Neighbourhoods

Ottawa: What’s Wrong with this city, anyway? Take a look at the Jordaan in Amsterdam or Jericho, in Oxford, or Cartier Street in Quebec City. . .

Belford Crescent, Ottawa

Secret Westboro-heading for oblivion

Developments in Westboro ( yes, that’s trendy Westboro in Ottawa west, including Kitchissippi) are not looking good, and very few citizens seem to have a clue about what the problem is, or to understand what I’m talking about when I refer to “good neighbourhood development.” In fact, the main trends of development in my neighbourhood seem to violate almost every good principle of city planning. Lewis Mumford, Jane Jacobs and many other enlightened and heroic souls are surely turning over in their graves. Let me explain.

Jericho,Oxford

An urban landscape should be people-friendly, diverse, stimulating, aesthetically attractive, and should offer something to citizens of all ages and all levels of wealth. Every urban area should strive to create a unique environment, one that offers visible connections to its history, including its natural history, as well as promoting spaces that embody the most advanced sense of what a community can become. A profusion of chain stores and large box stores, streets full of condos and fake mansions turns a unique place into “just anywhere.” I don’t want to live in “just anywhere.” I want to live in Kitchissippi-Westboro, a place that can be as unique in its own terms as the Jordaan in Amsterdam, Los Feliz in Los Angeles, the Jericho neighbourhood in Oxford, or Chelsea in London.

Westboro: The old and the small are doomed

amsterdam-market-the-jordaan-using-the-art

The Jordaan. Every Day is market day

The key elements in creative urban living can be summed up as: Diversity, accessibility, and attractiveness of housing, commercial, recreational, and cultural units. The creation and maintenance of neighbourhood connections that guarantee communication among different social and income groups, and the development of a strong community voice that speaks authoritatively to outsiders, such as city planners and developers, who place commercial considerations above inter-personal, aesthetic, and community achievements. An attractive urban space would normally include: 1) A mixture of highly developed “constructed” space along with more “natural” space that keeps residents at least minimally in touch with the original character of the land. 2) A balance of old and historic spaces and constructions and strikingly new constructions and newly perceived spaces. This creates a sense of both development and tradition that is at once exhilarating, challenging, and reassuring to residents. 3) Pedestrian walks and accesses, markets that are diverse, or that can be put up and taken down almost daily, and which offer local products sold by small producers; small commercial enterprises that offer unique products or services, together with a few (very few!) large chain stores to create a connection with the larger commercial world.

Cutting down trees and packing people into expensive housing units contributes almost nothing to the pleasures of urban living. (The excuse for this is that we need “intensification” to protect us from long strings of suburban development). The joke is that we are getting the fringe suburbs anyway, an absurdity in an age when gasoline consumption must clearly be reduced. It is certainly possible, with the requisite ingenuity, to develop the old settled areas of the city, so as to provide more housing space there–and yet preserve the necessities for the good urban life that I mention above. Wall-to-wall condominiums is a disaster. Even people who move into such units deserve and demand more than other such units facing them across the street. If somebody wants to build a fake mansion on a well-settled street with mostly small-scale houses, that’s fine. Their taste speaks for itself. But fake mansions ( like too many large boxstores and chain stores) undermine the character of a neighbourhood, and create walls of conspicuous consumption that add nothing to anyone’s lifestyle.

Why does this happen? Mostly because of greed and lack of imagination. Greed on the part of the developers and lack of imagination among the city planners. Add to this the lack of guts, or active collusion, among the politicians, and you have a formula for urban blight–the blight of high-priced, over-sold mediocrity. Our politicians listen to the developers because the developers contribute to their campaign funding. Maybe they should start listening to the people who elected them, and who have put some thought and passion into what’s good for neighbourhoods and people, not for the bank accounts of the few. When I wrote the Maclean’s Companion to Canadian Arts and Culture (published 2000), I included a section called “Gardens, Special Buildings and Intriguing Cityscapes.” I mentioned the market area of Ottawa as one worthy urban space (although there have been some really bad developments there too, over the years). I would like to think that any future survey of pleasing and civilized urban spaces in Canada would include Kitchissippi-Westboro. But I am not hopeful. Despite the strong and eloquent voices that argue for the creative development of our community, we are very likely to be defeated by the developers, their bureaucratic lackeys, and our anemic politicians. The one hope is if ordinary people in large numbers protest and insist on a proven quality of urban life, while rejecting the false vision of urban life manufactured by advertising slogans and the vested interests. This issue is a litmus test for the sensibility and common sense of the of the Ottawa (Kitchissippi-Westboro) community. Do we want to live in the kind of concrete jungle that developers favour? Will it be the Jordaan or Nowheresville? Jericho or the concrete jungle? I’m not holding my breath.

