Hull’s waterfront looks onto Downtown Ottawa from behind industrial complexes, many of which are soon to become obsolete (and many of which are historical and falling apart, but that’s a story for another time). The City has taken the initiative to do something with the very valuable public land, which is a great idea. By making a 6-km long, winding park along the Ottawa River, they also hope to attract hordes of tourists who, in large part, seem to act as if Gatineau side of the river was the great unknown (There be seamonsters!).
What isn’t such a great idea is the plan itself. The renders, though not final, are quite pretty, filled with happy, beautiful people having a great time in the gardens along well-paved uncongested highways and arterials (for anyone outside of Quebec, you must know how very impossible this is).
The problem with the otherwise handsome plan is lack of utility, too many borders and not enough confinement.
Look at good parks. Not famous parks, just good ones: what do you see? More importantly, what do they all have in common? It isn’t the benches, the gardens, the trees or the icecream stands: it’s people. When there are people, people will go and it’s equally true that where no one is, nobody will go, but with the added bonus of where nobody goes, people will go to not be seen. However, though certain groups of people will actually make their way to the park to be in a park, this species of urban-dwellers only comes out when the weather is pleasant (which excludes about five months of the Canadian calendar) on weekends. What happens the rest of the day and the rest of the year? This is where species Urbanus Utilitarus comes in. This noble creature of the urban jungle walks through a park to get to the other side, goes there for lunch or dinner, a meeting or for any reason other than to be in a park. That’s not to say that he’ll never stop in the park – on the contrary! But the main goal of this utilitarian city-dweller is to do something. They aren’t scared away by a little rain or snow and they come all day and year ’round.
The everyday person does everyday things just like these and, if we are to make a park which is to be used by citizens, it needs to be useful. Moreover, they are also the background of any good park on which leisure-seekers are superimposed. If that constant population isn’t there, you’ll be hard-pressed to convince tourists and weekenders to come stare at trees, so they’ll need to be bribed with concerts and activities which, over time, become the life-support of the place on public dime. Even then, the place is deserted as soon as the event is over with, if indeed anyone bothers to come at all.
The lack of utility is a problem which doesn’t seem to register with municipal governments who seem quite convinced that a spot of public green will be instantly populated with people whose only aspiration is to be able to sink their toes in the turf every hour of the day all the while assuming that all the needle parks of the world are just magically so. I really can’t stress this point enough: people don’t go to parks for the sole purpose of being in a park and any public space built on that principle will at best be a waste of money and at worst a dangerous eyesore.
That said, a useless park can find its utility, but it depends greatly on what’s around it (as does everything in urban planning). Take, for example, the wildly successful Bryant Park of midtown New York. It wasn’t always so. It used to be a needle park in the middle of a beautiful French garden where people were supposed to take a walk along the fenced-in path with limited access for the sake of walking through a French garden. It had everything going for it – a very high density surrounding, the world renown New York Library right beside it and times square but a skip away. But it’s lack of utility (for crossing, sitting, eating or activities) emptied it of everyone, making it the perfect place to go for an ounce of whatever you wouldn’t want your grandmother to see. However, once renovated to accommodate a lawn, open access and little movable seats and tables, people flocked to it, not to because they liked grass or tables, but because they liked to sunbathe and est lunch.
I think that Destination Gatineau could be useful, but it’ll be very difficult because it’s on a border vacuum. That brings me to the second problem, border vacuums.
A border isn’t necessarily political: it’s the limit of something physical which condemns the adjacent areas to always being on the edge. It can be the blocks surrounding a highway, the area at the top and foot of a cliff or, as it’s the case in Destination Gatineau, a river. What a border does which is so devastating for a place is that it prevents anything interesting from being across from it, which makes the place half as interesting (or twice as boring). In the case of a park, it also eliminates pedestrian through-traffic, which is the easiest kind of activity to attract and arguably the most popular. To get that traffic, the park needs to be interesting and pleasant enough to have people go out of their way to go through it to get somewhere else.
The third issue is lack of place or intimacy.
Now, granted, this reproach is directed at the finer design of the park, which is still only in the concept stage as of this article. However, I think this is important to talk about because it can really make or break a park.
Intimacy is an important and undervalued and under-examined concept in successful urban places: it’s the spaces that feel very human and friendly in scale which put people at ease. The antithesis of an intimate place is an inhuman place, like this one, located in an unnamed shoppers’ hell.
