A new public square in Ottawa will feature trees, bike racks, and space for public art and special events, but lack something crucial — places to sit. According to the Ottawa Citizen, the decision not to include benches or permanent seating in the new Ogilvy Square was partially driven by fears of homeless people loitering, and partially by a desire to keep the plaza flexible for future programming.
“It’s not that permanent seats couldn’t go in a couple of locations at some point, but we’ve chosen to take a more adaptable approach and be able to monitor the success and failures of the seats as opposed to putting something in permanent and then having nothing but complaints come in for people (who) are loitering or panhandling or causing other kinds of public nuisance that we’re always responding to,” said David Atkinson, a planner in the city’s urban design unit. He told the paper that the city received “nothing but complaints from business owners and the police” about some granite blocks installed nearby, which became popular places for people to sit and congregate.
The decision has angered some local residents and community groups, including Liz Bernstein, president of the Lowertown Community Association. “Vague concerns about flexible use of space and fear of itinerant individuals should not be the basis for urban planning,” she wrote in a letter to city officials last month. While temporary chairs and tables might be suitable for special events, she told the paper, permanent seating should be available for people to sit and eat, or just to rest. The plaza design includes a plan for a large restaurant patio, but Bernstein said if that’s the only available seating, it amounts to the city privatizing public space.
Developer Cadillac Fairview, which owns the Rideau Centre shopping mall in which the plaza is located, is constructing Ogilvy Square to the city’s specifications. The new square is replacing a short stretch of street now closed to vehicle traffic. But the city is still required to maintain a right-of-way for emergency vehicles, another argument cited by Atkinson for not providing permanent seating.
City Councilor Mathieu Fleury has pushed back against the design, saying he is trying to have the space designated as a park in order to negate the right-of-way provision. “We design public spaces for people,” he said. “If there are housing, mental health and addiction issues, that’s one thing we need to work towards, but it shouldn’t impact the public realm because gutting the public realm won’t improve the look and feel, won’t improve the enjoyment of the community.”
UPDATE: The Ottawa Citizen reported Tuesday evening that the city’s mayor, Jim Watson, “has ordered city staff to install benches in Ogilvy Square.”
Jen Kinney is a freelance writer and documentary photographer. Her work has also appeared in Philadelphia Magazine, High Country News online, and the Anchorage Press. She is currently a student of radio production at the Salt Institute of Documentary Studies. See her work at jakinney.com.