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Can sprawl be stopped?

Posted by Scott Van Voorhis August 19, 2013 06:55 AM

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Greater Boston certainly has its fine points, but it also has its share of just plain ugly suburban sprawl. Just take a drive up and down Route 1 and you'll get the point.

But sprawl may be with us as long as we have cities, as the experience of Ottawa suggests.

I'm just back from a wonderful week in the Canadian capital with Karen and the kids, having exchanged houses with a family in that city.

They spent the week in Natick touring the Boston area, while we set up camp in their spacious, renovated, older house in a leafy section of Ottawa two miles from downtown.

(It's our fourth house exchange and the way to go if you have kids - that is unless you enjoy cramming yourself and small children into a single room and paying a small fortune for the privilege.)

Just a little bigger than Boston, Ottawa is a city that has gone all out to defeat urban sprawl, surrounding the city's downtown neighborhoods with a ring of parks and a 1,000 acre "experimental farm" that dates to the 1880s. In addition, just a five minute drive from downtown, is Gatineau Park, a relatively narrow but roughly 40-mile-long wildlife preserve that juts out into Ottawa's environs.

It would be as if the Blue Hills nature reservation extended out to Framingham.

The hiking trails look great, but watch out of the 200 or so black bears who call the park their home! This isn't the Greenway, after all.

Yet despite this herculean effort - only possible in a city that was carved out of raw wilderness in the mid-1800s - Ottawa is struggling like many other metro areas with the sprawl issue.

Developers have simply leapfrogged the green zone, creating more distant suburbs that require longer commutes to the jobs in downtown Ottawa.

There have been efforts over the years to carve up the green belt and parcel out pieces for development, but predictably those haven't gone anywhere.

Instead, Ottawa is now turning to solutions that should sound familiar to all of us here in Greater Boston, with planning officials pushing for high-rise development near transportation hubs.

The result has been an explosion in apartment and condo tower construction across downtown Ottawa, with the developments sporting hipster New York-style names like the "Gotham" and "SoBa."

All that said, Ottawa's green belt is absolutely gorgeous, with miles of jogging and biking paths along the river and canal that weave through and around the city.

In the winter, the canals freeze over and you can skate to work. It makes Boston's Emerald Necklace look like a miserable little dirt patch by comparison.

Maybe you can't beat sprawl, but Ottawa gets an A for effort.


This blog is not written or edited by Boston.com or the Boston Globe.
The author is solely responsible for the content.

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About boston real estate now
Scott Van Voorhis is a freelance writer who specializes in real estate and business issues.

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