Blogger critical of city’s social media efforts

At a recent public forum on urban planning in the Internet age, Ottawa architecture blogger Robert Smythe spoke critically of the City of Ottawa’s minimal efforts to exploit social media and other digital tools to help shape the capital’s landscape.

“The city’s presence online is really limited to paying parking tickets to reporting potholes to paying your taxes,” said Smythe, speaking with reference to the city’s official website and not including independent community organizations like the Centretown Citizens Community Association. “That’s really the most interactive part of it. You can search the city’s homepage high and low for the words development, planning, urban design – they’re almost impossible to find.”

Smythe, curator of the Ottawa historical architecture blog Urbsite, shared his thoughts on the state of online urban planning in the city with a crowd of over 100 people as part of his presentation during the National Capital Commission’s Urbanism lab last Thursday, Jan. 14.

The Urbanism Lab series is designed to put citizens and experts in conversation on topics concerning urban planning in Canada’s capital. Panelists at the event were invited to share their thoughts on the relationship between social media platforms – particularly blogs – and the urban planning process. The panel consisted of Smythe, Toronto-based blogger and former architect Brandon Donnelly, Vancouver-based blogger Jillian Glover, and Montreal-based blogger and architect Marc-André Carignan.

Smythe went on to note that, with the exception of the highly contentious Victims of Communism memorial, public discussion around city planning in Ottawa has been very slim.

Smythe spoke of the various urban communities relevant to Ottawa that active online, from those dedicated to a particular architectural style, like brutalism or modernism, to the more socially active cyclists.

“Cycling breeds activism,” he said, referencing a propensity from the cyclist community to play with new routing technologies and advocate for safety issues concerning cyclists.

Despite these little online pockets of Ottawa communities, Smythe says the city as a whole is failing to adapt to the internet age.

“The Centretown Community Design Plan attempted to do a blog to be hip and relevant, and it was actually an incredible bust.”

Smythe’s comments echoed sentiments shared earlier in the evening by Donnelly, creator of the Toronto-based blog Architect This City. “The community feedback process is largely broken in a lot of ways,” said Donnelly. “It’s often the same things, so developers naturally pull back and don’t engage. I think with technology, there’s an opportunity to reach a broader audience and get a better sense of what people really want.”

Stephen Willis, executive director of capital planning at the NCC, spoke about the vast array of online resources available to municipal governments for city planning.

“As a planner I can tell you the profession has changed now that people have more access to information more quickly and we can give feedback more quickly as we go.”

However, said Smythe , the city has not been using these tools effectively and has not been receptive to public comment.

“Now, you can look at the stuff and you can comment on it, and a planner may or may not read it, and will synthesize it and will regurgitate a tiny percentage of it back in a report, but there’s no real forum,” said Smythe. “There’s no place for any kind of dialogue or exchange, which is probably the way the city wants it.”

Smythe says that when it comes to city planning, the municipal government is not interested in public opinion, citing the city’s Urban Design Review Panel founded in 2010.

“When this panel was first formed, it met in secret,” he said.

Smythe then read aloud from a submission to the panel from the Ottawa Regional Society of Architects insisting that “the public may not be permitted to comment on our designs.”

“Well, now the meetings are in public and you can look at their designs,” he said. “The public still cannot comment on their designs, so I would say we have a ways to go. So let’s talk about.”