What a gorgeous day for a walk down Stittsville Main Street.
About 40 people joined me on Saturday for Stittsville’s first-ever Jane‘s Walk. The walk was part of a city-wide festival celebrating Jane Jacobs, a writer and activist who was well-known for her thoughts about city planning.
Jacobs passed away in 2006, and this would have been the 100th anniversary of her birth. There were over 40 walks in Ottawa this year.
We walked in a big loop, starting at Village Square Park, walking north to Beverley. We crossed the road and headed south all the way to the gas station, then looped back again to where we started. We covered about 2.5 km in 90 minutes.
We talked about how the role of the street has changed over the past 150 years, and how it might look in the future. Last year the city approved a new Community Design Plan (CDP) that’s intended to be a framework for encouraging healthy development along the street.
Jacobs wrote mostly about big cities (New York, Chicago, Toronto, etc.) and probably would have viewed a Stittsville disdainfully as a “garden city”. Still, many of her observations about healthy city design can be applied to Stittsville Main Street.
The people best equipped to understand urban complexity are ordinary, interested citizens.
Jacobs distrusted professional planners, believing that residents knew best about their own neighbourhoods. She also believed that the best way to study a city wasn’t through abstract statistics or maps, but to actually walk the streets and experience it first hand.
That’s what motivated me to do this walking tour. I bet there are very few people in Stittsville who have actually walked the length of Main Street!
“On successful city streets, people must appear at different times… hour by hour through the day.”
What’s the right mix of retail, office and residential? The new CDP call for mixed use development including commercial business on the ground floor and residential and offices above. That mix is important to keep the street active and lively from morning to night, and should bring more “eyes on the street” – neighbours watching out for each other.
A healthy street needs buildings of different ages and conditions, including a good proportion of old ones.
There are many older buildings, some historically significant, that not only provide visual interest but offer lower-rent spaces that attract small businesses. Hudson’s Insurance (Stittsville Main at Abbott) has heritage designation, and several others are on the City’s heritage register.
Healthy streets needs a sufficiently dense concentration of people – residents, workers and visitors.
Jacobs biggest concern about the plan would probably be around population density. The CDP calls for 500 new residential units before 2031, but that may not be enough to support businesses on the street.
There’s been very little residential development in the past two decades. Only 132 residential units have been constructed since 1994 (that’s 6.6 dwellings per year). Between 2001-2014, there were an average of 1.9 dwellings per year. By comparison, the overall population of Stittsville grew by 850 from 2014-2015.
Jacobs saw population density as key to being to support smaller businesses throughout the day that help keep the street active and lively. An extra 500 people in the next 15 years isn’t enough to sustain Stittsville Main on its own, but that may be mitigated by the rapid population growth in the surrounding communities.
Jacobs described daily life on a healthy street to “…an intricate ballet in which the individual dancers and ensembles all have distinctive parts which miraculously reinforce each other and compose an orderly whole.”
One of the walkers asked a great question: What’s going to make people want to invest on the street? What makes a business owner want to start their shop in the middle of Stittsville Main, instead of in a newer building along Hazeldean Road or somewhere else?
That’s really the key question. As Ottawa writer Jonathan McLeod observed: “The city cannot force people to dance, but with the right planning, we can set the stage for a wonderful show.”
I’m planning to set up a forum in the next few months to bring people together to talk about what kind of strategy is needed to find identify investors with not only a vision for SMS, but the economic means to develop as well.
I’ve also started a Facebook group called Friends of Stittsville Main Street where we’ll share stories, photos and updates, and hopefully some great ideas about revitalizing the street. I hope you can join our conversation.
Additional sources for this story include:
- The Death and Life of Great American Cities by Jane Jacobs
- Who was Jane Jacobs / Ten Big Ideas by Nate Storring
- New plan could make Stittsville Ottawa’s next great neighbourhood by Jonathan McLeod / Ottawa Citizen
- Stittsville Main Street Community Design Plan from the City of Ottawa
A big thank you to Barry Gray for his photography at the event.