What an excellent article. This is something that has bothered me for some time too - how we seem incapable of using parks for anything else than growing grass (and weeds, since you can't use pesticides now). When will we break free of this Tyranny of Peace and Quiet?
Even though he zeroes in on Lansdowne I think what he says here applies to all major city parks, especially those downtown.
I've been to cities like Buenos Aires where parks are used for so many different things, they are a destination unto themselves. In one park, for example, every Sunday is the Stamp Collectors fair. All the stamp dealers set up little tables and all the collectors go check them out. At another park it's used book sellers every saturday. And so on. There's always some food vendor with chorizos and cold drinks.
What's wrong with us?
A whole lot of nothing
Ottawa's passive parks could benefit from the examples of great places like Central Park, Covent Garden and the Boston Common
The Ottawa Citizen
Wednesday, August 13, 2008
Just back from Boston, tracking Fenway dust and toting a question.
Why are Ottawa's parks so useless?
Not useless in the sense of being unworthy or inaccessible or unkempt, but useless in the sense of having no real utility -- in the sense of, there's nothing to really do there.
We like our urban parks to be unduly passive, for some reason, as though a modest amount of organized activity is a design flaw. What's wrong with us?
Boston's main urban park is called the Common, said to be the oldest public park in the United States. It is 50 acres, near the heart of the city, and features many things, including a large lagoon and a man-made pond.
On the lagoon, visitors can take a ride on what is called a Swan Boat. Introduced more than 100 years ago, they are dressed-up pontoon boats with benches, powered by a youngster in the stern pedalling his heart out.
Holding a couple of dozen people, it costs $2.75 and a ride lasts about 15 minutes. It's a tranquil pause in your sightseeing day. It refreshes.
Elsewhere in the park, which also has the expected mix of bandshells, statues, fountains and public art, there is the Frog Pond, used for wading in summer and skating in winter. The park also has softball fields, a historic cemetery, a couple of subway stops, a playground.
Central Park in New York, many will know, contains a zoo, and restaurants, and 20-some playgrounds, plus landmarks too numerous to mention. As a family, our best moments in NYC touch on penguins, sea lions and monkeys; not museums or Saks Fifth Avenue. And you sink in all of this greenery under the greatest skyline in the world.
Another way to frame the question: why would anyone drive from an Ottawa suburb to visit, say, Vincent Massey Park or Major's Hill, or Confederation Park, on a lazy afternoon?
Let's be honest. There isn't much to do there, which is in perfect accord with their design. This is how it was planned. For doing nothing in particular.
What's wrong with us?
We don't travel that broadly but, in London last year, we found ourselves in Covent Garden. Round a corner and, lo and behold, there is a brilliantly-coloured merry-go-round tucked behind all the shops and stalls. For the young lad, a great, restful pause in a hectic day; and coffee time for the chaperones.
There was Hyde Park, of course, where you can swim, ride a horse or have a pint, possibly all at once.
While in Paris, we wandered about the Jardin Des Tuileries leading to the Louvre, about as formal an urban park as you'll find anywhere.
There were toy wooden sailboats to rent, each equipped with a stick for launching and guiding. Children love it.
Off to the side, there was a trampoline area where kids could burn off some energy. Perfect.
We will never have a Hyde or Central Park in Ottawa. Fine. We can live with that. But what can we learn?
Mostly, these are not giant things. Having boats to paddle around in a pond is not a multi-year capital project for which you mortgage the grandchildren. A little bouncy section of a park is not The Big Dig.
But why can't we have a permanent, old-fashioned ferris wheel or merry-go-round in one of our central parks? Why not something different, like London did with its millennium project, the Eye?
In Ottawa, too, we are running out of space and opportunities.
Lansdowne Park may represent the last great hope for an urban park that engages the visitor, that makes a statement bolder than leafy lanes and weird sculpture.
Interesting how we got here.
Classic urban park design was driven by a couple of important ideas, tied to their times.
In an industrial age, cities like London, New York or Boston were noisy, dirty and polluted. The working class did not have yards, backyard pools or shrimp on the barbie.
City parks were designed as a leafy oasis in which the worn masses could escape.
Think of Ottawa in 2008. It is neither industrial, nor particularly noisy, or polluted by Victorian standards, and a good chunk of the citizenry have yards of their own or green space down the street. Ottawa, and it is rather shocking, has more than 850 city parks. Can you name five you would take a newcomer to?
The good news is a door is opening.
Lansdowne, give or take, is a blank slate. CFL football may, indeed, be an anchor there, along with an arena.
As for the rest, I would rather see penguins on Bank Street than more condos, more merry-go-rounds than malls and some great, people-twirler in the sky, not towns starting in the $300Ks -- things, to those permanent or transitory, with charming utility.