Inspiring Design

It’s so easy to find things we don’t like. It’s somehow harder to praise things we do. Here’s an inspirational bit of shared pedestrian-motorist design from Laurier and Elgin, in downtown Ottawa.

Sept 2013 048

It’s a parking lot beside the Baptist Church (on the left) and the new office building that faces Gloucester and Elgin (behind the former Friday’s Roast Beef House). This small parking lot now has wide, slightly windy concrete walkway to the northside doors of the office building.

The white concrete screams “pedestrian realm”. Yet the only access to the black asphalt parking spaces is by driving over the sidewalk.   Pedestrians clearly have the right of way over motorists, as indicated by the car trespassing on the walkway.

It’s a little bit of the “naked street” concept (shown in the picture below, from Kirchzarten, Germany, with very subtle pavement markings identifying the various realms):

europe 2013 023

but for less-educated, more road-centric Ottawa motorists used to having the right of way, by putting a very well marked walkway down the middle.


This should work well for the small parking lot on Laurier. It’s less likely to work well at a giant parking lot, due to the dominating volume of cars. In case of conflict, the outcomes are unequal: pedestrians can get maimed or killed; motorists can only get momentarily inconvenienced. Thus peds are more likely to prudently remove themselves from the conflict zone, abandoning the space to motorists where the terrain favours motorists. Like the lion hunting the gazelle, the lion is motivated by dinner; the gazelle for its life. Unequal steaks.

I wonder if there would be an opportunity for this type of design on certain streets. Start with “laneway” type streets with very low volumes of cars, and maybe with higher volumes of pedestrians.

How about Empress Avenue, running from the foot of the popular staircase that descends Nanny Goat Hill to the short block of road that runs past the Good Companions out to Albert and the transitway station? It is up for reconstruction now, and the City is presently sticking to its sidewalk-curb-parking-roadway design. There are only about 3 driveways on the block, once past the busier Companions lot, which I think is also used for staff parking for St Vincent Hospital on the hill up above.

Or some of the other really quiet dead ends off Albert or Preston, often with only six or a dozen houses on them.

Replace the sea of street asphalt, curbs, and concrete sidewalks with a simpler design: gently curving wide pedestrian walkway down the centre, shared roadway, occasional parking bays to the side, increased landscaping where the sidewalks used to be (NOT more front yard parking, please), and a few mid block bulb outs* — each with a tree or planter — to reinforce the curvilinear pattern that helps tell drivers this ain’t their grandfather’s typical racestrip.

I suspect this street design would be as cheap to construct as the “standard” city design, and certainly easier to maintain. It has some of the elements of the Woonerf design (the Cambridge St woonerf was subject of a blog post here years ago, but I couldn’t find a link…  ) without the high costs of the raised planters.

I think some of the appeal of a shared street comes from clearly indicating that residents of a dead end (in urban areas) or cul-de-sac (in suburbia) aren’t on a straight through street.  Leonardo da Vinci appreciated curved streets, painting them as a reinforcer of perspective into his frescos and portraits. People like curved streets; new urbanist layouts all use them. Bike path builders always use them. The NCC loves curvy parkways.  installing a curvy walkway on an otherwise straight street humanizes the landscape.

So from a parking lot inspiration to a real time Ottawa street installation ? It’s nice to dream.


* such mid-block bulb outs don’t necessarily lose parking spaces. The community pushed for these for eg on Somerset Street near the Plant Bath, where the bulb out includes driveway exits or a fire hydrant, and still includes trees, where on-street parking was not possible anyway. Compare those to the unimaginative bulb outs recently stuck on Scott Street west of Lanark.


2 thoughts on “Inspiring Design

  1. I live on the section of Empress and I think that it pretty much already is a shared space. With the bottom of the steps bang in the middle of Empress, most pedestrians don’t bother with the sidewalk once they’re past the Good Companions Centre. I talked to a couple of people at the Open House in the winter at the Dalhousie Community Centre, but they didn’t seem interested in doing things differently. I think if you look at how cities like San Francisco, Rome and Lisbon integrate mid-block steps like the ones at Empress, the city is missing a big opportunity.

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