a peek inside the fishbowl

31 May, 2019

How can we make “ugly” spaces in our city more beautiful?

Posted by andrea tomkins in: Ottawa

Earlier this year there was online chatter about cool city-building Ottawa could consider now that the population is about to hit the million mark. It came about after an article was published in the Ottawa Citizen (“Ottawa hits a population of one million: Big ideas for a big city“). Suggestions from a select group of individuals included adding more lights, taking better advantage of our waterways, finding more public uses for the Experimental Farm, increasing density, doing more for our city’s youth, building a biodome, creating an “esthetic committee to make sure ugly buildings do not get approved and built” … among others.

There are some great ideas there, for sure – I would love to do more for Ottawa youth! – but I would like to put forward an idea of my own. If there were funds available now that we’re a bigger city, wouldn’t it be nice if money was invested in beautifying the ugliest parts of Ottawa?

The other day we drove downtown along the parkway. It’s a marvelous route, going eastward towards downtown from Westboro. The river travels with you and the city unfolds beautifully as you approach. Our downtown is quite pretty, with heritage buildings amid modern, green spaces between the concrete (there was a rugby game happening in front of the Supreme Court), and planters stuffed to the brim with tulips. Sculptures round all of this all out of course, along with decorative fencing (I’m thinking specifically about Parliament Hill) and sweeping staircases and bridges. But that’s downtown. My neighbourhood is just off Carling Avenue, which, along with Merivale Road, is probably on the list of top ten ugliest roads in the city if there was such a list.

One could argue that downtown Ottawa is the most beautiful because that’s where all the tourists go. And tourists spend money, so it makes sense to Keep It Beautiful. But what about the rest of Ottawa? Don’t the people who live here deserve a daily dose of beauty as well?

There are so many things that can be done, whether it’s repairing sidewalks, installing planters, or streetlights that are a shade more decorative than the utilitarian flagpoles that loom over all of us.

Carling Avenue is so stark. What if there was a row of crab apple trees planted right down the grassy centre medium?

I was thinking about urban beautification while biking to the Westboro Superstore the other day. In fact, I biked there twice in two days so I had double exposure to this particular space. (SIDEBAR: I forgot to buy chicken for the chicken Caesar wraps I had planned to make for dinner. Ha. On the way back I was biking along the Byron Linear Path when I heard a very loud NO, followed by an even louder NO. I turned my head to see what was going on and saw a very large dog on the cusp of breaking into a gallop. I swear, his front paw was poised in mid-air and he looked ready to leap. Clearly, the smell of roasted chicken that was emanating from the bag dangling from my handlebars was proving very hard to resist. But I digress.)

While I cycled through the parking lot I was struck by how ugly it is. When I drive there I don’t pay that much attention to the surroundings. I zip in, park, shop, and try to make a swift exit, but my slower speed gave me ample opportunity to fully absorb my surroundings. Obviously, parking lots consist of a lot of pavement. They are purpose-built, primarily for cars, although the one at the Superstore has some sidewalks breaking them up. The primary goal of a parking lot is to fit in as many cars as possible. It’s a necessary evil at this point in our history, when most of us have one car or two. There must be a fear that adding anything beautiful will cost too much money and take away precious parking spaces… but does that have to be the case?

When did people stop considering aesthetics during parking lot design? To be fair, there are some attempts to make things not so horrible at the Superstore. This particular lot has a row of mature trees at the end, which obscures the cars a bit from a side street. (Although to be frank, trees are always in jeopardy from being removed here in Ottawa.) There are flower beds here and there as well, but this is typical.

Not surprisingly, parking lots look the same everywhere.

Why can’t parking lots be beautiful?

Why can’t parking lots be beautiful?

Why can’t parking lots be beautiful?

Why can’t parking lots be beautiful?

Here’s the thing. I know these spaces can be better – greener, prettier, happy-making – but I’m not sure how to accomplish it. Surely someone in the world – and landscape designer who has urban planning experience perhaps – has come up with ways to design an attractive parking lot that is pedestrian and bike-friendly AND meets the needs of drivers.

I wonder if sunken parking in some areas of a parking lot is one solution. Even if it goes down a metre from street level it might improve the overall view, especially if light fixtures or trees or something else (art? decorative screens?) filled in the in-between spaces. Some of these things don’t need to take up any space at all. What if one row of parking was lined with crabapple trees, another had maples, and another had gingkos. It might force you to learn some basic tree identification skills if you wanted to remember where you parked your car!

What if these spaces could generate solar power? Catch rainwater? What if it was a giant canvas for street artists? I’m not an expert but there are possibilities. They’re not cheap, but it would do a lot to improve our cityscape.

Although it’s true that we don’t linger in parking lots (at least I haven’t done this since I was a teenager), there’s still a case to be made for their beautification, especially since they take up so much visual real estate. And maybe if they were more beautiful, we would enjoy them more. What do you think?

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My name is Andrea and I live in the Westboro area of Ottawa with my husband Mark and our dog Piper who is kind of a big deal on Instagram. We also have two human daughters: Emma (20) and Sarah (18). During the day I work as a writer at The Royal Ottawa Mental Health Centre. I am a longtime Ottawa blogger and I've occupied this little corner of the WWW since 1999. The Fishbowl is my whiteboard, water cooler, and journal, all rolled into one. I'm passionate about healthy living, arts and culture, family travel, great gear, good food, and sharing the best of Ottawa for families. I also love vegetables, photography, gadgets, and great design.

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