UrbSanity: Enticing us outside

Originally published in the Centretown Buzz
by Jeff Salmon

December 13, 2013

Warming Hut - CC-AJ Batac (Small)Each year, sometime in October, the city begins preparations for another winter. Although I do not really like cold weather, I have grown to love winters in Ottawa. For me, two things signal the coming of winter: seeing the boards for the many outdoor rinks dropped off and assembled, and when the chalets are placed along the canal to await colder temperatures.

As temperatures begin to plunge, so does our collective enthusiasm for going outside. However, Ottawa is able to entice us outside with things like the Rideau Canal Skateway and outdoor skating rinks, even in frigid temperatures. During the winter, outings tend to be a little more task-oriented—in other words, we will go out if we really need something —whereas during the summer months we are probably more inclined to spend time outdoors “just because.”

For this reason, the value of the Rideau Canal Skateway and outdoor rinks cannot be understated, and the City and National Capital Commission (NCC) have shown that by investing money in both in recent years. In January 2012, the NCC debuted seven new Rideau Canal Skateway chalets designed by CSV Architects, replacing the previous chalets built in the early 1970s. At the same time, the City opened up a 12,500 sq. ft. ice surface called “The Rink of Dreams” in front of City Hall.

The two projects point to a couple of the core interests of the City during the winter —tourism and community. The Skateway, together with Winterlude, forms the principal point of attraction for tourists and residents in the greater Ottawa area, while the outdoor (puddle) rinks act as a localized social hub for the communities they serve.

Warming Hut - CC-Andrew Kaszowski (Small)If you’re brave enough for a skate on the Canal when it is windy and 20 below, the chalets are your first destination, offering a safe, warm, and accessible place to lace up your skates. Perhaps I’m biased by their modern design, but I consider CSV’s chalets to be a vast improvement over their predecessors in a number of ways, namely their visual connection to the Skateway, accessibility, light and quality of space. Even those who can’t skate (or don’t want to) can now participate in the atmosphere of the Skateway while enjoying the view from the warmth of the chalet. They also represent a nice addition to the growing number of notable buildings and structures in Ottawa.

While the improvements to the Skateway chalets benefit residents and tourists alike, it would be nice to see the addition of temporary warming huts to some of the outdoor skating rinks via community improvement projects.

The City of Ottawa website lists 247 outdoor rinks, two of which are located in Centretown (McNabb Park and Jack Purcell Park) with two more at the fringes of the neighbourhood. The rinks throughout Ottawa are constructed in parks and, as such, very few have change rooms where you can put on your skates or space for warming up. When a park does offer such amenities, they generally suffer from the same pitfalls as the previous chalets: a limited physical connection, a non-existent visual connection, and the lighting . . . artificial. Also, in general, without cleared and maintained paths, accessibility is an issue with almost all outdoor rinks.

Visual and physical connectivity to the rink and the park is paramount. Offering a space where parents can socialize in relative warmth, while also supervising their kids as they play, builds stronger communities.

One possible solution would be to host an international design competition for the design of warming huts for some of the outdoor rinks. Winnipeg has had tremendous success hosting an annual design competition for warming huts to be placed at The Forks (where Red River and the Assiniboine River meet). Since 2010, this competition has showcased the work of internationally acclaimed architects and artists as well as local talent. In fact, this year’s lineup of warming huts includes one designed by students of a Winnipeg-area high school.

Following the model set out in Winnipeg could prove to be a viable way of giving back to the communities and their residents, while enhancing their winter experience at an affordable price (the budget for the creation and construction of each warming hut in Winnipeg is $16,500). Perhaps, through sponsorship and the support of the neighbourhood Business Improvement Areas (BIAs), the best three to five designs could be constructed with one in each sponsoring neighbourhood.

Our communities and the activities we do in them all contribute to healthy vibrant neighbourhoods and therefore the design of our public spaces should actively support them. Hosting a design competition is just one way to generate enthusiasm locally, as well as internationally, for Ottawa’s urban spaces and reinforce our commitment to becoming a truly world class city.

As it is, this city is a great place to live, a great place to work, and a great place to play—even if temperatures drop below -25.

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