Community Action, the new Loblaws, the Towers of Mordor in Westboro, and Look Out, Kitchissippi!

Get Informed, Make Judgments, Protest! Many Canadians are feeling smug and superior to the Americans, who put up with a great deal of exploitation and so often vote for the wrong people–for reasons they delude themselves into believing are important. Well, just remember, folks. POSITIVE POLITICAL ACTION HAS A LOCAL DIMENSION TOO. IT BEGINS “ON THE BLOCK.” How many people in Westboro: 1) Take any responsibility for having such a blinkered and unenlightened political representation at City Hall? 2) Look around and intelligently assess what is happening in their neighbourhood? 3) Seek to frame a vision of what kind of future they want for their community? 4) Get involved in turning their vision into a reality? City residents who care about the environment they live in would be well advised to get in touch with some of the concepts developed by urban planners. Cities are not all of piece: the different parts of a city have a different character and serve various purposes. As I argued before the Ottawa City Council a couple of years ago, Westboro, where I live, is a “small-town neighbourhood.” This is defined as a mixed residential and commercial area, visually distinct, boundaried, and with a generally agreed-upon name. In such areas, the urban landscape is varied, there are full complements of retail, educational, religious and entertainment services, and the stores are small. It has a population that remains in place over a long period of time. Although residents go outside of the community for some shopping and other activities, they enjoy living in a familiar, manageable, more or less self-contained world. This environment is precisely what makes Westboro a pleasant place to live. 

IF WESTBORO RESIDENTS WANT TO RETAIN THE POSITIVE ASPECTS OF THEIR ENVIRONMENT THEY HAVE TO REJECT DEVELOPMENTS THAT VIOLATE IT. Skyscraper towers will soon destroy it. So will large shopping complexes. Smaller condominiums only a few storeys high are quite acceptable, and similarly sized-developments that serve a variety of uses (retirement homes, office complexes, cinemas, theatres) are very desirable, but they must not swallow up everything else!

If you really want to have some role in shaping the future of your own urban environment, there are several positive steps you can take The first is self-education. If you think “progress” always means what it says, or that the word “development” always refers to a creative new departure, you’d better start learning how to look behind the smooth words to the reality they often deliver. Every developer claims to be in the vanguard of “progress;” actually, they’re often in the rear guard, and who ever heard of one that would refuse to demolish a heirloom building if there was money to be made by replacing it with a characterless mediocrity? Friends, when you hear a developer use the words “exciting new lifestyle” you should reach for your revolver, not your cheque book! When they build you a huge (essentially suburban, and arguably unnecessary) supermarket complex in a coherent and long-stabilized residential-commercial area, putting pressure on already existing and useful small businesses, creating a huge influx of traffic, and employing a bare minimum of neighbourhood people at a minimum or sub-minimum wage, is that progress? Is it progress to sacrifice a lovely skyline to a gigantic tower that houses condominiums so expensive that only wealthy people will be able to live there? To knock down a heritage school or other public building so that developers can put up a rabbit-warren cash-cow condo disguised under a chic moniker? You may think that adding a few dissonant touches to a strong community can cause little harm. Well, if transportation and roads are affected, if already existing businesses are affected, if aesthetics are affected, in a very short time the whole character of the neighbourhood, including the features that drew people to live there in the first place, may be destroyed.

Bye, bye to traditions

As one of the developers was recently heard to say, giving away the game completely; “I don’t want small businesses here; I want the big chains in my buildings. I don’t like the small guys.”

