15-minute ‘hoods: Playfair, Heron Gate, and the changes coming to Alta Vista

15-minute ‘hoods: Playfair, Heron Gate, and the changes coming to Alta Vista

This article was originally published in the Spring/Summer 2022 issue of Ottawa Magazine as part of a series on neighbourhood planning entitled “15 Minutes to the Future”. Find more articles in this package here.

The land we today call Alta Vista — comprised of neighbourhoods Playfair, Heron Gate, and Canterbury, among others — served as farmland throughout the 19th century. In 1950, Ottawa annexed Alta Vista from the Township of Gloucester, which spurred initial housing developments. The addition of the George McIlraith Bridge, which links Main Street to Smyth Road, transformed the area into a bedroom community for downtown workers. Thus began the era of modern Alta Vista, known for its brick bungalows, winding streets, and spacious parks.

So when the city announced that its new official plan would soon designate my neighbourhood as Inner Urban, some eyebrows were raised. The category means development will be guided to higher-density, mixed-use buildings that include retail, offices, rowhouses, and apartments, as well as a tight network of streets with wide sidewalks, steady streettree planting, and buildings set close to the sidewalks. The other newly categorized wards — Capital, Rideau-Vanier, Rideau-Rockcliffe, and Kitchissippi — have a pre-World War II street grid built around pedestrian needs such as narrow lanes, short blocks, and good connectivity. While Alta Vista lacks some of these characteristics, it does have a variety of housing. Ottawa’s new official plan anticipates a population growth of 40 per cent over the next 25 years, which will call for an additional 194,800 dwelling units. In the interest of preserving our current farmland, many of those units will be within existing neighbourhoods such as Alta Vista.

Janet Mark Wallace is an advocate of active transportation and a member of Walkable Ottawa. Photo by Marc Fowler/Metropolis Ottawa

The concept of 15-minute neighbourhoods postulates that much of this new housing could go in space currently devoted to the automobile. Oversized thoroughfares could be put to better use as pedestrian-oriented, commercial main streets. Heron Road is ripe with potential: its overly generous lanes that currently invite reckless driving could be trimmed to make room for bike lanes and trees. The ambitious new developments currently being considered at Heron Gate and 1495 Heron could be required to have ground-floor retail, opening onto wide sidewalks with benches and other pedestrian amenities. A retail landscape brimming with activity would increase business and create a market for more multi-modal transportation opportunities.

Many Alta Vista residents already live within a 15-minute walk of retail at Elmvale, Billings Bridge, Heron Gate, Trainyards, 1790 Kilborn, and Canterbury Square. However, cul-de-sacs, dead-end streets, long blocks, and unnecessary fencing conspire to turn a short crow’sflight trip into a long, traffic-choked, unpleasant one. To adapt, we need connecting streets with new pathways, and for new housing developments to fully integrate into the existing street grid. The real promise of the 15-minute neighbourhood concept is self-sufficiency. Locally owned businesses providing employment, public squares with performance and recreation space, community gardens sharing produce and advice, all lay the groundwork for strong communities. A true 15-minute community would aim to go beyond the exchange of goods and into some production; this could be through urban gardens producing every type of produce that an Ottawa summer can yield. A secondary level of activity (preserving, processing, and marketing) would add more employment, prosperity, and self-reliance to our neighbourhoods. A third layer of activity could take the form of art and hospitality; as a neighbourhood develops culture it attracts visitors — and residents. 

In Alta Vista, the Kilborn Allotment Gardens endure as the taproot of continued agricultural heritage of this area, a priceless synthesis of food production, agricultural education, recreation, and wildlife habitat. This nucleus of productive, multicultural interdependence, a living demonstration of Alta Vista’s rural past, provides the robust roots of a lowcarbon, car-light future.