Community Newspaper Columns

Urban residents need to more room to play

February 2013

An important argument in favour of urban intensification — increased population density in central neighbourhoods — is that it generates higher demand for amenities and services, and more people to pay for them. Intensification should, in theory, bring improved transit and public health services, better-equipped community centres, and new sports and recreation facilities like arenas, pools, playing fields, and tennis and basketball courts.

But Capital Ward residents know we can’t count on population density to leverage more or better recreational amenities. Rather, we’re losing many traditional spaces to development and more people are competing to use what remains of existing facilities in increasingly space-challenged neighbourhoods.

In the past decade, instead of getting new, larger community centres, Old Ottawa South, the Glebe and Old Ottawa East have had to fight to hang on to and/or renovate old ones. Creative design generated more room in the modernized Old Firehall, but it’s not enough to meet demand. Heron Park, in the south end of our ward, continues to scrape by with a field house better described as a 50-year-old concrete bunker. This lack of functional space severely limits the possibilities for the programming and community meetings that are essential to a healthy neighbourhood.

As for open green space for organized games of ultimate, spontaneous soccer matches and community picnics, Old Ottawa South is reasonably well served. But Glebe residents have very limited options, and those in Old Ottawa East are about to see part of the heavily used open space at 160 Lees (actually part of the proposed Alta Vista Transportation Corridor) turned into a temporary parking lot to accommodate LRT construction.

True, the Lansdowne redevelopment will create considerably more green space within the Glebe — though it’s a shame to have lost a treasured local park in the process. But that space must accommodate many new residents at the site as well as anticipated crowds from outside the neighbourhood.

Brewer Park has similar issues. It’s big, with two playing fields, ball diamonds and hockey rinks, a water park, pool and arena, plus a speedskating oval in winter that’s maintained by volunteers. These amenities are all great, but their central location and the scarcity of facilities elsewhere mean they’re heavily used by the entire city. And while recent repairs to the pool and arena may buy us another decade, the time will come when we can’t ignore the need for modern facilities and a full-sized hall or gymnasium.

So how can we address the need for more parks and recreational facilities in Capital Ward? While no single solution is sufficient, there are a few ways to address the challenge.

One existing tool, the Cash-in-lieu of Parkland (CILP) fund, collects money from development projects for both citywide and ward-specific park and recreational purposes. The ward allocation is controlled through each councillor’s office — both a blessing and a curse. Fun as it might seem to dole out this money, there’s a mere $250,000 or so per year to meet the needs of the entire ward. I’m more likely to disappoint than curry favour with my spending choices, even though I consult extensively with community associations and try to allot this money as fairly as possible. At best, the funds can add a few play structures, water features, benches or garbage cans. Purchasing land for new parks is well beyond my reach.

The citywide CILP fund, meanwhile, is just enough to purchase a modest lot or make one significant capital investment per year. With 23 councillors vying for that money, Capital Ward can only anticipate its turn once in a generation.

Another option, Section 37 of the Municipal Act, lets developers contribute to civic facilities and improvements in exchange for additional development benefits, such as increased building heights. This is a useful tool, but it’s important to carefully weigh the trade-offs.

Acquiring “brownfield” (a.k.a. contaminated) sites is an intriguing alternative. The need to remediate these sites drives down the sale price, but the cost of rendering them safe to use can be prohibitive. Still, it can be done, and I believe a City campaign to buy up small brownfield lots offers the best opportunity for creating small parks on a local scale.

Finally, we must actively pursue ways to creatively share space in existing local institutions. It’s absurd for a church hall or school gymnasium to sit empty much of the time when someone could use the space — like the yoga studio offering classes in a church meeting room in my neighbourhood. Naturally, there are insurance and maintenance issues to work out, but with all parties standing to benefit, surely we can make such partnerships work.

Where there’s a need, there’s often a way. And when it comes to creating more places and spaces for recreation, there is most definitely a need.

Councillor David Chernushenko