Westboro residents who think they are served by large developments should consider their side effects, especially traffic flow. Why are so many people “allergic” to protective devices that slow down infiltrating traffic? I live on a convenient connector street, Tweedsmuir Avenue, between Clare and Wesley, and many drivers treat this narrow stretch of road as an urban speedway. If I had small children I would often fear for their lives. Why do so many streets in Centretown have speed bumps, while Tweedsmuir is left to the mercy of the lunatics, some of whom hardly bother to pause at the stop sign at Wesley and Tweedsmuir?

Not Westboro, but zoom in to get the irony

If the city approves changes that hurl reckless commuter traffic into residential streets, it ought to consider changes that make neighbourhoods safer for residents.

The Mayor, Ottawa’s “City Planning” and the Developers

As I suggest above, the word from City Hall, new and old, has seemed to be “development, especially in old established areas.” This is euphemistically designated as “intensification” or “creative urban in-fill.” What is the rationale for this policy? The idea, it seems, is to prevent suburban sprawl. The grand plan, according to one of our genuinely well-informed and well-intentioned (former) councillors, Clive Doucet, is meant to deal with the pressures of increased fuel prices, which point to future transportation nightmares, skyrocketing energy costs for the city, a glut of urban-suburban traffic. The hope is to get people to live closer together and to induce them to use public transportation, rather than to depend on the automobile for everything. But does urban in-fill–which often violates the character of a pre-existing neighbourhood, obliterates open spaces that might be used as ecological breathing spaces, or causes historical structures to be destroyed–does this result in a better prospect for excellent community life than pathetic rows of “little boxes” along the Rideau River? It depends on the QUALITY AND APPROPRIATENESS of the in-fill. What’s more, Ottawa has only the minimum groundwork for a really effective public transportation system, the OC Transpo bus route transitways. Unfortunately, it will cost enormously to turn this groundwork into a modern connector system (just look at the price for the very sketchy O-train network.) Unfortunately, Ottawa’s overall grand plan, which is very far from realization, and for which the funding is far from secured, seems to be presently an excuse for making far too many compromises with developers, with far too little attention paid to preservation of what exists and to imaginative alternatives. The principles of urban beauty and diversity and fitness to a given site should override the abstract notion of a “city policy” to be implemented at all costs. And other ideas need to be considered. Here are some thoughts on development in Ottawa that suggest alternatives and cautions to the idea of “in-fill.”

**Not all empty spaces in a city need to be filled with intensive housing; some are better left empty. They can be used to create breathing spaces and to bring a bit of nature into the neighbourhood. (This doesn’t even require “parks,” which can be excellent, but are often over-manicured and tedious. Nor does it require that some sort of recreational facility be dropped in the space.) A few benches, a tree or two, some bushes—a refreshing simplicity.

**Many citizens only hear about new developments in their neighbourhoods very indirectly, or too late. Developers should be held responsible for informing the community of their plans, not merely by legally required postings, but more directly. Developers contemplating a project should be required to do a mailout, detailing their plans. and revealing what their surveys, or city surveys, say about the impact of their proposal. Every property owner has a right to get such information in his/her mailbox. They should not have to petition the city or the developers for information.   (Venice Beach)

** Developers are getting significant tax breaks and incentives from the city. They should be required to contribute to the overall community welfare as follows: 1) Each new project should contain some environmental innovation. If developers claim to be part of the wave of “progress” they should demonstrate this by incorporating some innovative feature in their construction. This could be an unusual or special gardening or planting component, a new kind of waste disposal system, some special means of energy savings for the construction in question, or a way of encouraging tenants to participate fully in saving energy—the opportunities are wide, almost limitless. Selling condominiums to wealthy buyers is not in itself a service to the community, and may be a disservice, if the operation in question is ugly, inefficient; or if it violates the character of the neighbourhood and contributes to local pollution. The city should require some attention to neighbourhood improvement from the developers; putting up expensive buildings is not enough. 2) The developers should be required to budget so as to purchase for building decoration some arts or crafts produced locally. This was recommended decades ago in the report I wrote for Mayor Marion Dewar’s administration. Is it being implemented? To purchase paintings and sculptures, or more utilitarian creations, from local artists to decorate their structures would involve the developers instantly in community perceptions and expression and begin to justify, in a small but promising way, their constant claims that they are bringing benefits to the community. 3) Developers should be required to maintain permanently open channels of communication with residents of the community. Complaints and problems that arise as a result of new buildings should be channeled directly to the developers, who should be obliged to respond formally and in a reasonable manner to such complaints. The recent masterpiece of construction in Los Angeles, the Disney Performing Arts Centre, received complaints that its shiny exterior metal surfaces were increasing the heat on the sidewalk and bothering pedestrians. This complaint was immediately addressed by the owners and even the architect in a friendly and understanding manner. One can imagine how such a complaint would be responded to in Ottawa. The developer would ignore it, or shunt it off to the city bureaucracy. An Ottawa Citizen editorial would mock the complainer and spend a few paragraphs weeping over the terrible constraints put upon our enterprising businessmen by a populace poisoned by “political correctness.”

