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Ken Greenberg to Guide Strategic Planning for Ottawa's Downtown Transit Corridor

Is it better to engage one of the world’s most renown urban planners to review a transit corridor before you decide to build a LRT or after you get the money to build it? For the City of Ottawa, which has secured the funding to build its LRT to the tune of more than $2-billion, retaining Ken Greenberg to lead an urban design and transportation strategy for its proposed transit corridor is likely a case of better late than never.

Ottawa’s downtown presents some significant urban design challenges that will likely require world-class talent to resolve. The Sparks Street pedestrian mall is conspicuously short of people, building height is limited to between 20 and 30 stories, pedestrian space is cramped by narrow sidewalks and the prospect of a climbing office vacancy rate looms on the horizon. The Federal Government, which has been the lifeline of the city’s core, is relocating to suburban locations with the notable exception of the Parliament Building and related functions. Furthermore three LRT stations are being proposed in an area that would be serviced by one subway stop in a city like Toronto.

Greenberg, who presented his urban design ideas on November 3rd at a public consultation in Ottawa, seems like the kind of person who has the depth of knowledge and imagination to guide the city to a viable solution. He is an architect, urban designer, teacher, writer, former Director of Urban Design and Architecture for the City of Toronto and, for over three decades, he has played a pivotal role on public and private assignments in urban settings throughout North America and Europe.

Downtown Moves – Transforming Ottawa Streets is the name of the planning initiative for which Greenberg has been engaged to provide guidance. It has been tasked with examining the Central Business District as well as an area that includes the major arterial streets serving the downtown and creating an urban design and transportation strategy that incorporates street level connections to the three proposed LRT stations.


(Image credit: City of Ottawa)

While the automobile is to blame for many of the problems that we face in our cities, peak oil and the demise of our dependence on the car are going to making for a more promising future for life in cities, Greenberg claims optimistically. He draws upon dozens of examples in municipalities in Canada and around the globe as inspiration for new urban design that he says makes sense in a ‘walk about’ rather than a ‘drive about’ city.

The following are just a few of the examples he mentioned in his talk in Ottawa.

York University Campus

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When York University was first constructed 50 years ago it was on the outskirts of Toronto. In 1988, the university had 12,000 parking spaces and from the beginning Greenberg said there was a desire for the campus to be something other than a car dependent destination. As York matured it began to be surrounded by commercial and residential uses that diminished the need to drive to and around the campus. It has already successfully shed over 4,000 parking spaces even as an additional 50,000 people are living and working in the area.

The campus is further transforming itself into a revitalized urban community by continuing to make considered changes as to how it utilizes its land and its relationship to the surrounding community (see image below). A subway stop is slated for completion at York University in 2015 with the extension of the Spadina line and an estimated 150,000 more people are expected to live in the area by that time.

The St. Lawrence Market in Toronto is another area that Greenberg cites as one where construction on former parking lots has turned it into a vibrant community.

Greenberg Consultants was engaged to create the York University campus master plan which is more fully described on its website.


(Image credit: City of Ottawa)

Mississauga City Centre

What happens in suburbia will be critical to the future of cities, Greenberg explained. In the past immigrants coming to Canada established themselves in downtown neighbourhoods like Kensington Market in Toronto. Now, he said, immigrant commerce is based in the suburban strip mall. Research has shown that low income and socially challenged members of society are living in the most car dependent parts of the city, a phenomena that is exacerbating their problems and the city’s.

A prime example of suburban change, representing a shift from a car to a human dominated design, is the transformation of a regional shopping mall into what we now know as Mississauga City Centre. More than 20 years ago, the city initiated a building program on the parking spaces around the retail centre that included a new City Hall, a library, a campus of Sheraton College and numerous new shopping locations and effectively created a downtown.

Taking the transformation to a new level, a joint venture of pension funds, landlords, other private groups and the city is examining the urban design for a 20-block area around the City Centre in a planning process called Mississauga Downtown 2021. One of the primary goals of the initiative is to create employment opportunities specifically through the development of more office space.


(Image credit: Greenberg Consultants)

Transformation of Streets

A new approach to street design and use is bringing about transformative change in cities. Greenberg pointed to the recent undertaking to widen the sidewalks along Yonge Street in Toronto and periodically close it down. Yonge Street has 2.5 times as many pedestrians as vehicles and therefore this is a more equitable use of the road space, he contends.

Putting streets on a ‘road diet’ by making them narrower and sidewalks wider has been used successfully in other places to bolster the role of the pedestrian including St. Catherine’s Street in Montreal, Granville Street in Vancouver and Bank Street in Ottawa. He said cities that are excelling at making dramatic improvements to urban communities are considering these kinds of strategies.


(Image credit: Greenberg Consultants)

City Communities as Destinations for Employers

Every community has a DNA where you undertake to provide a combination of places to work, live, shop and entertain explained Greenberg. We are in a learning curve for determining how to ‘densify’ cities to work for all ages and people with a range of capabilities. Stockholm, Madrid and Barcelona were examples of cities he mentioned as successfully pursuing these strategies

“The city itself has become the attraction” as a destination for employees and employers, according to Greenberg. A group of Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) scientists who chose a downtown Cambridge community to locate in rather than a suburban industrial mall is as testament to these phenomena, he argued.


(Image credit: Greenberg Consultants)

Conclusion

In response to a question after his talk, Greenberg described the political atmosphere that exists in the ‘amalgamated city’ as a false economy. A divisive culture has emerged between the suburban and urban dwellers all across the province. It is the role of civil society to reach across city boundaries and to say there are common problems and to articulate a strategy for everyone he explained.

The public uprising over the recent rejection of the Transit City plan by Mayor Ford of Toronto and proposed changes to the Toronto Waterfront plan is evidence of a bond between urban and suburban electorate in Greenberg’s opinion.

“This is a really exciting time. We are in the flow of history. We are gracefully making the steps toward sustainability,” Greenberg concluded.

Amongst his many accomplishments, Greenberg recently wrote a book about his design ideas in Walking Home: the Life and Lessons of a City Builder published by Random House.

Mr. Greenberg’s involvement in the Ottawa urban design process and his track record of positive outcomes in equally challenging circumstances bodes well for the future of the City’s central business district.

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