Wednesday, May 18, 2016

Tactical urbanism, and the cycle track we didn't know was there

Allow me to wax enthusiastic for a moment.

I live in one of the city's "rough" neighbourhoods. When I tell people I live in Herongate, I get that raised-eyebrow look and an "ohhh. . . yeah. . ." Sometimes, in certain company, I say I live at "Bank and Heron" or "Heron and Alta Vista" instead, because of the "H-bomb" effect.

Allow me to dispel some of that. Yes, the landlords have been sketchy and the buildings have their problems and the pavement is cracked and falling apart. Yes, the police Guns and Gangs unit gets called out here more often than many neighbourhoods. But this neighbourhood is full of young, extended families and good people. Lots - really, most - of them are new immigrants. You can't be certain your neighbour in the elevator with you will speak English - or French. People in my building come from all over the world. A lot of them are from northern Africa and the Middle East, but you'll also hear Russian and African-accented French and Creole.

Sandalwood Park is busy in the evenings.
Summer evenings around here are great. People come outside in the evening and find places all over the neighbourhood to sit together in the cool air and talk. The kids play in Sandalwood Park till they can't see the ball anymore. Groups of men bring out folding chairs and card tables and play backgammon by the disused baseball diamond: groups of women bring out thermoses of tea and sit on the grass to talk while they keep an eye on the kids in the play structures. When it gets too dark, they go back inside. There aren't a lot of raucous parties around here.

I like this neighbourhood. The only thing I don't like is that it is shit to get around in without a car. Walking and biking and busing are awkward and uncomfortable. Herongate is hemmed in by Walkley and Heron Roads on the north and south, and Bank Street to the west. They're big, fast, four-lane streets with few crosswalks and narrow, unpleasant, cracked and uneven sidewalks. Biking is brutal: walking is no fun. Bus stops don't have shelters. Add to that the fact that many people here are living on lower incomes and car ownership is expensive. Busing is getting to be too expensive for many.

Enter the Healthy Transportation Coalition and their working group project. The HTC is running a program which coordinates local working groups in specific neighbourhoods to plan "pop-up projects" aimed at improving walking, biking and busing. The idea is that a temporary installation or event would give people in the neighbourhood a chance to see what's possible, and demonstrate to the city where there is a need for something permanent. I participated in a walkability audit of the area as part of the leadup to this last summer, and there have been a couple of local "sharing circle" meetings. I found out that there was a working group being put together for Herongate and came out to the first, priority-setting "dotmocracy" meeting a month ago.

Dotmocracy in action.
One thing about having these kinds of community meetings in Herongate is you need someone there who can do simultaneous translation in Arabic: half of the participants in that initial meeting didn't speak English very well. They were there in part because the president of Imam Ali (AS) Masjid, the mosque around the corner from me,  had volunteered the space in the mosque that we've been using for meetings, and had been encouraging members of the congregation to get involved. That did mean that things moved a little slower, as everything that was being explained in English had to then be translated into Arabic, but we managed, thanks to one member who volunteered to translate.

So we picked some priorities, and tonight we got together to think about what we could actually do (with limited budget and peoplepower). The start of the meeting was a little confused, what with some translation issues and a number of people who had to come late. But eventually a little band of us set off to check out Sandalwood Park, just east of Herongate, and see what we might be able to do.

The pathway through the park is one issue. It's not paved and it's not cleared in winter. It's muddy in the rain and downright dangerous when it's icy, and it's the main route through the park between the apartment buildings and the nearest grocery store.

It's also unlit, and the path ends at Sandalwood Drive, where it just runs to the curb. There's no curb cut to let people with strollers or wheelchairs access the path. There are also no signs to warn drivers that there are kids crossing the street from the apartment complex to the park.

Ideas we jotted down: we could put down some rubber matting to demonstrate where the pavement should go. We could get warning signs put up to alert drivers to the fact there are children crossing the road to the park from the driveway of the apartment buildings. (We can't put in a crosswalk because you're not allowed to construct a crosswalk within a certain distance of a bend in the road, and Sandalwood curves.)

We could also buy some cheap solar LEDs to light the path, and mount them on the baseball net and other fencing along the path. We noted a few big lights on poles, aimed at where the skating rink is set up in the winter: I went by later that night and discovered that those lights don't come on in the summer. In a community where so many kids play soccer and basketball, and so few play hockey, it seems like those lights should be on in the summer too. Not to mention they'd make the park feel a lot safer at night.

The path really needs paving. And winter maintenance.
Then we walked over to Heron Road, thinking about how we might be able to host a weekend evening in the park to unveil the solar lights and the "pseudopaving," and then we started looking at the road and got pretty excited about the possibilities.

Heron Road is big and fast, but it has these inexplicable paved strips right beside the road, separated from the sidewalk by a strip of grass. I'm not really sure what these "kill strips" are for. But as we looked at them. . . well . . .

That's basically a cycle track. Pre-made and ready to go. All it needs is a lick of paint and a couple of bike symbols. And there's one on each side of Heron, between about Baycrest and the point where Heron and Walkley converge - a couple of big blocks. Beyond that the hydro poles start to encroach and get in the way but, right next to the Herongate complex, Heron Road is flanked by two unobstructed, segregated cycle tracks that just aren't official.

As we started picturing it painted green, we started getting practically gleeful. It was just too perfect - at least for those few blocks - and, to me at least, the image of a raised, protected cycle track along a high-speed car corridor in this scrappy, low-income neighbourhood was just beautiful.

Next steps: we try to figure out what kind of paint would be allowable. We price it out. We try to set up a meeting with Councillor Cloutier. We check into costs on solar lights we can rig up on the fences and light posts that already exist in the park, and what kind of rubber matting we could get to mock up pavement on the path.

Gonna be fun. 


  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

  2. This is genuinely way cool. (Even though I think the precedent of letting government download their responsibilities to local volunteers is an iffy one . . . ). But go for it, eh? Give 'er.

  3. Your mother says, "look under 'Heritage Canada' for "small community projects grants." She'll send you the URL later.

  4. I'm not sure how expensive it is, but you could use tempura paint for lanes or symbols. This would fit nicely with the "temporary" element of such a project, as it will eventually wash away with the rain.

  5. Clark in VancouverMay 25, 2016 at 9:49 AM

    It's not necessary to paint the side tracks a colour to indicate them as cycle tracks. The green paint is only necessary in places where a cycle path crosses another type of road. Within a curb protected area like this it's not needed. So you don't need to worry about that expense.
    Some bike symbols are good to have though as well as the occasional sign where there are poles already.

    Salt Spring Island in BC has made some really great cycle paths entirely with volunteer labour and donations of materials.

  6. Try talking to Bryce Conrad, President & CEO of Hydro Ottawa, for sponsorship and providing volunteer labour. A local community based project like this might be an easy sell.

  7. Tactical urbanism is a concept practiced by artists, activists and citizens not so much to resist change, but to bring into the process connections of place to the past, the present and the future.
    Tactical Urbanism