2014/03 City growing pains

Originally published in the Centretown Buzz
by Sarah Gelbard
March 15, 2014

Photo credit: Sarah Gelbard

Look in any city’s newspaper any given week and you are likely to come across the story of a development proposal and the predictable ensuing resident outrage. Sadly, these stories often seem to focus on civic engagement as a fight with the city and developers. The players, as well as the issues, have been continuously caricaturized and over- simplified. It seems to promote or at least propagate a de facto reactive and adversarial relationship between residents, developers, and the city.

Three such stories caught my eye recently. Our neighbourhood neighbours—the Market, Hintonburg, and Sandy Hill—currently have on their plate the demolition and infill of an old building, a new condo tower, and student/subsidized housing. In just over a week, I came across three of the most commonly debated topics in urban-centre development; heritage, intensification, and demographics.

Cities grow and change. While we needn’t let changes go unchallenged, we also can’t expect instant results, or change without disruption. There will be growing pains. There will be old buildings torn down. There will be new buildings put up. They may be shiny and new and lacking “character” at first. It may take time for new developments to grow into their neighbourhood and for their neighbourhood to continue to grow around them.

There will be more neighbours moving in. There will be more cars and more traffic. But there will also be increasing demand for alternative transportation and increasing infrastructure and the required density to support it.

The character of a neighbourhood is not defined exclusively by architectural style and era. It is much more defined by the residents and the businesses and how they all come together and inhabit the space in a variety of ways.

Perhaps a more nuanced review of the players and issues could help to redirect focus on civic engagement back towards more proactive and collaborative dialogue and action.

Player 1: The NIMBY (not-in-my-backyard)

What once started out as the underdog protagonist fighting big developers and city politics has grown tiresome. We’ve seen important city infrastructure and much needed revitalization and housing delayed endlessly by a few but loud self-interested protesters. As the NIMBYs get louder, they drown out the voice of their quieter but more reasonable neighbours. Local residents often do have genuine concerns and a valid claim to a stake in how development will impact both their property and day-today life. But they lack the sensationalism that draws attention to their cause.

Player 2: The developer

The villain everyone loves to hate in the story. There are the rumours of payoffs and of ill-advised money saving measures and shortcuts. Some may be true. It is hardly a fair representation of the entire industry. Many developers aim to be good neighbours: not necessarily for wholly altruistic reasons. But being a good neighbour is good business. It is not profitable to submit a proposal that won’t be approved or that will be delayed by endless battles and revisions. It is not profitable to build something that destroys the character of the neighbourhood that is part of their sales pitch. The bottom line can be a good motivator to do good work.

Player 3: The City

The City has a responsibility to its citizens. It similarly has a responsibility for the future enjoyment of the city by its current and future citizens. In that capacity, the City also sets the agenda for growth and development. Change is unavoidable: some positive, some negative. Some more so to some than to others. The City can reasonably be expected to help the involved parties try to reach a compromise that mitigates negative impact. But it is also reasonable to expect the City to support the projects that are consistent with and accountable to its established plan.

Issue 1: Heritage

We can’t preserve everything or extend the life of all buildings indefinitely. Buildings have a life cycle and eventually they reach their end. It may be due to neglect, or poor construction, fire, changes in use, or just old age. A lot of Ottawa’s building stock was intended to fulfill the immediate needs of one of its many booms. There was less concern for durability or to be especially significant or noteworthy. We should take pride in our past and make efforts to preserve it. We should also take pride in our present and make efforts to express it. Older isn’t necessarily better. We should also consider our expectations. Not all buildings are or need to be exceptional.

Issue 2: Intensification

The City of Ottawa has adopted an intensification plan to reduce sprawl and accommodate the growing population within core neighbourhoods. There are two principal development strategies; filling in the unbuilt land and building upward. Neither, taken to the extreme, is especially pleasant. We enjoy our access to both open land and open air. So, let us say it was established that a neighbourhood needed to support an additional 100 storeys of housing units. Which is the preferred solution? Ten 10-storey buildings? Two 30-storey plus 10 four-storey buildings? Twenty-five four-storey buildings? It is not always clear how to compromise and find a workable balance between footprint and height.2014-03-18-09.53.53

Issue 3: Demographics

It’s not hard to see the appeal of neighbours just like you and your family. They likely have similar routines, tastes, needs, and values. They are unlikely to keep you up late with noise. Your local businesses and services will have a clear target audience. You feel a sense of belonging and community. But we often overlook the benefits of culturally, economically, and socially diverse neighbours. Different schedules and routines can even out traffic peaks and congestion, whether on the roads, in line at the store, or waiting for a table at the restaurant. It increases the likelihood that someone is home nearby at all times to keep an eye on things. It brings variety to the local businesses and, often, an all-around vibrancy.

Photo credit: Sarah Gelbard

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