2013/04 600 sq. ft. apartment with large living room

Originally published in the Centretown Buzz
by Sarah Gelbard
April 22, 2013

Park(ing) Day 2011. Photo: Sarah Gelbard

Two and a half years after moving back to Centretown, I finally gave in to the nagging of my friends and threw a belated housewarming party. As you might expect, moving to Centretown from Heron Gate meant my rent increased while my square footage decreased.

My recurring excuse to their recurring nag was that my new apartment was too small for parties. I simply didn’t have the same amount of space for entertaining that I used to. And yet, my home seems so much bigger in this smaller apartment. It is not magic, mirrors, or warped space. It is because so many sites sprinkled throughout Centretown and the Market feel like extensions of my home.

There is a lot of talk about the intensification, walkability, and livability of neighbourhoods. They are the new favourite buzzwords of urban planners and community groups. But how do we experience these things and why do we want them?

Jane’s Walks, an annual series of neighbourhood walking tours named for the urban activist Jane Jacobs, promotes exploring your neighbourhood and meeting your neighbours: “Walking matters more and more to towns and cities as the connection between walking and socially vibrant neighbourhoods is becoming clearer. Built environments that promote and facilitate walking…have higher levels of social cohesion.”

Socially vibrant neighbourhoods provide the opportunity and motivation for residents to interact with people outside their homes  which, in turn, activates the public space, encouraging further interaction. It’s nearly impossible to run in to Hartman’s to pick up a few groceries and not bump into a familiar face, or have someone wave to you through the window at Elgin Street Diner.

Chance encounters are just as vital as planned rendezvous with friends. For many people, the private home no longer comes with the built-in social unit of family. Central Ottawa has an estimated population of 10,750 and 6,500 households. That’s an average of 1.65 people per household. So, when you want to socialize with more than that .65 of a person you share a household with, you can either bring people in—or you can go out.

In Centretown, “out” has a lot to offer when you’re within walking distance of Elgin, Bank, Somerset and the Market. It has high livability because there are places to walk to.

And it is more than just additional square footage of social space. Centretown, and urban neighbourhoods like it, allow you to offset the space requirements for many activities typically encompassed in a suburban home out into public space, because they are so readily and conveniently accommodated. One hardly needs a home gym with the scenic Canal steps away from your door, or the always bustling YMCA if you prefer to work out with weights and machines over running and cycling paths. I have no backyard but I will gladly take a book and tea down the street to Minto Park to sit and read.

This is where we start to see the argument for intensification, or at least how it might be possible without decreasing the standard of living. In some cases—as I have experienced—the standard of living may even increase.

In its planning and development documents, the City of Ottawa has stated: “Although the idea can be controversial, intensification is part of a bigger picture: it is the way to grow for any major city. A denser, more pedestrian-friendly city promotes neighbourhoods by bringing people back out on the street.”

While it seems as though suburban McMansions continue to grow to obscene proportions, urban dwellers are finding it quite easy to condense private living space, if the public living room is well-designed and well-used.

Sharing space requires a negotiation with others to carve out a degree of intimacy and privacy. What this sort of shared/public space can help create is a sense of ownership over space that isn’t about deeds or titles, where investment isn’t just about mortgage payments and home renovations.

We all expend a certain amount of energy and resources towards making our homes nice, comfortable, presentable, and safe. We want our homes to be reflections of who we are. When we start to think of extending the boundaries of our home beyond the walls of our private house, beyond the property lines of our lots, and out into our neighbourhood and community, we start to extend our investment and motivation in making public spaces as nice if not nicer than our private spaces.

Jane’s Walk Ottawa takes place May 5 to 6.

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