There are few opportunities to build create new green space within our urban boundaries, but the O-Train path is such a place. The path runs beside the O-train through Ottawa’s Little Italy neighbourhood, an area that has one of the lowest amounts of park space per capita in the city. That shortage is only going to become more pronounced as the area experiences dramatic intensification.
The first part of the pathway was opened in 2013, but few people know it exists or its unique value to local residents and people passing through. It could be so much more… a proper linear park, a route to Gatineau and an important link in the cycling network. This walk will have frequent stops to explain some of the infrastructure new to the city, some of the good and some of the bad.
The walk was led by Alex deVries (left) and Michael Powell (right). Among their many civic credential, Alex is the vice-president of Citizens for Safe Cycling, and Michael is president of the Dalhousie Community Association. Together, they split the discussion nicely between the function and potential of the pathway both in terms of city transportation infrastructure and public space asset for the neighbourhood.
The walk started at the Carling O-Train Station, the southern extent of the semi-completed path. The path follows the O-Train tracks on the East and there are plans to eventually mirror the path on the West side. Once completed, the path will be an important addition to the city’s cycling network, connecting the Rideau Canal pathway at Dow’s Lake with the Ottawa River pathway North of Bayview Station. It is worth noting that the O-Train MUP is city-operated while the Canal and River pathways are operated by the National Capital Commission (NCC).
Alex explained that the changes to the guidelines and regulations for midblock crossings will greatly benefit the completion of the southern portion of the path which will have this condition at Beech St., Carling Ave., and Prince of Wales Dr.
The incoming light rail system currently under construction will connect with the O-Train corridor, making this area an important site for the city’s intensification plans. Several condo towers and other developments are currently under construction and various stages of approval for both sides of the corridor. The hope is these development will take advantage of the opportunity to bridge the neighbourhoods on either side of the track and that the pathways will become an important shared greenspace and linear park serving the local residents as well as a valuable transportation connection for the city at large.
Michael pointed out the importance of planning how these developments relate to the path and across the tracks so that they can help bridge the two neighbourhoods. Currently, the series of deadend streets that abut the pathway are lacking in connection both in terms of access and visually. Michael would also like to see new construction face onto the MUP with balconies and porches. Not only is the access to greenspace a bonus for residents, but the extra “eyes on the street”, in the words of Jane Jacobs, are important in establishing a safe and active space for all users.
Between the Queensway and Somerset St. W. is a section slated for more mixed use development, as opposed to the primarily residential development planned South of the Queensway. The Public Works compound (above, right) that currently occupies the entire stretch from Gladstone to Somerset is slated to be sold off and demolished. Plans include the future Gladstone Station. Yet again, this will be both an important transportation connection and opportunity for improvements to the public space and facilites servicing the local area.
Another theme of the walk was the intersection of city planning and local resident improvements. While overall Alex and Michael were very positive about the way the city has developed and constructed the necessary underlying infrastructure, it is obvious in several places that once the space is open for use, residents will find ways to better use it to suit their needs. This has led to several “guerrilla” improvements.
As mentioned above, the pathway intersects Beech St. at a midpoint. Though proper crosswalks/crossbikes are planned when this section is completed, there is currently no curb cut to allow bikes to ride through. This led to local residents to come up with a temporary but much needed solution. A couple bags off quickset cement and a couple hours work in the middle of the night has provided an important and much appreciated connection for users.
The pathway was also an ideal location for several Walk Your City signs – a recent Awesome Ottawa funded project. Once again, as previously mentioned, the pathway falls short in terms of connecting users with the local neighbourhood. The signs let users know that they are just a couple minutes walk from Little Italy and the great selection of restaurants and businesses. While signs may not be the ideal way of making connections, the serve an important interim function until more natural flow between the path and the neighbourhood are established.
Love it or hate it, graffiti is another indicator of missed opportunity in public space that someone has chosen to take advantage of. Currently, the pathway offers a lot of blank walls. Once new construction starts to offer a face onto the pathway, not only will it discourage graffiti because someone may be watching, but more importantly it will inherently create more visual interest and interaction. In locations that don’t offer that option, such as the Queensway underpass, public art or designated graffiti spaces can take advantage of the opportunity in more interesting ways than tagging.
A final “guerrilla” intervention we observed was community garbage cleanup. It’s great to see community ownership over the space but it certainly points out the lack of garbage facilities. With several city signs reminding people to pick up after their dogs, it left us wondering “and put it where, exactly?”
Everyone I know who uses the O-Train MUP seems to have a similar story: “When I first heard about it, it didn’t sound like it would really be of much use to me. . . until I used it the first time. Now it’s an integral part of how I get around by bike.”
Hopefully, the positive response encourages the city to continue investing in cycling connections and infrastructure, including winter maintenance. In terms of the dual theme of the walk and dual purpose of the space, one also hopes both the city and the citizens continue to invest in the space and a public place and important connection between neighbourhoods.
Thank you, Alex, Michael, and Jane’s Walk Ottawa organizers & volunteers.
About 40 people participated in the walk.