I have written previously on the state of suburban expansion in Calgary, a topic I am very familiar with. Despite having lived in Ottawa for six years, however, I cannot say the same for this city. While a lack of interest on my part played a part, this is also due to Ottawa’s built form. Unlike other Canadian cities, Ottawa’s new suburbs are separated from the central city by a large greenbelt. To be specific, there are three primary built-up areas outside of the greenbelt: Kanata to the West, Orleans to the East and Barrhaven to the South. All of these areas are separated from one another, and collectively they receive much of the cities new growth.
Formally adopted in 2003, Ottawa’s “20/20” plan aims to accommodate the growth of the city in a more sustainable manner. A major recommendation of the plan is increased intensification of the areas within the greenbelt, but it conceded that much of Ottawa’s new growth will be at the urban fringe. For these urban fringe areas design features such as higher densities, pedestrian oriented designs, accessible public transit and modified grid street layouts are recommended. In short, new developments are intended to adhere at least loosely to the tenets of new urbanism. In order to see if such depatures from traditional suburban development have in fact taken place, I recently decided to cycle the 15 km to Barrhaven from my apartment.
As development has been occurring in Barhaven since the 1960s, it is by no means a new suburb. However, growth appears to have picked up significantly in recent years and strongly shapes the character of the area. This is immediately evident as several new subdivisions and the beginnings of what is intended to be a mixed-use town centre have been constructed in the years since the release of the 20/20 plan. While not directly branded as new urbanism, a glance at a street map alone reveals that such developments are very much influenced by the movement. These areas in particular would be my target for assessing the state of contemporary suburbia in Ottawa.
On the whole, my feelings are mixed as to the success of Barrhaven as a sustainable suburban development. The most positive aspect of the area is, surprisingly, new residential construction. Throughout new developments such features as small front setbacks, short blocks and narrow rights of way are employed. While front garages are present for most houses, they are often small and do not protrude far past the front entranceways, avoiding the “snub-nose” style of housing so popular in other cities. Traffic circles provide focal points for one of the neighbourhoods, surrounded by higher density housing. Indeed, the density of these new developments on the whole was encouraging, with a significant portion of new units part of attached rows. Condominium developments are also becoming more common, with developments such as three story faux brownstones currently under construction. While such buildings will win no architectural awards (this rings true for the entire area I’m afraid), they are adding much needed density to one of Ottawa’s few districts lacking highrise apartment complexes.
Contrasting to these positive trends, the commercial areas of Barrhaven are as of yet a complete disaster. On a small scale, there are few neighbourhood scaled retail establishments, and those that do exist are at the periphery of developments rather than at there focal points. The aforementioned high density developments would provide an excellent location for small retail bays, allowing what are supposed to be focal points truly fulfill this requirement. This however, pales on comparison to the mess that is know as the “RioCan Marketplace”. This retail area is the first phase of what will eventually be known as the Barrhaven Town Centre. Envisioned as a mixed-use development comprised of retail, office and residential uses the current state of the area bears a greater resemblance to an average big-box power centre. Granted, this is the first phase of the development, and plans call for infill to replace parking lots and existing buildings. However, it is hard for me to get my hopes up about a development that as yet is so poorly executed.
Despite my frustration at the RioCan marketplace, it is clear that the situation of suburbia in Ottawa is improving. While not to the degree that I would like to see, the new subdivisions of Barrhaven reflect many of the design principles outlined in the 20/20 plan. As much as I do not like to admit it, if trends continue the way they are, Barrhaven may in fact become a starting point for a more sustainable growth model.
Tags: Exploring the City, Ottawa, Urban Design