Why did I nominate Old Ottawa South as a "Great Neighbourhood" in the Great Places in Canada contest for the Canadian Institute of Planners? (Vote here until Feb. 29, 2012.) You can vote every hour or so, so please do! Vote for Brewer Oval and March Highlands, too--they are not in competition with each other.
In addition to my personal conviction that Old Ottawa South (OOS) is indeed "a great Canadian neighbourhood" for many reasons, I wanted to draw attention to the issue of "appropriate infill housing" in established urban communities such as ours all across the country.
Note: The following article expresses the opinions of the author, which are not necessarily shared or endorsed by OSCA or the OSCA website. Do you have an opinion you'd like to share with the community? If so, contact firstname.lastname@example.org.
Intensification and "Appropriate Infill"
It's a growing problem across Canada; in particular when intensification becomes a city policy. The vast majority of residents I have spoken with in Old Ottawa South approve of intensification as a means to prevent urban sprawl, and to protect our valuable Ottawa greenbelt from falling into the hands of developers who want to build large suburban communities there. Unfortunately, there are developers who continually portray residents as NIMBYs who don't want change. This is patently false and deliberately misleading, which many residents have pointed out when they have attended the City's Development Committee and Committee of Adjustment meetings about specific properties they feel are under threat. We need to protect the established urban core from "inappropiate infill" while keeping urban sprawl to the minimum we can.
Most developers, on the other hand, see the intensification policy simply as an opportunity for profit, and have little or no consideration for the intent of the policy of densification: which is to keep a city livable, sustainable, and attractive, not simply to provide a profit grab for developers.
Currently, our urban neighbourhoods are threatened by inappropriate overbuild, which can seriously alter or destroy the character of an older neighbourhood such as ours if not kept in check. Developers are squeezing unattractive, overly large (and in some cases cheaply and poorly built) housing onto side lots and any other available space—not just here or even other neighbourhoods in Ottawa—but in cities like ours all across Canada.
Old Ottawa South is known for its friendly front porches and attractive older homes, but developers seem interested only in maximizing their profits with either excessively large suburban-style townhomes dominated by front garages and paved front yards, or modern "monster homes" that are built right to the allowable maximum footprint of the properties. Either way, they also tend to invade the privacy of the neighbouring properties. They tend to remove the existing older trees on properties too—this urban forest constitutes our "urban lungs" and so the quality of the atmosphere as well as quality of life is under seige.
Intensification is necessary, and is a good thing when done right: the neighbourhood is enhanced, and the population is increased, and that's good for our businesses, such as our "Traditional Main Street" style shopping district on Bank Street, too.
We want to maintain the environmental sustainability and walkability of our streets, and this new infill housing, with emphasis in particular on parking for multiple vehicles in almost every case, threatens that. It is not a question of aesthetics, either, as some like modern, some do not, and some, such as myself, approve of a refreshing mix. The problem with inappropriate housing developments is that they do not enter into any relationship with their surroundings, they do not engage with the street, and simply present a closed, cold face to passersby. This can result over time in a lack of community cohesion, and loss of the friendly, welcoming and open atmosphere that helps to keep a neighbourhood safe. With "eyes on the street" and neighbours who know each other, children and others feel much safer, and hopefully criminals are deterred from either harming children or stealing property.
When a small group of residents discovered that the City of Ottawa's Guidelines for Urban Infill were just that—guidelines without teeth—and that developers were consistently getting their way for variances of one kind or another (and "spot-rezoning" in particular) from the City so they could build inferior products and maximize their profits, several informal residents' groups and the community association's development committee, OSWatch, put pressure on City planners to do something about this. In addition, these residents continue to take issue with individual developments and are actively working to try to prevent their loss and protect the remaining character of the community. You can find more information about this here on the OSCA website: 71 Hopewell Avenue was one development that residents were active in attempting to alter, unsuccessfully. Although there are many development projects ongoing in OOS, currently: 9 Rosedale Avenue is at issue, where an English cottage style former B & B right on Colonel By Drive, beside the World Heritage Rideau Canal; 34 Brighton Avenue is now to be turned from a lovely redbrick into 3 massive townhouses that will tower over Brighton Beach Park; 65 Hopewell Avenue is pushing for variances that will allow it to be another 3-storey faceless block with garage and pavement facing the street.
Potential for Heritage Overlay
There is currently support for Colonel By from Bronson to Bank receiving a Heritage Overlay as protection, which is another reason to bring Old Ottawa South to the attention of the nation through nomination in this contest. This stretch of road runs right along our "heritage promenade" that dignitaries such as the President of the United States take on their way to the Parliament buldings, right along the canal.
Luckily, there are some good planners at the City of Ottawa who are now working on revising these guidelines and hopefully strengthening zoning or changing the zoning where necessary, and I wanted to publicize that there were good planners as well as those who may be unduly influenced by developers (who are merely in it to make as much profit as possible). As the contest is being held by the Canadian Institute of Planners, I wanted an opportunity to bring some public recognition to the work these planners are doing to try to maintain and build "appropriate" infill. Two such are City of Ottawa planners Alain Miguelez and Selma Hassan, who are working on revising the Guidelines. We need to support them in their efforts.
If we are to allow this kind of inappropriate urban infill to continue to the extent that it is currently, we are in great danger of losing the valued qualities of this friendly, healthy, vibrant neighbourhood.
What Makes Our Neighbourhood so Interesting?
Specifically, though, we are a friendly, walkable community with goals to be environmentally sustainable and welcoming to people from all walks of life, with a vibrant retail sector that can fulfill many if not all of residents' needs without requiring a car. We have excellent public transit, and 'virtu-cars' are available for those who need occasional wheels but don't wish to own a car.
Our several parks are well used and maintained (often by residents themselves), situated at beautiful locations along the World Heritage Rideau Canal and the Rideau River.
The Old Ottawa South Community Association (OSCA), housed in a renovated fire station that was saved by fundraising from demolition to become the "new" Community Centre, is the hub of the community and is active in both recreational and social opportunities. The association is also involved in community and city-wide activities to protect and enhance the community, such as environmental, development and zoning issues.
Why Should People Vote for Old Ottawa South?
People should vote for Old Ottawa South for their own reasons—they don't even need to live here, but simply appreciate its qualities. It's a great place to visit, too—with second-hand clothing, antique shops, modern architectural stores, restaurants of great quality, and fine food stores, to name a few. Old Ottawa South is a valued contributor to quality of life for all citizens of Ottawa.
They should also vote for it to highlight that we are in danger of losing such vibrant communities to ruthless development fueled only by profit, and this is a vote then for all such communities that are under threat of this nature. (Mention that in the Comments when you vote!)
Finally, I would simply like to emphasize that walkable, environmentally sustainable, healthy urban communities such as Old Ottawa South are of great value to this country and its cities, and must be protected, maintained, and enhanced, for the good of their residents, the greater community, and indeed, the health of the planet.
I would also like to extend my gratitude to those City of Ottawa planners who are working to achieve this goal, and to encourage them, and others like them in cities across Canada, to continue to work toward protecting and developing appropriate urban communities that are comfortable, affordable, and safe for all.
I also want to wish the Brewer Park Skating Oval luck in winning in their category! It's a great addition to our community and a great place in its own right. The Skating Oval has been nominated in the 'Places' category.
Note: Gwendolyn Gall is the OSCA Web Editor and Web/IT Chair. In this Op-Ed piece, she expresses her opinions solely as a private citizen of Ottawa and proud resident of Old Ottawa South.