Originally posted in Centretown Buzz and Spacing Ottawa
by Sarah Gelbard
13 November 2015

Last month, the NCC Capital Urbanism Lab hosted a talk with Mike Lydon, co-author of “Tactical Urbanism: Short-term action for longterm change”. The talk was well attended and enthusiastically received. Success stories and inspiring photos of simple and minor interventions that dramatically change the use and character of spaces from cities around the world have create a public appetite to imagine what these kinds of projects could mean for their own city. Ottawa wants on this bandwagon.

As pointed out during the talk, Ottawa already has some great examples of grassroots take-overs and transformations of space. The most impressive is now so commonplace and integrated in the routine of the city that we almost don’t think of it. The Sunday bike days started as a ‘tactical’ road take-over way back in 1970 and successfully institutionalized by the NCC. More recently, there was the pop-up reading garden, the Muskoka chairs at Confederation Square, and several projects I’ve been involved with through yowLAB and Impromptu Playground.

The Park_ingOttawa project (2012) asked Centretowners to submit ideas for what else "this parking space could be". Project and photo by Sarah Gelbard

The Park_ingOttawa project (2012) asked Centretowners to submit ideas for what else “this parking space could be”.
Project and photo by Sarah Gelbard

Tactical urbanism is meant to work between the community and the official city administration, between unsanctioned and sanctioned. In theory, everyday people have the flexibility and speed of ignoring red tape to “just do it” and make small, fast changes to improve their neighbourhoods. On the other end of the spectrum, city governments and institutions have the funding and power to make lasting change and to provide amenities to those who might not have the resources and luxury of making changes themselves.

While a lot of the grassroots tactics are meant to challenge and critique public policy, they also acknowledge the important role public policy and programs have in shaping the city. Cities are big complicated problems. DIY can only go so far. So on top of the public buzz, it is great to see the NCC and the city are listening and looking to find ways to integrate this new (or at least newly popularized) addition to the urban planning toolbox.

The City of Ottawa’s Neighbourhood Connection Office recently put out a call for applications to its new streetside spot pilot program. The program draws inspiration both from the international open-source and citizen-led Park(ing) Day movement and models from other cities such as Montreal’s rue St-DenisToronto’s Church Street, or Vancouver’s pilot. The city is accepting applications for the 25 spots to be made available as part of the 2016 summer pilot to run from April 1 to October 31.

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Originally posted in Centretown Buzz and Spacing Ottawa
by Jeff Salmon
16 October 2015

New Ottawa Convention Centre and landscaped connection to the Rideau Canal, Photo by Bruce Mcrae used under Creative Commons

Change is good.

Despite this most people, myself included, are hesitant about change because we are comfortable with what we have and where we are but like it or not change is all around us.  We learn and grow from change, and we change because we have grown and learned something. The daily changes in our lives, unless it is life altering may be so subtle they go unnoticed. This can carry on for years until, after reflection, you realize how significantly different things really are. I think this is true in life and it is true for cities as well.

With smart phones it is easy to get lost in our technology and forget about the environment around us. I doubt I’m the only one who has walked to my destination, only poking my head up periodically to look out for obstacles, while checking emails, texting, or glancing at the news. There is a reward in finding something new or different in the city; a sense of satisfaction knowing you’re in “the loop.” If I catch myself getting lost in technology while I’m out for a walk I will stop and challenge myself to take in my surroundings.

The magnitude of change that happens in a city each year isn’t always immediately obvious. Yet, when you stop to think about the changes that have occurred in the last 5 to 7 years, it is surprising what has been completed and the projects that have started and remain underway.

It seems like only yesterday that citizens were up in arms about the Lansdowne redevelopment but now it stands built and it has already integrated into the fabric of the city – albeit, not without some growing pains. It has become a node in the city drawing people to the venue and the surrounding area. It also added a considerable amount of new housing stock in areas (the Glebe and Ottawa South) that are defined by their established neighborhoods.

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Originally posted in Centretown Buzz and Spacing Ottawa
by Sarah Gelbard
18 September 2015

There is the campaign for a new central public library, controversies over new public art, public transportation and major infrastructure, and the challenge of finding continued support for crucial public services.

Cities are communities. While we all have our private concerns, goals, and obligations, as a city we also have to think collectively about our shared public lives and spaces. “Public” is at the centre of many city debates and comes up a lot in this column.

On the one hand there is demand for the city to do more to improve our environment and daily lives. On the other there is the seemingly inevitable complaints of city projects always being a “waste of taxpayers’ money”.

Cities, Ottawa included, have a long history of being torn between civic welfare and city budgets—between investing in the public domain and making financially responsible decisions. Sometimes they work together, sometimes one has to be chosen at the expense of the other.

So, what is “public”? Why it’s important to our cities? And who decides what is in the public’s interest? Let’s look at some of the big categories of public projects.

