York Plaza could be a great civic square

Ottawa is a unique Canadian city, and perhaps its most unique feature is the Rideau Canal, with its magical attraction in both winter and summer, transcending the seasons. Yet Ottawa is missing one crucial urban feature: a large, open civic space, like Toronto’s Nathan Phillips Square, Montreal’s Place des Festivals, and Vancouver’s Robson Square.

These kinds of venues, inspired by plazas and squares found in virtually every European city, enhance public life and help to reinforce international identity. Urban squares are where people celebrate together, conduct commerce and gather for the simple pleasure of being in the company of fellow citizens. These are spaces of spontaneity and joy; no great city is complete without one.

And Ottawa has such an opportunity, nearly ready-made. As a main component of Ottawa’s ByWard Market, York Street possesses the exact proportions of Rome’s famous Piazza Navonna, where at all times of day and night one finds a lively and eclectic mix of commerce, entertainment and food. With simple modifications, York Street can be transformed from what is essentially a large parking lot into a similarly vibrant and iconic public space for Ottawa.

Last winter, the City removed 20 parking spaces at the west end of York, paved the area and installed a large OTTAWA sign and some simple low-cost furniture to test this vision. The sign almost instantly became a “selfie” spot for young people, and even in winter the chairs were often occupied. It is easy now to imagine the entire street cleared of cars, re-surfaced with architecturally unique pavers from building edge to building edge. The new plaza will become a barrier-free urban living room, flexibly furnished and generously proportioned for a wide variety of both inventive and ordinary activities.

Transforming York Street to York Plaza can support the safety, vitality and economic sustainability of the entire neighbourhood. In summer, additional outdoor tables to serve nearby restaurants, casual seating for clients of take-out joints, and landscaping to provide shade are all elements that can easily and economically be brought to the plaza. In winter, programming such as a Christmas Market, restaurant-style outdoor fireplaces, hot chocolate kiosks, and Winterlude-related events will ensure that the plaza is active year-round. Additional, affordable food vendors can help reinforce the ByWard Market’s identity as a destination for local, high quality produce, while also providing start-up commercial opportunities for Ottawa residents.

Everyone’s first question is likely about the negative effects of removing parking from this commercial district. To be sure, such moves require careful consideration. Yet on a typical weekend, there are hundreds of available parking spaces within the ByWard Market area. This was true even when the parking spaces on York were displaced by Inspiration Village during the summer of 2017. And the city continues to encourage and support use of public transit, with a new light-rail station two blocks from York on Rideau Street set to open next year.

Decades ago, the idea of plowing snow off seven kilometres of the Rideau Canal for no other reason than to create a venue for ice skating was no doubt greeted with skepticism. Yet today, the skateway is perhaps the most iconic element of Ottawa’s international identity. York Street’s transformation is another such opportunity to capitalize on a piece of our existing urban fabric.

Throughout North America, cities are thinking past the outdated practices of excessive street parking and asphalt lots, and modifying these urban spaces to better serve local practices and local desires. Philadelphia’s “The Porch” and Toronto’s “Sugar Beach” are both the result of trading car space for public space.

Great cities seize opportunities and embrace visionary ideas, and York Plaza is in the wings just waiting to happen. In no time, it will be hard to imagine Ottawa without it.

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