**Does the urban future lie, as Clive Doucet argues, with public transportation? If so, we may be in for a rough future. Most Ottawans (and especially middle class people) are so unaccustomed to using public transportation that a major publicity campaign needs to be launched to prepare the way for and accompany any plan for extensive development of a city-wide system. The campaign has to make clear the advantages enjoyed by those who use such transportation, and must portray the experience as positive and even “sexy.” The transportation itself must be comfortable, affordable, and must be seen as the “cool” and “with it” way to go. It must enable commuters to get to all key downtown areas of the city, and to enjoy the trip itself. They should look upon the experience, not as a last-ditch option, but as a delightful and convenient first-choice. To persuade them of this will take some doing.

**Every city has a moral responsibility to provide for the less affluent and less fortunate of its citizens. A city that approved endless upscale and middle-class developments that allow some neighbourhoods to become ghettos for the elite, while others decline into slums, deserves censure. It should be possible to allow more “mixed” neighbourhoods to survive, to subsidize and support the survival of the simple, the colourful, the inexpensive, the ethnic, and not to allow the urban landscape to be relentlessly gentrified. Otherwise we lose space for the needy and we lose urban character. Such a negative and one-sided policy would be the enshrining in brick and mortar, in store fronts and backyards, the devastating neo-conservative policy of encouraging the very rich at the expense of all others.

**Ottawa has wonderful spaces along the Ottawa River that could be developed. Most conservationists, most citizens, shrink in horror when you speak of development there. But former mayor Jacquelin Holzmann had the right idea. A very carefully controlled river and island development plan, fairly close to downtown, could create on a small scale an Ottawa equivalent of Vancouver’s Granville Island, and would follow the pattern of some European and American developments. Early visitors raved about the Chaudiere Falls; modern urban development has utterly debased this natural wonder. We need a river-complex with restaurants and cafes, art galleries, low-rise housing. It would be a fine place to put a medium size multi-use performing space for live arts. It could fit in beautifully with  new developments surrounding the new War Museum. (Lebreton Flats–which have been demeaned by that notorious glass cheesebox that uglifies the whole area, a sample of what you get when you deal with low-bid developers! Driving east past the museum? Glance right, and shudder!)

**Heritage buildings, carefully restored, should, where possible, be incorporated into new developments at the expense of the developers rather than razed. A good urban life is an aware life, a life in touch with tradition and beauty. When I was a child in New York City it was common for old and noble buildings to be torn down and replaced by new ones. Over the years the city has learned that some structures are irreplaceable, and some spaces can hardly be improved upon. The casualties along the way, however, make a sad panorama. The same is true for Ottawa, only here, none of the three concerned groups has learned its lesson: the developers are often uninterested in pleasing the community, the city is complacent and over-generous, and—apart from some wonderfully energized groups—citizens are often lethargic and disorganized.

