ‘owns the road’ – streets and roads should be optimized and engineered to create a level playing field if you will so that everyone can easily and efficiently access their destination, whether or not they are on their feet, on two wheels, in a bus or in a private car.

One way that Ottawa is accomplishing this is with the Sparks Street Mall (along with, for example, bike lanes which are highlighted and sometimes even divided from car traffic on some streets). The Sparks Street Mall runs as a pedestrian-only street for 5 blocks from Elgin Street to Lyon Street, and is lined with many boutiques, delis, coffee-shops, and more. Though Sparks Street has existed throughout much of Ottawa’s history, part of it was dedicated for pedestrians only in 1967. This was done in an effort to revitalize the commercial activity of that section. From my walk today and from previous walks, it seems to have been an excellent planning decision if you ask me.

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Here is a section of the Sparks Street Mall looking West. I mentioned I think it was an excellent planning decision to boost commercial activity by making this a pedestrian avenue – look at the amount of people using it! If you’re not convinced, consider if every person were in their own personal vehicle. Now all I see in my head is traffic congestion. Opening this up to people and people alone allows for a social bounce-back against personal vehicle traffic and congestion, which enables a free movement of people following wherever they want to go without being stuck if they were in a car or limited to the sidewalk and crosswalks if they were on a street alongside cars.

Additionally – look at how pretty it is! It doesn’t sound very academic, but it is true; this is a gorgeous street (even during that rainy day). All along Sparks Street Mall there are flower planters, antique-looking light posts, aesthetically pleasing and kinetically engaging brick paving stones, benches, public art at intersections, and many beautiful architectural facades facing the street housing interesting shops, restaurants, and offices.

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Look at how many people there are in this image. If they were in cars, you can imagine how congested the street would be, limiting the availability of destinations. It is important, then, to equally accommodate all modes of transportation not just to achieve a social equality within a municipality, but to also allow for smooth traffic flow and to avoid unnecessary heightened stresses on our civic infrastructure.

Ultimately what the Sparks Street Mall contributes to (with respect to the focus of my blog, of course) is what is called a ‘complete community.’ A complete community is one that enables accessible transportation routes for both active and passive transportation users – cyclists and pedestrians, and private cars and public transit in whatever organizational or structural way that makes sense for that city. Because of Sparks Street Mall’s existence, there is increased pedestrian inclusion within those surrounding blocks for those who do not desire to use private cars or public transit for whatever reason.

Cities should strive to prioritize these complete communities for the benefit of all citizens. Speaking as someone who lives in an area surrounding by highways, it is difficult and rather frustrating to not be able to access anywhere truly meaningful to my daily life without using a private car or public transit. At least, it is possible to access these places, but only after forfeiting my safety, and that is not okay. Municipalities that equate all forms of transportation rather than prioritize certain kinds are setting themselves up for accessibility failures that unfortunately leave some citizens alienated without the proper and accepted forms of transportation in that area.

Of course, while addressing this problem, it is always important to consider those with accessibility issues as well. For example, Sparks Street Mall is not without faults – the brick paving that I deemed aesthetically pleasing may not be the best for those with mobility issues, where it can actually be considered detrimental to accessibility.

So, while you go out on your next walk or drive, consider how those using other forms of transportation would get from a similar starting point as yours to a similar destination as yours. How would their mobility and accessibility be impacted? What mode of transportation is considerably prioritized along your route? Would another mode of transportation be faster or slower, and why? What barriers exist to those with mobility issues? Keep an open mind about these things. You might be surprised by what you observe.

Below are some more pictures from my walk today:

Katie on Public Art

Happy Holidays!

When I started this blog, I stated my goal of posting weekly. Apparently that hasn’t been happening, and it seems that a post around every 2-3 weeks is more realistic. It’s not due to laziness, but moreso the time it takes to answer the question ‘what do I write about this time?’ I’m only a second year student who admittedly only knows so much about planning to support enough content to write a full and worthwhile post, so I take this question very seriously! However, the answer finally hit me in the face on Christmas eve: write about the role of public art in communities.

The way I think about and perceive communities today was initiated by a walk in my grade 10 art class, where a public art activist brought our class downtown to see where public art could make the downtown space more friendly. I specifically remember standing on the Century Place concrete thinking what landscaping could be done to remove the gray that permiated through the downtown. Below you can see just how bland the space is with a lack of a particular focal point or even seating which could encourage people to stay and converse.

When you hear the words ‘public art,’ a lot of things might come into your mind. And, with how vast visual expression as a concept and as a realization is, your mind should be full with a bunch of things when you hear those words. Public art is a focal-point sculpture; a fountain; a paid-for graffiti artist or muralist who passionately draws life into a once-boring red brick wall. Public art is not limited to what you can see: buskers and street performers are also a valuable form of public art. Anything that appeals to your senses and enhances a public space through creative expression is my definition of ‘public art.’ (See this page for more information on the definition of public art.)

