Monday, May 7, 2007

Things we do well

Nice to see the spring...I was beginning to feel like we would never emerge out from beneath the gray blanket of post-winter bleakness. There are stalls set up in the Byward market hawking mostly globalized trinkets, local veggies and assorted weirdness (like the guy with the souped-up dreamcatchers and other Aboriginal-influenced kitsch) but I love it nonetheless. People are actually walking around the city, and as a buddy of mine had pointed out, "you can see elbows". Not to mention girls in skirts, short skirts.

The tribes of summer also pop out of the woodwork: the rollerbladers (mostly a danger to themselves), the people with the extremely large hounds needing a stroll (probable danger to others), and the very Ottawa-specific Ultimate people. As a soccer player and a big fan of tennis, I have consistently wondered about why it is in Ottawa that ultimate frisbee has made its beachhead, or perhaps its last stand. The world and N. America have not taken to this game en masse - but we sure have. It's almost weird and cult-like in its distinction. Perhaps another example of the famous Ottawa spirit of compromise...let's mix up the rules of every known team sport and take out the nasty parts like bodychecking. Stir for a while and come up with ultimate.

I was reminded of Jane Jacobs' and other urban planning texts (yes, harking back to school days on this one) - people love the dense cities with the mostly square grid. Add in floor-level distractions, a bit of shopping and an opportunity to people-watch or perhaps have a busker or some kind of a perfromance...and you've got the ideal recipe for a lively, vibrant and self-perpetuating cityscape. It's the formula that pretty much launched Paris to become the epitome of an exciting city in the 19th century (and onwards); it is what you'll witness in just about every city across N. America where the city got it right. The funny part is that it's not so much an act of deliberate planning and architecture but rather a series of accidental developments, bylaws and some (but not a lot of) planning that tends to produce these lively, attractive neighbourhoods. Ottawa actually has only a few spots like the Byward and is mostly a suburban sprawl when one analyzes it...but as a transplant from the West, I can assure you that Calgarians or Edmontonians think the world of our city as opposed to the bland and totally car-oriented cities they have to contend with.

The other thing we do well - and take for granted - is, as another visitor had remarked, the visible spending of taxpayers' money on nice public projects. Keeping Major's Hill park clean, planting the tulips, paving the cycling paths, installing plaques that tell the tourist what they're looking at...yes, it's the basics, but not every city does it. My friend had come back from a conference in Dayton, Ohio, and Ottawa appeared like a "paradise" compared to the broken - or non-existent - cityscape in that place. Another buddy of mine claimed that the granite-lined new sidewalks in Gatineau were the most expensive and most durable, high-quality piece of infrastructure he'd seen in Canada (and, as an engineer and all-round geek, he is to be believed).

I could whine and moan about the shortcomings and issues of our fair town, there are a plenty. But it is sunny and green outside, we are not freezing and people don't have to watch their backs like in Detroit or the Bronx.

The again, I hear they do this infrastructure and city beautification really well in Norway. They also seem to have good elevators in Norway. Check out this story:

1 comment:

joncormier said...

I believe Ibbitson wrote a very similar article in the Globe. It's available online. I managed to get a comment posted, but who knows if it'll stay up there?

I think Ottawa manages to do neighbourhoods really well. At least the Glebe and Old Ottawa South remind me of what it was I loved in London.