 (militant poster from Jericho, Oxford)  

**In a city with a decent daily newspaper, some of the inconsistencies of recent Ottawa development would be challenged in print. But the Ottawa Citizen (whose motto—given their recent ownership– might be “asperity over humanity”) is too busy celebrating the values of unfettered private enterprise, too busy undermining traditional public values, too busy trashing Canadian independence on behalf of American chauvinism to give much thought to local or community concerns. (This is the paper that attacked John Ralston Saul for suggesting that the developers might pay a bit more attention to beauty and tradition, and not reduce everything to the economic bottom line.) The Citizen’s benighted editorial writers are as indifferent to our Ottawa neighbourhoods as they are to world peace, the environment, and the suffering of the Palestinians. The Glebe Report is a good example of what excellent journalism can be achieved on the local level, and Westboro seems to be emerging with stronger journalistic voices (although we badly need a unified, aggressive, responsible, eloquent and singularly focused local paper). In the absence of a traditional journalistic voice, it is important to communicate by new means—which is why I’m taking some time from a busy schedule to put these thoughts on my website. In the States, the opposition to Bush was served well by independent websites, even after the Right succeeded in buying out and subverting most of the so-called major channels of communication. What people got (and still get) on the major media (television in particular) is right-wing propaganda, patriotic slop, and mindless entertainment. The technique is: “if you can’t convince them, fill their mental space with rubbish.” The “in-fill” of our mental lives is trash TV. All of which helps make citizens patsies when it comes to foisting so-called “progress” on them.

**I have purposely kept this discussion general and have not alluded to some  developments of recent years that seem rather alarming, e.g., the approval by a former mayor of a large subsidy for the developers at the expense of the Ottawa taxpayers; the creation of the Loblaws complex on Richmond Road; the destruction of a heritage building in Ottawa South to make way for “chic” (and expensive) in-fill housing; the erection of a monstrous tower south of Richmond Road in Westboro– one that has all the aesthetic charm of a giant spray-bottle (its shape!), and which blocks the skyline of homeowners to provide million-dollar penthouses for the few; the wanton destruction by developers of some priceless forest land and charming ski trails and forest paths west of Ottawa; a new Richmond Road condominium at the north end of Broadview Avenue; oversized in-fill private houses in scattered areas of the west end, and others. No doubt there are arguments pro and con for some of these, but my final point is this: where is the development that meets some of the more enduring and fundamental standards I have alluded to here? WHERE IS THE DEVELOPMENT THAT ADDS SOMETHING CREATIVE AND BEAUTIFUL TO OUR URBAN ENVIRONMENT? WHERE IS THE DEVOPMENT THAT EMBODIES NOT ONLY IDEAS OF PROFIT-MAKING AND CONVENIENCE, BUT ALSO ECOLOGICALLY INNOVATIVE, AESTHETIC AND HUMANE PRINCIPLES? In short, show me the new developments that we as Ottawans can be proud of, that we can expect future generations to cherish and boast about, that give our city a unique face and character, that are making this city a better place to live in, that are creating a more humane life for our citizens. IT ISN’T THE ECONOMY, STUPID; NOR ANYBODY’S ABSTRACT CONCEPTION OF WHAT THE FUTURE SHOULD BRING; IT’S THE CONCRETE DAY-TO-DAY REALIZATION OF THE GOOD LIFE FOR CITIZENS AND RESIDENTS THAT STANDS IN  QUESTION.

 (Jordaan, Amsterdam)

