Ottawa: U.S. planner praises Centretown for new urbanism


Centretown residents hoping to maintain the traditional character of their streets have attracted some high-profile support after Peter Katz, a leading American urban planner, extolled the merits of the “new urbanism” movement in a recent Ottawa lecture.

The concept of new urbanism – a neighbourhood-based, pedestrian-friendly, accessible community centered on public transit – has been touted by Katz and others as a back-to-the-future solution to problems facing many North American cities.

Katz, currently the planning chief for Arlington County, Virginia, is also an author and one of the founding proponents of new urbanism, a design movement that first arose in the 1980s. The concept intertwines the traditional concept of community-style living with walkability, bike lanes, and access to transit systems.

He said the new urbanism approach to city planning not only has less environmental impact than suburban sprawl, but is also more economically sustainable.

“I was lucky 15 or 20 years into my love affair with great urbanism, to find an incredibly powerful financial support for it,” he said.

Katz’s lecture, held at city hall on Feb. 9, focused on the benefits building new downtown residential buildings out of wood, rather than cement, and at heights of no more than seven storeys.

New urban developers do not look favourably on Ottawa suburbs, with cookie-cutter home designs, big-box “power centres” and neighbourhoods located lengthy commutes away from most residents’ jobs.

If Ottawa did end up deciding to move more towards the new urban concept of design, Centretown would be ahead of the curve, says Nelson Edwards, a founding member of Ottawa-based Urban Forum, sponsor of Katz’s lecture.

With its older homes, close-knit streets, bike paths, parks and squares, and greater levels of community engagement, Centretown is at the forefront of the financially stable, community-based new urban Ottawa design.

But Katz didn’t only touch on finance. In fact, he said, to make every decision based on dollars would be a mistake.

“For every tall building you need a diversity of other buildings, some of which may not pay their way, but society decides they’re important,” he said.

For Centretown, where community leaders are frequently involved in defending the neighbourhood from oversized condominium developments, Katz’s proposed bolstering zoning laws with “form-based” building codes that require new projects to further adhere to community-friendly scales and styles.

For Katz, this kind of regulation “promotes harmony (on streets) and with the neighbours.”

The lecture was part of an Urban Forum series that began in 1997 as an opportunity for professional associations involved in the design and planning of communities to come together and share ideas.

Edwards says there are essential aspects of Centretown that new urbanism communities should have. He adds that many older communities built before the Second World War have many values intrinsic in their make-up that new urbanism celebrates.

“For Centretown,” he says, “it reaffirms the qualities and characteristics we should cherish and protect, but it also helps us realize the new qualities that we should capture in our new communities.”

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