Can You Spot What’s Wrong With This Picture?

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Look at the two pictures I took in my neighbourhood yesterday afternoon. Do you notice anything strange? Anything missing, maybe?

Can You Spot What’s Wrong With This Picture?

Can You Spot What’s Wrong With This Picture?

Can You Spot What’s Wrong With This Picture?

Can You Spot What’s Wrong With This Picture?

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.


About Author

French woman in English Canada. World citizen, new mom, traveler, translator, writer and photographer. Looking for comrades to start a new revolution.


  1. Martin Penwald on

    Yay me, i was right.

    And, naturally, it’s not only in Ottawa. In Calgary, in the Southhill industrial zone, there are bus stations, but no sidewalk at all. It’s completely absurd.

    The Dunkerque solution for public transit is pretty nice: free buses for all since last September. The routes have been modified and 5 express lines (with 1 bus every 10 minutes between 7:00 and 19:00 during weekdays, with services starting around 5:00 up to 22:00) cover the west of Grande-Synthe/Puythouck mall to the east of Leffrincoucke/usine des dunes, plus a dozen of additional routes going to Spycker and Teteghem. In addition, private carriers (but still free for people) cover Gravelines from the west terminal and Adinkerque (in Belgium) from the east terminal, but at lower frequencies.

    Each station is placed so that no one is at more than 10 minutes walking distance from one (and it’s the worse case scenario, my parents live within 5 minutes of two stations for different lines), the five express lines (in fact, maybe only 4) and a few others have a hub in the train station of Dunkerque. Very convenient.
    A few places in the area have been altered to facilitate bus trafic to the detriment of car trafic, and some streets became pedestrian only.
    Before the change, the public transit company made around 4 millions euros benefits with fares. But a lot of programs helping seniors and students to pay for fares have been obviously cancelled, and reduction of pollution is a planned benefice in terms of public health, so it doesn’t impact that much the 100 millions euros budget of the urban area.

    It cannot be done without a strong political will, and the European population density renders these projects easier to do than in North America. But even last week, i’ve heard some idiots complaining about urban rules destined to rise density (i don’t remember where, but I think it was in Québec). And if there is even no sidewalks, it won’t help. That lack of sidewalks bother me since i’m here.

    • I find most French cities, at least in Western France (i.e. the part of the country I know best) really improved walkability and public transit systems over the past 20 years. I walked all over Nantes and the suburbs and there are very few places where I felt I shouldn’t be walking there.

      The lack of sidewalks makes me mad. I mean, how expensive is it to put a strip of concrete along a street??? What kind of message is that?

      • Martin Penwald on

        Yes, i have the same feeling for Dunkerque and the area, and for Lille too.

        The message is clear: buy a big ass SUV, loser!

        • Why limit yourself to one? Each member of the family should have their own vehicle, right? Otherwise, it feels like you’re taking public transit if you’re riding with your spouse :-/

  2. Many years ago, when I first moved to the Niagara region, after living (and being spoiled) during 8 years in Montreal, I was shocked to see so little options for people who didn’t or couldn’t drive. Unreliable bus routes, rare bike paths (sometimes I’m riding on a bike path that suddenly disappears when I need it the most: at intersections), and pedestrian sidewalks as an afterthought… It’s so stupid, shocking, and infuriating to me!

    • Yep, it’s exactly that–pedestrians are an afterthought. But why? I mean, we are all potentially pedestrians…! It’s so stupid and infuriating. I can’t even think of a conspiracy theory that would make sense to explain it. Most of us still need a car for some trips or some tasks, it’s not like we would throw away the key of the household car as soon as there are sidewalks…!

  3. Yes I cringe everytime they talk about people being more active, but then you can’t even safely walk around the block. Ridiculous.

  4. Les trottoirs ! Très intéressant, je suis d’accord avec toi, il faut donner plus d’alternatives aux gens. À Toronto les pistes cyclables proposent aussi des trajets très incongrus : un bout là, un autre à trois kilomètres et débrouille-toi entre les deux, dans une circulation urbaine complètement folle. Il paraît que leur extension est freinée par les politiques : en faire plus reviendrait à réduire les voies disponibles aux voitures et ça apparemment, peu de gens sont près à le faire. (Et c’est pour ça que des pistes cyclables fleurissent sur des routes peu empruntées… On les met là où elles dérangent pas.) Bref. J’espère que ça ne va pas te décourager à marcher dans ton quartier.

    • I’m a walker, this is how I get around here, so while I’d rather live in a walkable city, I’m used to the lack of sidewalk (or consideration for pedestrians). However, I noticed that, subconsciously or not, I don’t take Mark for walks like I do when we are in France or elsewhere in the world. It’s hard to teach kids that walking to go places is fun and healthy when no one else around does it :-/

  5. First I thought it was going to be a joke about the weather, and then I noticed the absence of sidewalks !
    It is crazy that there aren’t any in a residential area. Are people really supposed to leave their house only by car ?? It feels really strange to a European / Swiss where many people use the train to go to work.

    • Many people still walk, especially to the playground, which is why it drives me crazy. I mean, this is the exact place where we need sidewalks, lots of families with young kids!

      It feels strange to me as well. And I noticed a few years ago that most people who walk to go places or for fun are foreign-born Canadians (or at least Canadians with a foreign background).

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