Loblaws on Trial: A Shopper’s Perspective Now, about Loblaws–was it the beginning of the end for a “civilized” Westboro? Although I am not a regular patron, I have visited it several times, and my wife shops there occasionally. I do not “hate” Loblaws, for, ironically, given my opposition to it, it is a nice convenient walk from my door, and serves as my depanneur when I need one. As a critic and reviewer I have been thinking over my experience of the store, and, for what it’s worth, here it is. In essence Loblaws, although it far from an egregious construction, fits very badly into the Richmond Road area where it stands, and contributes very little to the area either visually or as a retailer. Much of its space of course comprises a parking lot, which is one of the problems with this kind of plant. There’s just nothing exciting about a parking lot, and all those cars have to go somewhere, and unfortunately many of them zip and zoom into residential streets on their way to or from wherever. But at least the building itself is low and, on the Byron Avenue side, screened by some trees and hedges. (The façade on the Byron Avenue side, however, is just that; it is always deserted and devoid of pedestrians, It must have caught some developer’s greedy eye, however, because now they are talking about squeezing a condo in there). The problem, really, is that this Loblaws is just a suburban type store, one that belongs in a mall, and it has been dropped into a neighbourhood that cries out for different treatment. Just imagine what we might have had instead. Among many possibilities, there might have been a similar-sized building complex, but with a parking garage, partially underground and extending upward to the height of the complex. Such a building might have housed a wonderful diversity of stores and offices. There could have been an enclosed market (like the one in Guelph, Ontario, or like the Atwater Market in Montreal, with local produce, dry goods, edible stuff and craft products), a theatre or cinema, a second bookstore, a Westboro equivalent of Glebe Video, a residential unit for seniors, professional offices—this kind of mix would have made for a much more relevant and lively complex than Loblaws could ever provide. What does Loblaws provide? (Here I am speaking as objectively as I can, as a critic and former reviewer). Loblaws provides convenient one-stop shopping; it manages to get quite a bit of diversity into its huge floor space, including a coffee shop, a tiny wine store, a small technology stand with photo development services and electronics, a photographer, a florist, a pick-up counter for snacks and fast food, even a small sushi bar. It also provided (at least initially) an outstanding selection of “lost leaders”–lamps, tables, dishes, towels–some of them of very good quality. On the other hand, the actual Loblaws produce leaves a lot to be desired, both as to quality and price. It is not very expensive to buy food in Loblaws, but the food you’re getting is too often second-rate. The fruits and vegetables are particularly mediocre (friends of mine have complained about them), the meat is undistinguished, and although the fish is quite good, too much is packaged for quick serving , and thus expensive, and often too loaded with calories . Most annoying of all, Loblaws tends to push out excellent brand names in favour of its own “President’s Choice” items, and while these are usually not bad, the President’s choice may not always be your choice. The layout of the store is also, from the shopper’s point of view, ridiculous. You walk into the fruits and vegetables section, with the fish on the right and the meat on the rear wall. Then comes a big obtrusive druggist section (which nonetheless, my wife tells me, has good products and prices), then the miscellaneous merchandise (often good stuff, but why placed here?). At last you get to the dairy section, having to traverse the whole store to do so, even if you only need a dozen eggs. Oh the insulting obviousness of this lay-out! As if we don’t know that we are being dragged through the shop in order to tempt us to buy things we didn’t come to buy! How insulting! Architectural interior as manipulation. A cheap trick! The ambiance of Loblaws is naturally very different from the ambiance of the smaller Westboro stores. How wonderful to go into Saslove’s, Herb and Spice, the Pasta Shop next door, the Three Tarts, Westboro Pharmasave, one of the fancy chocolate shops, the local shoemaker, Bridgehead or another of the coffee shops, or one of the tea stores. In such places (not always, but most often, especially in the smaller ones) you are a person; you are often known by sight; there is conversation, jokes, the sense of being in a place populated by individuals who have names and identities, and by merchants who are glad that you’re there. Even the clutch of medium-sized and rather impersonal sporting equipment and clothing stores on Richmond Road offer at least the possibility of a walk-in visit and the sense that you are shopping with fellow enthusiasts and “cool” modern folk. In Loblaws, by comparison, almost all shoppers arrive and leave by car; they don’t contribute to the urban energy; they contribute to the pollution. In the store aisles they brush by, tight-lipped; they never look at you, but go grimly on their way, filling up those big baskets. WHAT IS IT ABOUT THOSE LOBLAWS ZOMBIES? When you check out, yes, you get a conventional “hello” from the check-out people, but it is totally impersonal. (Loblaws shoppers never talk to each other). I am told that the staff are underpaid; if so, they do well, for they are very helpful and friendly—it is the atmosphere that is deadly, the sheer bigness, and the sameness of all of those President’s Choice foodstuffs, which Loblaws makes sure fill the shelves, thus excluding other and often better name brands and reducing, not amplifying the shopper’s choice! President’s Choice–oh yes– that we do have–catchily marketed, but too often pseudo-chic fodder for the sense-deadened middle classes. Many of us refuse to live in suburbia, partially because we don’t like this kind of shopping, these kinds of goods. And also because we don’t like to be dependent on a car for everything. How come we need big stores and swarms of traffic in Westboro? Before Loblaws arrived I got excellent meat at the Saslove’s butcher (it’s not expensive considering the quality and variety!), superb fruit and vegetables at Herb and Spice (also at fairly reasonable prices). Also, excellent standard dry goods, flour, cereals, and some ethnic foods, at Giant Tiger or Food Basics (saving sometimes as much as $100 a visit over Loblaws). These are the food stores I patronized then—and still do! If Loblaws disappeared tomorrow (apart from the lost leaders and the short-walk convenience) I really wouldn’t miss it. The Parkdale Market should be a high point but has never made it–it needs more variety, more input from local producers and a more eccentrically ingenious variety of produce. In conclusion, let me give you two or three examples of the kind of neighbourhood Westboro could be—ought to be–in my opinion. 

