Eric Darwin is one of the best reporters in Ottawa covering urban affairs. Not bad for someone who does not call himself a journalist, who is not part of the mainstream and alternative press, and who only launched his must-read blog West Side Action after retiring seven years ago.
In today’s Internet age, news reporting is being radically redefined. Twenty years ago, if you wanted to know about development projects in the National Capital Region or planning decisions at City Hall, a daily newspaper, local TV news show or a talk radio program were your primary (if not only) sources of news.
Fast forward to today, and there are numerous blogs, online forums and web sites by community associations that provide crucial information on changes to local neighbourhoods. While some people might object to calling these online sources “news”, the reality is that they are just as useful as the Ottawa Citizen, CBC radio, CTV news or the Ottawa Sun.
Consider the blog West Side Action, a fantastic site that contains important information that often does not appear in the mainstream press. As a longtime reader of Darwin’s work, I would argue that his reporting is just as good, if not better, than many professional journalists who are paid to cover municipal affairs.
During a 30-minute phone interview, Darwin gave me several examples of how bloggers/community activists can use the blogosphere to improve their neighbourhoods. One example he gave is the recent construction of the multi-use pathway (MUP) next to the O-Train corridor.
“When the city started getting advice from their internal bicycle group they saw (the MUP) as a great way to get people from the south to downtown. They saw it as a strict bicycle path,” says Darwin. “But what about the little old ladies? The mother with the two-year-old who is going berserk and needs to sit down …. Where do teenagers go to kiss?”
Through his blog posts and community activism, Darwin pushed for practical improvements to the MUP. The results were noticeable: rock clusters that acted as benches were installed so pedestrians could sit down; lighting was put in place to allow for nighttime use of the path.
“If you ride on the O-Train corridor now you see people sitting on (the rock benches),” says Darwin, who is also the vice-president of the Dalhousie Community Association. “It’s what makes it friendly. It makes it feel like you are not on a highway, a bicycle highway.”
For Darwin, the magic of blogging is that it can spawn public discussions that are often not possible with traditional mainstream news reports. To support this view, he pointed to the proposed construction of the Hickory Street pedestrian bridge over the O-Train tracks.
When the original proposal came out Darwin wrote about it on his blog. His reporting questioned the dimensions of the proposed bridge and argued that it could be significantly improved.
“The Citizen would not report that the bridge is this dimension,” he tells me. “They would just say that it’s going to council and that it passed. Some councilors may be happy with this level of detail.”
Darwin was able to get into a much greater level of specificity with his blog. After offering different suggestions and contacting local developers, who are set to pay part of the cost of building the bridge, the proposal was modified.
These grassroots, street-level discussions are not what professional journalists usually engage in. Thanks to local bloggers like Darwin, however, citizens in the National Capital Region are increasingly finding ways to participate in urban planning discussions, and in the process bring real change to their communities.
“The value of the blog is giving a view to smaller people, and minority voices, that are not part of the conversation,” says Darwin.