Culture

TREND ALERT: Why Ottawa’s hipsters are all a-twitter over city planning these days

Bystanders No More
There’s an upsurge in civic engagement activities, and it couldn’t come at a better time   BY FATEEMA SAYANI

Illustration by Anthony Tremmaglia

SEE THAT CRUMPLED FLYER half stapled to a telephone pole and waving in the wind? Check it out. Chances are, it’s for a meeting about intensification or light-rail-transit planning or refacing inner-city parks — and these events, taking place in community halls around the city, are the hottest ticket in town.

These meetings are taking place in watering holes too. The Next City Café series at AlphaSoul Café discusses collaborative working spaces, the future of food, and street life. SAW Gallery, the arts-production centre, has launched a city series to debate the issues, both big and small.

Then there’s the National Capital Commission’s Horizon 2067 project, which asks people to participate in working groups on imagining big things for the country’s 200th anniversary. Meanwhile, Mayor Jim Watson beat them to the punch by 50 years, saying during his state-of-the-city address in January that he wants to ensure Ottawa “owns 2017.”

The cutesy colloquialism was worth a chuckle. What’s funnier is when city planners, with straight faces, project pictures of the Champs-Élysées, comparing it to the Albert-Scott corridor. It happened in March at Tom Brown Arena during a discussion of the Community Design Plan for the area around the Bayview transit station. With some streetscaping, that traffic sewer could be a grand boulevard, we were told. The audience — standing room only — chuckled gently. We, as Ottawans, give points for trying.

Still, the idea shouldn’t be dismissed entirely, even if you drive down Scott Street every day. Dreaming big and harnessing the creative force of the citizenry helps forge a strong sense of civic identity and pride. That’s the central tenet of countless urban theorists.

We see it at the ground level too. The Capital Complaints Choir — a group of whinging Ottawa musicians and scenesters — has a melody in the works based on Citizen columnist Andrew Cohen’s August 2011 rage-inducing article, “The Trouble With Ottawa Is Ottawans.” The choir takes selected lines and puts them to song — the idea being that if you get those irritations off your chest, you leave room in your heart to love your city. There are unintended and intended effects here. The complaints choir has contributed to the accidental hipsterization of Andrew Cohen and has built a com-munity around the idea of venting.

This swell factor, whereby a lot of people are talking about the same thing at once, comes at a time when job cuts in the federal public service threaten to shatter the rock of the local economy. What better time for renewal? We’ve lived with the anxiety and excitement of being a city perpetually on the cusp of world-class identity. Now it’s time to put all those plans into action.

After all, we’ve been here before. Remember 20/20 Smart Growth planning? It was a five-day $500,000 summit in June 2001 where everyday people were asked what they wanted the city to look like in 2021, the date by which, experts predicted, the city’s population would have bloomed to 1.3 million from the post-amalgamation head count of 850,000. Participants were given sketchbooks to draw ideal cityscapes and were asked to choose a favourite from among a series of European city scenes.

Andres Duany, a new urbanist philosopher, gave the crowd a saucy slap in the face when he said the design of our city was soul-destroying. His message: while we’re busy commuting on jammed, smog-infested highways, Europeans are making love in their mixed-use, tree-lined neighbourhoods. Fighting blight can get you laid — and people liked that message.

Today the tone is different — we’re hearing some tough talk amid all that frothing. The book The Unimagined Canadian Capital, published last fall, contains the ideas of some 30 urban policy experts who gathered last January at the University of Ottawa to talk about designing a better capital. The authors slammed the bureaucracy of a city where three levels of government bang up against one another as “the tyranny of small decisions” and accused the NCC of being short-sighted on long-term transit planning.

And that’s huge, since all those ideas about culturally vibrant cities are a result of strong transit planning. As it stands, we have a divided city marked by those living inside the Greenbelt and those living outside the Greenbelt. Intensification means not having to put everyone in far-flung communities of cookie-cutter subdivisions that require roads to link them to the city and where the automobile reigns supreme. Build up, not out.

At the Tom Brown Arena meeting, the discussion was around managing the population surge elegantly. The future light-rail-transit station at Bayview needs pathways, parks, and shops to draw people together and to encourage them to live and work near transit — so that they use it. Past behaviour proves promising: when the O-Train was introduced in 2001, it accounted for huge leaps in ridership in Ottawa.

The Ottawa Centre for Regional Innovation changed its name to Invest Ottawa, and wisely so. The economic talk needs to focus on multiple strands — we need to drum up business in various sectors to ensure hardy growth and to convert all this great talk into action.

This culture column was featured in the May 2012 edition. Read Fateema Sayani’s culture column in Ottawa Magazine and follow her on Twitter @fateemasayani

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