What Could We Make of Westboro-Kitchissippi?

Venice Beach

Last fall I visited Quebec City and Jericho in Oxford again, the Jordaan in Amsterdam, Venice Beach and Los Feliz in L.A. In Quebec City I stayed—by choice—on Cartier Street, not far from the public art gallery and the Plains of Abraham. I’m including a photo (below) to give you an idea of the area. Please take a look. Notice the low-lying homogeneous buildings, the varied establishments, residential and commercial, the active street life, the diversity-in-unity that marks a good neighbourhood. It’s a kind of Glebe in miniature. Westboro citizens, and city planners should take a look. And if they don’t want to go that far, they should take a look at the Glebe (soon–before it’s ruined by the Lansdowne Nightmare). I don’t see any superstores in either area; I see small stores, adjacent or incorporated residences, a busy street life, urban energy, and at the same time, an intimate environment. They also have those things in another of my favourite areas—the upper West Side in New York, say on Broadway from 75th to 92nd Street. Tall buildings, yes, but neighbourhood variety, flea markets, fairs, small stores, intimacy. Room for everyone, and no hogging of space by a few big merchandisers. It’s in such environments that legendary establishments grow up and flourish: Zabar’s Deli in New York, Café Krieghoff in Quebec City. The coffee chains love these neighbourhoods, but we don’t even need all of them—we don’t need the endless coffee wars among Starbuck’s, Second Cup, Timothy’s, and all the rest. I love coffee; I am a coffee freak, but do we need so many? They multiply like rabbits. Too much of anything isn’t good—at least in urban design. Diversity is the key.

Cartier-street-Quebec City

It’s just possible that this trend can be reversed, that Westboro will not turn into an urban nightmare, a concrete desert, like South Keys, or become a boring, impersonal, unremarkable mixed residence-commercial zone, like Pinecrest, but I really doubt it. Who cares about this community—its uniqueness, its great potential for a development that would respect its strengths? Certainly not   our recent mayors or their friends and supporters, the developers. Apparently not many of our local citizens either.

Los Feliz, L.A.

I think that over the next few years I’ll be spending quite a bit of time in the Glebe, on Cartier Street in Québec City, and in the Upper West Side of New York, or in Los Feliz or Westwood in L.A., or in the Jordaan in Amsterdam or Chelsea in London. Every now and then I need to stroll through a real neighbourhood, I need to experience the delights of a community that knows what it is and is determined to conserve its virtues. If Westboro could develop along those lines, if it could get a collective sense of itself, of its uniqueness, and hang onto it, wouldn’t it just be wonderful? But I’m not betting on it, are you?

One Response to Neighbourhoods

  1. Elaine Marlin says:

    So many good ideas here, with some intriguing photos.
    Re local foods and small businesses:
    Erin OManique is leading a project to develop Greens Creek Farm as a local food and urban agriculture hub. The plan is to convert an abandoned NCC nursery site with over 75 acres of agricultural land into a centre that promotes and celebrates local food.
    (Ottawa doesn’t have a food depot now. Produce is sent to Toronto for packaging if it is to be sold in large stores.)
    There are many ways this project will help the small farmer, small business owner and, of course, the consumer.
    Erin’s blog will be appearing soon on the website http://www.justfood.ca to report progress and fundraising.
    Re parks.
    A large number of city parks (perhaps 100) were not designated as parks and so could have been “undesignated” at any time. People came together on this issue and city council has decided that the parks are all to get proper designation.
    I think that a city-wide organization that promotes open spaces might give citizens trying to keep these precious sites the power of collective clout. It might also do away with the constant charge of NIMBYism used by the press whenever good neighbourhood preservation plans are put forward.
    Also see interesting parks feature in Globe and Mail all this week.

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