2020/05/04 (updated 2021/08/31)

By Daniel Buckles,

[Originally published in October, 2019]

Here’s a silver lining in the LRT story — a downtown street once clogged with buses can become a linear park with big, mature trees, dedicated cycle lanes and places to sit and walk.

In the neighbourhood where I live (Champlain Park in Kitchissippi Ward) a whole city block was depaved a few months ago, a first for Ottawa. More than 50 neighbours working together with City staff, the EnviroCentre and Councillor Jeff Leiper’s office lifted and carted away more than 400 small squares of pavement from Pontiac Avenue. This expanded the City Park and connected it to NCC green space. A fence dividing municipal and NCC lands was removed and fresh soil seeded with grass. A bike-pedestrian path was created simply by leaving in place a strip of the original pavement. A path now connects bike commuters from Westboro to the SJAM along the Ottawa River, and stormwater now soaks into the ground rather than running off through storm sewers. As a finishing touch, we added selected native plants from a neighbourhood house destined to be torn down for an infill. Next Spring it will emerge as a pollinator garden.

How about applying this kind of creative thinking to a downtown street such as Slater or Albert, where buses no longer run? Make one of them a commuter corridor for bikes where the Zero Vision policy (no bike fatalities) can be truly supported. And depave most of it so that mature trees – oaks, maples, elms, and other giants can reach for the sky in the heart of the city.

Ottawa can take this moment of transition to transform a street freed of buses by the LRT into something truly useful, before it becomes just another street choked with cars. While Sparks Street offers a pedestrian-friendly business and entertainment corridor, what this city needs now more than ever is more green space and healthy ways to get around without bringing traffic and people into conflict.

For everyone in Ottawa, access to green space is a life saver. Science now shows what people know intuitively – trees and other kinds of green space help us relax while also filtering the air, absorbing stormwater and moderating the air temperature. Let’s uncover the soil, bring nature into the downtown, and connect the growing bike commuter network from east to west. New York has done it. The High Line in West Side Manhattan is a unique public park established on a former freight rail track elevated above the city streets. People walk it in the thousands, making it one of New York City’s greatest attractions (according to tour operators). By changing a downtown street into a linear park and healthy commuter corridor we can also show what it looks like to be climate leaders at this time of crisis. City staff are pondering what to do with the battered pavement along the former bus routes. I say, rip it up!

Daniel Buckles is a tree activist living in Champlain Park.