Designing our way to a better economy

As the world continues its attempts to pull itself out of a festering economic condition, municipal, state or provincial and federal governments have sought ways to produce growth, increase revenue and simultaneously cut unnecessary or luxury costs.  As part of that we’ve seen money spent on infrastructure projects and, to some extent, research and development.  But, at the same time, we’ve seen municipal leaders in both the US and Canada decry a lack of sufficient investment in infrastructure. Back in June, Kent Larson, co-director of the City Science Initiative at the MIT Media Lab, gave a TEDX talk in Boston:

While the talk by Larson covers a wide range of topics, he presents some very interesting information concerning infrastructure and the development of the modern city.  In discussing the creation of cities, Larson presents the idea that successful cities are a series of villages.  At its very base, this concept is very similar to the theory behind any network.  Hubs can be people, airports, routers, train stations or any other central node.  These hubs are then connected by advanced infrastructure – roads, rail lines, air routes, wired or wireless communication.  Larson uses Paris and Pittsburg has his comparable cities by mapping out the locations of restaurants and showing the distinctly different patterns that emerge.  Paris, developed prior to industrialization, has an even distribution of restaurants.  Pittsburg has centralized restaurant locations.  These maps can tell us a lot about how a city functions, but restaurants alone aren’t enough. Using Ottawa as an example, here are the maps for restaurants, grocery stores, and pharmacies – three things the modern urban hub should possess in order to function well for citizens.

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An initial glance at the locations of any of these three types of businesses appears to show that there is at least some development of the village like hubs Larson was talking about, but a closer look shows that’s not really the case at all.  Instead, like a lot of relatively young cities, Ottawa maintains a centralized core with commercial zones based on a commuting population.

In addition to the collection of restaurants in the dense urban core, there are collections along the North-South corridors of Merivale Road and Bank Street and the East-West corridors of Carling Avenue, Richmond Road and Hunt Club Road.  The restaurants, grocery stores and pharmacies create hubs where North-South and East-West corridors intersect.  In particular, hubs are created at the confluence of Hunt Club and Bank Street as well as where Woodroffe Ave and Merivale Road meet Baseline Road.

Because of planning that has created commercial hubs instead of mixed use mini villages, Ottawa has created some isolated residential zones which lack convenience.  In fact, houses or apartments on the periphery of residential zones are more convenient than houses or apartments in the middle of residential developments.

Because the commercial zones are acting as Ottawa’s hubs, planning for an efficient transit system is also difficult.  Residents located centrally in residential areas often have to walk to the edge of those zones or into the nearest commercial area in order to board even local busses.  Ideally, in a mixed use development, the transit hub would be centrally located and would provide fast mass transit to the central core.

While Ottawa is beginning to deal with issues of urban intensification, a remodelling of the cities neighbourhoods may be exactly what the city needs in order to succeed in the long run.  By producing clear mixed use hubs, planning for future mass transit projects could prove to be much easier and far less divisive.  Of course, as always, that will require some forward thinking by Ottawa’s city council.  Residents aren’t exactly holding their breath.