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Saturday, April 24, 2010
New Yorkization

A challenge for Copenhagenization in North America is we don't have quite the same urban spaces that European cities have - we don't have many public squares and parks to reclaim, or alleyways to make lively. We have a lot of big wide "streets" (many are really city highways). New York is addressing this issue head on, by simply reclaiming the streets for pedestrians - narrowing them or closing them off completely, rerouting traffic, and installing amenities.

They are now aiming for their third project.

First the city repurposed Times Square, converting some of its streets to a pedestrian promenade. Similar plans are in store for 34th Street by the Empire State Building.

Now Union Square could become the latest Manhattan landmark to gain a pedestrian plaza

New York Times - Plan Gives Pedestrians a Plaza at Union Square - April 23, 2010

What's great about this is it is something that North American cities can try - even just e.g. as a summer experiment. But that being said, it's only one later stage of a larger set of issues. If you want to fix Ottawa's downtown, you need to

1) get more people living downtown. A lot more people.

The condo boom is, for the most part, starting to address this, although I don't know how sustainable some of the new condo prices are. Nevertheless, buildings instead of parking lots is a huge step forward.

Just in the Centretown core, west of the canal, there is a lot going on, including:
* Hudson Park Phase I with Phase II nearing completion
* Central Phase I under construction with Phase II sales open
* Centropolis sales open
* SOHO Lisgar sales open
* Tribeca (on Lisgar) sales open
* Lisgar Apartments (a spectacular building) proposed
* the hope that a new rail stop + new Central Library + new condos will revitalise the area between Lyon/Bay west to LeBreton (this will take a pile of money though, so I wouldn't hold your breath)

Just people in buildings is not enough though. There is a whole row of hideous concrete towers on or near Laurier from Bronson to Kent and the area is a total pedestrian dead zone. No ground level retail, no people on the street, nothing. So... let's not do that again.

Pedestrians needs sidewalks and human space, but they also need

2) services on the street. I'm always amazed that the decline of Sparks and along Rideau is not understood. It's considered a pure people thing, and it is true that downtown emptied of people who all headed out to the suburbs, but it's more than that. Before malls, you shopped along streets. You shopped along the High Street, you shopped along the Main Street, and you shopped in the high-end areas with all the destination shops. Sparks and Rideau, from what I understand, used to have lots of destination stores. All of those stores, pretty much without exception, have now been rolled up (I imagine them almost being physically picked up) and installed into malls, notably the Rideau Centre. The Apple Store? Rideau Centre. The Sony Store? Rideau Centre. etc. Compare this with this with New York and Chicago, where the Apple stores are outdoors, on key shopping streets.

Now to some extent, this can be addressed by simply zoning for ground-level retail, and encouraging ground-level retail space. As long as there are people passing by, retailers will try to reach them. But we're still a long long way from functional shopping streets. Many stores deliberately turn away from the street, almost like they're pretending to be in a mall, with windows that are effectively replacement walls, showing signs and advertising rather than actually trying to engage people walking by (Rogers, Blockbuster, and Shoppers are notorious for street-level windows that are simply blocked out by posters, ads, or in Blockbuster's case, blank blocks of yellow). You wouldn't think stores could forget they are on a street, but these ones (and many others) apparently have. And de-malling is pretty hard. You go to one place, it's cool in summer and warm in winter, there's space to park your precious car, and it has all the destination stores.

I'm not saying you necessarily want to unroll Gap - Banana - American Apparel - Gap - Banana - American Apparel in their endless generic repetitive mallness back across Sparks (and one of the other tragedies of malls is that it's all franchise, all the time, no actual local stores). But you can't make vibrant streetlife out of pho shop - shawarma shop - coffeeshop - pho shop - shawarma shop - coffeeshop either. Where's the butcher? Where's the cheese shop? Where's the bakery?

(I'm thinking specifically of Centretown - yes, I know there is good if pretty much single street shopping in the Glebe and Westboro. The Glebe in part because it was a streetcar suburb, which seems to leave a legacy of a functional but linear shopping area.)

So you need
1) people living downtown
2) actual stuff for them to do on the street

Then once that's happening, you can

3) look at creating spaces where there's lots of pedestrian activity (unlike the artificiality of Sparks, which is a pedestrian space where there are no pedestrians except at weekday lunchtime)

One important aspect of Copehagenization to understand is it is a concerted effort by the government to improve the city, stretching back 40 years. This is not some laissez-faire miracle of capitalism fixing the city, this is year after year of dedicated, intelligent urban planning. I have yet to see Ottawa city council display anything close to this level of interest in the built urban space. For years the NCC was equally, cluelessly neglectful and sometimes deliberately destructive. There are some positive signs, but it will take way, way more focus and energy to transform the downtown space. Effectively ceding city planning to the developers, who built all kinds of cr-p out in the suburbs, and are now trying to pump up some condo bubble, is not an effective planning strategy. If the current condo boom is unsustainable, are we going to have to wait another 40 years for developers to rediscover the downtown again? New York was a disaster in the 70s. Space by space, park by park, street by street, it is reclaiming its urban space. Where is our plan to do the same?

Will "New Yorkization" become a new urban planning term?

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