Look at the two pictures I took in my neighbourhood yesterday afternoon. Do you notice anything strange? Anything missing, maybe?
Don’t say “snowbanks.” It’s summer, the snow is finally gone, that’s normal—gee, people…
Okay, let me give you some background and maybe a clue.
You’re looking at a typical residential neighbourhood in Ottawa. This one, located in the suburb of Nepean, was built from scratch in the late 1990s and early 200s—I believe the first residents moved in around 2001.
We have a lot of empty space in Canada, so it’s common to see new communities popping up where there used to be fields, forest or swamps. My neighbourhood was a wooded area, part of the Central Experimental Farm—it’s now home to 3,500 people.
To an outsider to the real estate development business like me, creating a new neighbourhood seems to work just like in Sims City. After the land is bought, developers and builders—for instance Mattamy Homes, Ashcroft Homes, Phoenix Homes, something-something home, etc.—team up to get permits, put in the sewers, the water, the electric lines and the streets, then erect properties for sale, typically a mix of condos, townhouses, semi-detached or single-family homes. Future home owners stop by to visit the model home then make the tough choice between several floor plans, amenities and options (single or double garage? Granite countertops splurge, yay or nay?) that best fit their lifestyle and financing options.
Residents move in, grocery stores, strip malls and big-box stores follow. Add a few schools, playgrounds, and the next thing you know, you have a “community” with cute made-up street names around a theme—it’s “New York” in our neighbourhood, and yes, there’s a now famous “Trump Street.”
These neighbourhoods are anything but exotic, yet they look deliciously North American to newcomers. They have a very uniform feel, both because all the houses were built at the same time and by the same company. Almost every block follows the same pattern, a mix of detached and semi-detached with a few larger houses. The streets form a grid or are curvilinear but you can tell they were planned on paper and aren’t the product of history.
So, back to my first question. Now that you know the neighbourhood was planned and built from scratch, do you notice anything odd?
I don’t blame you. It only hit me recently and I’ve been living there for 15 years.
There are no sidewalks.
Let me put it this way—this suburban, family-friendly community was built from scratch in the late 2000s and no one apparently considered sidewalks were a thing.
Crazy, isn’t it? I mean, is there any reason not to have sidewalks?
The main street where I live, a crescent, does have sidewalks on both sides. The many side streets don’t, none of them, yet there’s a lot of traffic since most households have one, two or three vehicles.
We have four parks with playgrounds, a retirement community, a small strip mall at the end of the street (yes, including a 24/7 Tim Hortons) and several bus stops (some of them with a bus shelter) but most streets don’t have a sidewalk.
And this is not just a “oopsie” in my neighbourhood. I noticed that many new residential communities come without sidewalks.
What the fuck, people?
Everybody wants to save the environment these days, which is awesome. But the wake-up call is full of adversarial, confrontational people and proposed actions are guilt inducing or unrealistic, starting with the popular oh-so-easy-to-say “let’s ban all cars.” I hate driving but come on, cars are pretty damn useful, especially in a country as big as Canada and especially with our weather conditions—besides, not everyone is physically able to carry groceries or walk long distances.
However, it doesn’t mean we have to drive everywhere all the time. It’s all about having options depending on the need—most of us can alternate between driving, using public transit, biking, walking, etc.
Let’s stop blaming people for whatever mode of transportation there choose and offer more choices and incentives. Cheaper, more convenient public transit, for instance—I’ve been avoiding taking the bus for a few years because my routes are unreliable and in Ottawa, a single trip is $3.45 (!). Bike paths that actually take people where they need to go—most of us don’t work in the middle of a provincial park but in a business district. Let’s have stores and schools that are easy to walk to—when the first thing you see is a giant and potentially dangerous parking lot, the message is “no pedestrian.”
And yes, it also starts with having sidewalks in our communities because it’s fucking normal to be walking to go places or just for the sake of it in a residential neighbourhood.
Yes, let’s start with the basics. The rest will follow. We’re human, we’re adaptable.