With that said, you can begin to understand the role public art plays in cities and their communities, neighbourhoods, and downtowns. Self expression is a natural response to experiences that we have in our every day lives, and is what drives humans to manifest their self expressions into what we deem ‘art.’ It can be asked, then, that if art is created from personal experiences, then how is public art created and expressed? Public art attempts to capture the attention and, consequentially, the emotions from passersby at a general level. There is something for everyone within a public art piece, whether that be the colour, the shape, the size, the texture, the positioning, or their interpretation of the piece.

With all of these interpretations and opinions of the piece invisibly floating around a community, the passersby are engaged in the space even when they don’t fully realize it. This engagement (if the public art was a success) attracts people to the space again and again, which is good for a downtown, for example, where people would revisit and the local economy would consequentially grow. Successful art peices promote conversation between friends — and, with an even greater deal of success, strangers — which makes the space a more interesting place to be.

It is okay to question why public art is so important to spaces. At face-value, it can seem like a question that can only be faced with circular reasoning: ‘public art makes places interesting, okay, but why is that important?’ ‘Well, you know, because it makes places interesting!‘ We initially resort to this quick answer because it is natural for us to want to be in a place that isn’t boring. Boring places make us unenthused, make us want to be elsewhere, and actively change our emotions while being in that boring space. We as people constantly want something to entertain ourselves with, whether that leaves us looking at news feeds on our tiny handhelds or stopping to look in storewindows or people-watching. We live off of our opinions of things, events, and people, and our short attention span reflects that. You may notice that when you are in a boring place (vaguely self-defined as containing what you personally perceive as ‘boring’) you may be annoyed, agitated, or just plain bummed out. This can be compared to an exciting and interesting place with conversation-pieces and entertaining events in which you might notice you are happy, engaged, and interested. Public art is important to spaces because of its effect on that space and on the people who visit that space. This, in turn, makes the space more vibrant, which could very well have a positive effect on the space’s performance economically, socially and environmentally.

To better describe what public art can do to improve a space, we will go back to Century Place in Belleville, Ontario. Let’s look at that picture again:

Ahh, yes, a drab concrete slab right at the major intersection of Belleville’s downtown core. This area is actually a major hub for pedestrians and drivers, either passing through, working, or spending leisure time within the downtown core. Perhaps you have walked through here and noticed how empty this space is – or perhaps you haven’t even really thought about it at all. It really is an empty canvas just waiting for something – anything – even planters to bring a little life to the space. Having been there myself, I can tell you the only thing for people to sit on in this space is one small and lonely concrete bench which is often taken up by a smoker not many people want to sit beside.

As someone who has a huge passion for downtown Belleville’s history, I almost take offense to the lack of public art here. Public art can and often does take on a civil service of historic commemoration, and I touched upon this in my last post. Belleville’s downtown has an intricate and interesting history and in the most traffic-heavy space in the downtown core there isn’t even anything that offers passersby a connection to it.

Take a look at some of the many projects that cities and communities around the world are doing to enhance public spaces for the passersby there, in hopes of making the space more engaging, interesting, and vibrant and, in turn, lifting passersbys spirits if even just a little bit.

An example of sustainable and purposeful public art can be found in Sherbourne Common, Toronto, where stormwater is cleaned and runs through the park in a visually engaging structure:

A very simple yet functional and effective design in Baltimore, Maryland encourages creativity and playfulness while waiting for the bus:

Even something like creative paving and lines on a space like what was done in Copenhagen by the Bjarke Ingels Group can offer a sense of creativity and engagement to people of all ages while just walking through a space:

Public art is more than just creating an engaging space for people and encouraging them to look, listen, converse, stay a while, then come back later. Public art offers a sense of identity to cities, communities, and most importantly their people: shoppers, residents, workers; all classes, all ages, all races and speakers of all languages. What is more cool than a free art show in your community? Consider what public art there is to experience in your community, and how it makes you feel. If your city spaces are boring, what can be done to create interest in that space? Maybe you’re not an artist, but you are the one who’s looking at and experiencing the art when it is installed — what do you want to see and experience in your public spaces?

Here are some links to consider as 2016 comes to an end:

The pros of graffiti

The case for temporary public art

Paying for public art (Ottawa)

Popular and controversial street artist: Banksy

Katie on Downtown Revitalization

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One of my favourite planning anecdotes is that the inventor of the modern shopping mall ended up despising his invention. In the wake of the suburban boom, Victor Gruen saw a need for a safe and engaging place that was not one’s work or home, where participation and interaction could thrive. The mall was a hub for culture, entertainment, and commerce. It was an exciting and lively idea, especially post-war. As malls began to pop up all over the country, Gruen grew to hate what his invention had manifested into. Shopping malls have resulted in disconnected cities and have contributed to suburban sprawl; a detriment to social activity and to the environment.

