What I Learned Knocking on Ottawa's Doors

The naked man opened his door partway to tell me that he was sorry he couldn’t speak but that he had no clothes on. I immediately threw up my hands to indicate my full appreciation for his predicament and quickly moved to carry on to his neighbour’s apartment.

“But hold on, come to think of it…”, he said, and proceeded to ask about the plans for the vacant lot across the street. I tried to balance a proper answer with a very brief one. Brief was winning out. As we conversed, the door – initially opened only a few inches – was ever widening. I now had ample evidence that this gentleman was not at all lying to me.

2014 brought me a whole host of new insights and experiences, thanks to the main activity I undertook throughout the year: knocking on the doors of thousands upon thousands of fellow residents to ask about their thoughts, ideas and preoccupations when it came to improving their quality of life and building a better city.

For example, I learned that my Mr. Rogers-like propensity toward slippers and sweaters when sitting around at home, while not exceptional, is certainly not shared by all. That was lesson number one.

The second lesson was that Ottawans are far more polite, respectful and open than many give us credit for. I could count the number of slammed doors on two hands. Far more often, the interrupted, the harried, the angry or the disinterested would explain their state of mind in words, mostly polite ones with a hint (or so I liked to believe) of apology for not offering this perfect stranger at their door more of their time. In a vast majority of cases, the door would stay ajar, my initial questions answered by thoughtful ideas on what improvements could be made, changes affected and civic dreams imagined.

The third lesson learned was that while many of my fellow residents know their neighbours on their streets and in their buildings, a surprising number do not. And density alone is not a solution. I was struck by the isolation of some living in situations where there is no lack of neighbours. Apartment hallways could be forlorn and empty spaces, shuttling residents from locked and bolted door to the elevator. Insufficient upkeep of properties and fear of crime can be important contributing factors. So too, however, is how we design our density.

As we increasingly focus the growth of our city upwards instead of outwards, developers, architects and planners need to come up with more thoughtful ways to build our multi-unit dwellings to allow for more spontaneous and organic interactions among neighbours.

Open staircases for low- and mid-rise buildings – not to be confused with hard to access, concrete fire escapes – offer an opportunity for able-bodied residents to have easy and relaxed encounters, unlike the claustrophobic awkwardness of interminable elevator rides. Amenity spaces on each floor – whether a kitchen, dining room or lounge – could provide a chance for residents to socialize in smaller, less anonymous ways.

Outside, thoughtfully-designed courtyards can provide protection and intimacy for playgrounds, and seating areas for book readers. Similar objectives of small-scale, safe public spaces which encourage neighbourly interaction also need to be a part of design for streets with houses and stacked townhomes.

Why should socially connected residents interest municipal government? Because the last, and perhaps, most important, lesson I learned over my seven months of almost daily walking through my ward is that familiar neighbours are critical to building healthy communities. The most successful streets and buildings I encountered were the ones where people know each other; where milk is borrowed, plants are watered and kids looked after. The conversations at the doors of those blocks and floors turned to neighbourhood improvements, community meetings and a sense of ownership over the future. Those were also the doors of areas where trust and happiness seemed to this walking visitor to be higher.

Credit for healthy social bonds rests with the people with the courage and energy to welcome their new neighbours, organize block parties and consciously nurture neighbourly ties. But good planning can abet or spike such efforts. We know that such bonds are less likely on streets with speeding traffic, poor public spaces and a lack of walkable destinations.

As I enter 2015, my new year’s resolutions include a commitment to remember the lessons of 2014 and work to ensure that City Hall does more to support – not frustrate – the efforts of residents to build healthy neighbourhoods and positive social bonds among neighbours.

And whether my list of resolutions also includes a more open mind to my domestic loungewear, I’m not telling.

Source: Ottawa Citizen