Accessible public spaces

Hit and Miss #93

Restless, I went for a walk last night.

When restless on a weekend, I often go through Ottawa’s Byward Market, winding through the streets full of people going about their evening fun.

Last night, I was pleasantly surprised by the number and variety of events that I passed on my walk. Wandering from the lively market, I walked through Major’s Hill Park, Sparks Street, and Bank Street. Each hosted some sort of outdoor music festival. For “the city that fun forgot”, Ottawa offered plenty of fun last night.

There’s been renewed attention recently to Ottawa’s character. The city now hosts a million people (spread out, admittedly, over an enormous geographic area)—Joanne Chianello calls for the city to act its size. Downtown, we’re nearing a disappointing end to the protracted struggle over a proposed addition to the iconic Château Laurier—Stephen Maher questions whether Ottawa’s essentially bureaucratic character is to blame for its lack of architectural confidence. (This reminds me of an old Paul Wells piece on why Ottawa’s quiet character is something to celebrate.)

The Château Laurier’s much-maligned expansion suggests a crumbling in Ottawa’s respect for its picturesque views. Generally, I agree with the concern. (Though apparently no longer a favoured architectural style, I’m a fan of the nearby Lord Elgin Hotel’s 2004 expansion, which paid homage to the building’s original style.) Beyond picturesque views, though, I’d like to hear a louder conversation about the availability of beautiful, indoor public spaces.

Ottawa is a wintry city. As this year’s slow start to summer reinforces, cold weather is our reality for most months. When it’s cold, it snows; when it’s not quite so cold, it often rains. When the weather permits it, we have a host of excellent outdoor public spaces—parks, trails, and patios abound. But I think we should push to open more of our indoor spaces, during hostile weather.

We should put more emphasis not just on our skyline, but also the accessibility of public spaces within those buildings. I have trouble with expensive public investment in publicly inaccessible buildings (like those in the parliamentary precinct). I understand the desire for high quality spaces for politicians and so forth—I often bemoan our hesitation to spend public money on architecture. But we ought to favour more spaces like the National Arts Centre: default to open, keeping private the minimum necessary.

How might we do this?

For one, celebrate projects like the Ottawa Central Library. But also, continue to push for public spaces—once the current central library branch is closed, we’ll lose a key public space in Ottawa’s downtown.

We might extract concessions from developers. If the Château Laurier expansion goes ahead, we should at least demand that it offer public spaces. Though not an interior space, I think of Performance Court’s seventh floor terrace, publicly accessible thanks to a deal with the City. (Performance Court also features an interior, publicly accessible art gallery.)

Finally, when we create public spaces, we ought to make them actively inviting. Certain spaces, like Performance Court’s terrace, are public but not publicized—folks don’t know they can take advantage of them. The City might more actively catalogue and celebrate the spaces it offers. (Though this could also be an opportunity for small businesses or civic good groups.)

Before I go, I have two links to share with you, via two other awesome newsletters:

All the best for the week ahead!