On Tuesday (the 19th), we went to the Ottawa iteration of the Spacing Road Show at 4th Stage at the NAC. Having looked longingly from afar at Spacing events in Toronto, I appreciated the opportunity to go.
The panel discussion began with looking at the list of top public spaces in Ottawa as listed in the Summer 2011 issue of Spacing. I found it interesting (and heartening) that all of the panelists found the list that Spacing’s experts had decided on to be problematic on some level.
I may write about what was discussed at a later date , but today I want to take on the list itself. I don’t want my comments to come off as too nasty or anything. I appreciate the (national) effort of compiling the lists of 5 or 10 public spaces in so many different locations. However.
First on the list for Ottawa is the Rideau Canal which is, of course, the obvious choice. As a public space, though, rather than a recreational space or a tourist location, I’m not sure how successful it actually is. Living as I do on the Canal, I think I have an informed opinion on this. (Well, it’s certainly a strong opinion if nothing else.)
I bike along the Canal most days, both heading downtown and going out to Dow’s Lake. I run along the Canal regularly as well. And in the winter I skate whenever I am unable to dissuade the children. In the course of all of those activities, I am sharing the path or the ice with a large number of other people doing the same things. (Except in weather. I always enjoy the emptiness of the paths for running during the winter or heavy rain or extreme heat.) The Canal is well used as a recreational path by both residents and tourists.
However, this is not the same as being a public space. When I think of a public space, I don’t imagine a space people merely pass through. I think of a space people come to and spend time in. A space that is an end in itself, not merely a means of getting from one place to another or a means of getting exercise.
There are a few locations along the Canal where people gather, but there are not many. Students from U of O hang out on the lawn surrounding the east side of the pedestrian bridge at Somerset. There are usually people around the locks (both at the Ottawa River and the ones at Carleton University). And there are usually a sprinkling of people sitting on benches and people fishing. But that is the extent of it except during specific events (eg people gather at a few points on Canada Day night to watch the fireworks).
During the summer, we have picnics along the Canal. Sometimes down at the river and sometimes closer to home. We’ve never seen anyone else having a picnic. It’s kind of boggling.
While I appreciate that the NCC does whatever it can to make the areas it has control over in the city as sterile and uninviting as possible*, it is still unfortunate that the Canal does not function as a gathering place in any meaningful way. Part of the problem, I think, is that Ottawans don’t seem all that keen on gathering in outdoor spaces, but it is also a circular problem. If we lack the spaces to gather in, we can’t really do so.
*See: minimal benches and no picnic tables, few working water fountains, a complete aversion to planned events.