Places like these lack definition, limits, scale and shelter and just generally make people uncomfortable when they have to traverse them in anything but an automobile, as would be the case in a park. Supposedly, this is because our primate ancestors were most comfortable in the semi-forest areas of Africa where they could at once have the visibility needed to spot their predators and still have a place to hide. Regardless of the reasons, people are much more comfortable in intimate places.
So, let’s review some of the characteristics of an intimate place:
- It has definition: it doesn’t go on forever – instead, there are visual cues which separate one place from another : an archway at the end of an alley, a curve in a path, a hill which you can’t see over, the start or end of a wooded area… It just can’t be separated only be the horizon, as so many of our suburban places are.
- It has to be human: Your goal here is to make it so that people don’t feel suffocated or vulnerable by finding the right balance between openness and definition: The general rule of thumb is that a place shouldn’t be larger than 100m by 100m, the maximum distance at which you can easily recognize someone’s movements (this might also be related to our primal instincts).
- It has eyes on the street: I’m certain I’ll make a longer post about this eventually, but basically what I mean by this is that a street with people nearby is a street on which you feel safe because you feel confident that, if need be, they will come to your aid. In a space, this means that people in it have to feel that people will hear their yelp if they’re in trouble: open shops and nearby residences with large windows onto the place make the place seem watched (or at least watchable) and safe, 24/7.
- It’s exciting: By exciting, I don’t mean concerts or buskers, but rather a drive to always turn the next corner and explore, as opposed to feeling like there’s nothing to see or that you can see it all. In a place, this is done with creative architecture, curving streets around which you can’t see, a multitude of different ways to get from one point to another and just little secret areas (terraces, courtyards, microparks) which appeal to your curiosity, a severely undervalued human trait.
Unfortunately, I don’t feel that these elements have been integrated into the plan for Destination Gatineau:
- It lacks definition on a human scale: the different spaces are defined almost exclusively by the bridges, which block the sightline. However, these bridges are more than kilometre apart in most cases, much, much bigger than the 100m x 100m rule of thumb for the human scale. Worst still, it borders the Ottawa River, almost a kilometre across in itself, so the space seems even more endless. Generally, people like seeing open space (like a field or a large expanse of water) more than actually basking about in it, so not only is the surplus of open space useless, but it makes the place inhumanly vast, so uncomfortable to be in. So, for the design of the park, I think that they should concentrate on making different, human places separated by wooded areas, built barriers (like buildings or decorative elements like arches), but to watch out not to have large open spaces directly on the river (without the buffer of even a few trees) to avoid making the space seem too large.
- It lacks excitement: The total openness of the space lets you see everything there is to see in it and in so doing eliminates the excitement of discovery. Considering the space is on the border vacuum of the river, it needs all the excitement it can get. So, I propose that the plan integrate a sense of discovery into the project through definition of spaces and the integration of small spaces off the beaten path like small fountains, climbing trees and artwork which aren’t ostentatiously visible at first sight from anywhere in the park so that people can ‘discover’ them.
- It lacks utility and mixed-use: there is no reason for people to walk through the park as it is, so the city should create some: though they’ll hate this, there need to be some buildings on the site like actual restaurants (not the dinky little ‘kiosk bistros’ they put in the concept images) and small shops that actually appeal to residents and maybe even a few apartments to make the place feel watched and inhabited. To add to the park’s utility, perhaps they could subsidize the boat trips from and to Ottawa to make them a useful mode of transportation between the cores (at their current $5 a pop price, it’s only affordable for tourists) or maybe even install a gondola to do the trip year-round. Regardless of the means, though, this park needs to be useful for as much of the day (and especially night) and the year as possible, not just on summer weekends and concert nights.
- It lacks shade. Not much to explain here: it’s unpleasant to walk in full sun when it’s 30 above and unpleasant to walk in full wind and snow when it’s 30 below. So, I recommend they plant canopy trees along all places they think people will walk or bike.
So, there you have it. Destination Gatineau is a good idea which just lacks attention to detail on the ground. This project can succeed in making the next Central Park just as it can fall flat on its face, but it has a much higher chance of really contributing to city life if we really look at how it can be useful, intimate and pleasant by looking at the underlying reasons of the success or failure of urban parks instead of just mimicking their superficial elements as seen from Google Maps. Like it or not, a park, just like everything else in a city, lives and dies by how people perceive and use it. If we get that right, everything else falls into place.
I’ll keep you posted!