Think about your city, especially if it is a smaller city of less than 100 000. If you have a mall, where is it located? It is probably located near your highway. Why is that? What do you think it’s doing to your city? Compare your mall to your city’s downtown. Can you name ten businesses located in your downtown? You can very likely name ten businesses located in your mall.

If you were driving down the highway and got off an exit to a city, you would very easily find its mall. You might shop, and maybe you would get some food, and you would want to be on your way. There is no purpose for you to continue into the city, you have done what you needed to do at the mall, and the highway is so conveniently placed that you feel welcome to leave. Hidden in the shadow of the city’s mall is its downtown, forgotten especially by tourists and often only supported by inner-city dwellers.

The disconnect that the mall has created between itself and its city has negatively impacted local economies, small businesses, and has picked at the social activity of a city over the decades of the mall’s existence. Without a primary focus on the city’s heart and core, the city slowly dies! Its life is found in the outer suburbs that thrive off of the malls and vice versa.

So what do we do about this disconnect and deterioration? Downtown revitalization has been the answer to this issue to cities across North America, and for good reason. So many cities have been able to start the process of reversing the negative effects of the mall’s existence through downtown revitalization.

What is downtown revitalization? Well, what isn’t it? When you think of those words, you may think of loud construction, but it isn’t always so disruptive. A primary non-physical aspect of downtown revitalization involves better marketing strategies – for example, consider London’s Get Down! campaign that took advantage of this age’s social media boom and put their downtown in the spotlight. Marketing strategies such as this are often only part of a much more involved strategy that aims at re-energizing downtowns.

Cities invest millions in their downtown cores. Belleville has just completed Phase 2 of its downtown revitalization process, having polished off a major commercial section of the main downtown street, Front Street. As a part of the Belleville Downtown Improvement Area during the summer, I was in the front seat for the bulk of it. After a major facelift for Belleville’s downtown, it is a much more welcoming place to be. Aesthetics play a major part in city planning, as it’s so primary to one’s perception. With newer and more welcoming city infrastructure, more people and activities are accommodated. Downtown revitalization is also an excellent tool for keeping cities up to date and with the times. For example, more people are turning to bikes than cars – especially millennials – and Belleville’s new Front Street is now a safer place for cyclists.

If cities spend millions on their downtown centres, what comes out of it? The refocus on downtowns stresses the importance of the local economy and of communities that are socially active and invested. In many cities, downtown revitalization takes on a new urbanist form where living accommodations are mixed with cultural hubs and local stores. This puts an emphasis on walkable neighbourhoods and encourages social activity and welcoming environments.

But why is downtown revitalization relevant? Are cities better with these new urbanist motifs unfolding in their downtowns? What difference does it make? This brings us back to the shopping mall. First consider a social, walkable, accessible downtown with a mix of transportation – cyclists, pedestrians, cars, public transit – with business owners and residents who naturally encourage and support each other as part of a community. Compare this to a hollow shopping mall placed near a busy highway and surrounded by a sea of pavement and cars, cradling big name stores that do not rely on excellent customer service to keep their business running. This mall is completely disconnected from the outside world. What is a more interesting and engaging environment between these two options? Downtown revitalization is happening to compete with the convenience of malls and to bring people back to not just the city, but to the heart of the city.

Interestingly enough, malls are becoming more desolate as online shopping becomes a bigger and even more convenient trend for people all across the world. North American malls are beginning their decline, and there are more and more malls – especially in the United States – that are becoming hollow holes of what once was a booming feature in the suburban glory of the 50s going forward. So while downtown revitalization is currently competing with what energy malls are left exerting, it is also beginning a huge competition with the new age of purchasing something from the comfort of your bed and having it arrive at your house in less than 48 hours. Is it realistic for downtowns to compete with this advancement of technology? What will cities become as we turn to online interfaces for almost every social interaction? Will downtowns – or even cities – become obsolete the further into the future we go? Or will there always be insurmountable value in seeing a friendly face as we open a local store’s door?

You can look back at past experiences to consider how attached you are to your city and to your city’s downtown. You can also anticipate your involvement in your city as technologically evolves around it. I think I will always appreciate downtowns as a social hub of interaction and interest, and being able to interact with a friendly face in indoor and outdoor settings. Downtown revitalization is a process that cities must take to remain competitive in today’s technological atmosphere, but it’s up to how the public reacts that would ultimately determine whether or not the revitalization was worth the investment. So ask yourself, do you appreciate malls, computer screens, or downtowns as your go-to avenue of social interaction? What are the social consequences of your choice? How does this choice affect your city?

Some interesting links to ponder:

The Father of the American Shopping Mall Hated what he Created

Kitchener’s Revitalization Success

Strategies for Downtown Transformation

Get Down! Downtown London

Belleville’s Phase 2 is Complete