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Originally posted in Centretown Buzz and Spacing Ottawa
by Jeff Salmon
21 August 2015

Good design starts before a single line is drawn. It begins with the relationship between the client (and various stakeholders) and the design team. Communication, understanding, respect, and a shared goal, form the foundation of any quality built project.

Architects have historically held a coveted position in society as their work shapes the world we live in. The practice of architecture has produced enduring monuments of civilization and progress but it is also responsible for the rest of the built environment: for example, your home, your place of employment, the grocery store, the bank, and school in your neighbourhood.

Despite the still prominent role of architects in society there seems to be a disconnect between today’s professionals and the general public. If it comes up in conversation that I work for an architecture firm there is usually a keen interest and curiosity about what I’m working on and what I do. It seems few people actually understand what architects do, the scope of our work, and the ways in which we can add value. That is one of the failings of our profession at the moment.

There is a common misconception that architects come up with outlandish designs that function poorly and cost an arm and a leg. When I hear variations of this I wonder if the work of a few is shaping the opinions of many.

You will not find napkin sketches as the focal point in many architect’s offices. In fact, most architects I have come to know are humble, hard working folk. Keep in mind that we need clients in order to work. Architecture is a collaborative, cooperative, and contingent process, not the work of a ‘master architect’ with a singular vision. Good design comes from a meeting of minds where all parties must participate in the pursuit of a common goal. Client, architect, consultants, and contractor must all want to create something great, and they should share the same criteria for what constitutes good design.

In an effort to get some perspective on the criteria that people use to measure good design, I posed the question to some of my colleagues as well as some friends who have no affiliation and limited interest in design.

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Originally posted in Centretown Buzz and Spacing Ottawa
by Sarah Gelbard
24 July 2015

“Excuse me, miss. Can I take a picture with your camera? You can hold onto my skateboard to make sure I don’t run away with it.” Sounded like fair collateral and a fun exchange to me.

I’m not a skater. Not yet, anyways. I am becoming more and more motivated to learn. It is interesting and important to understand how different people see and use the city. When you watch skateboarding, and really pay attention, it is pretty remarkable how skaters relate to space.

They see things through a specific lens; through the movement and physics of a skateboard, creating and navigating obstacles, appropriating and sharing space. So when this random skater asked me to trust him with my camera, rather than worried he might run off with my camera, I was pretty excited for the opportunity to see the city even more directly through the eyes of a skater.

He asked me a few questions about how to use the camera. I assured him I could set it all to automatic. All he had to do was frame a shot and push the button. “Maybe I’ll just tell you what picture to take.” You can almost imagine he was giving me instructions on where to skate as much as how to compose the photo:

“Maybe if you get low down to the ground,” he started. “See that edge? Follow that line. Now wait a second and follow this guy as he’s walking away. . . and. . . go!” Not only was I seeing his city, I got to hear him describe the play by play of how he saw it and the moment he wanted to capture. We sat and chatted for a few minutes and then we both continued on our way.

I am maybe over-romanticizing and over-thinking this brief encounter. But there is a certain sensibility towards the city that is really captivating, here. There is a consciousness of the design of the space. The lines. The edges. The flow. But there is also a consciousness of the other people around and how they move through the space. Noting perhaps how most other people are using the space more or less as intended. Walk on the path. Sit on the bench.

Meanwhile, there are people who ask: What else could this space be? How else could I use it? What is its hidden potential? We all do to one degree or another at some point as we engage with the city. It seems pretty clear that this sensibility has had a positive impact for both the skateboard and overall Centretown community. Read More

Ottawa Public Library, Main Branch. 1973. George Bemi, architect.

I finally managed get into the library with my proper camera (sneaky cellphone shots don’t do it justice) and capture some of the beauty I see in the building. The main branch has been subject to some rather unsympathetic renovations over the years and it is sad that most people don’t experience it the way it was designed to be experienced. But if I can get in there and find it through a camera lens, I think it is possible to rediscover it through a thoughtful renovation.


yowLAB co-director Sarah Gelbard has partnered with Ottawa (de)Tours to create a “walking seminar” on brutalist architecture downtown.

It has been said that brutalist architecture is “unloved but not unlovely”. Beyond the monolithic, opaque, concrete façades are buildings filled with drama, mystery, and strong civic focus. In the post­war building boom and leading up to the Centennial, grand and heroic ideals of civic welfare and cultural identity were translated into a new vision for Ottawa. The abstract, technically efficient, and impersonal nature of modernism was too closely tied to war. The strong character of brutalist architecture embodied renewed hope, stability, and humanity. Ironically, today we tend to misread these buildings as imposing and inhuman “eyesores”. . .

– continue reading –

As a little teaser, listen to Sarah’s interview on CBC In Town and Out from earlier this year and check out Centretown Buzz article. Tina Barton joined Sarah earlier this month for a preview of the tour. You can read her thoughts on “Is there any beauty in brutalism?”

The first block of tour dates is now available for booking.

Additional dates will be added throughout the summer and fall.