By Liam Kennedy
The Ottawa Neighbourhood Study (ONS) is an excellent resource. It centralizes a lot of demographic data in one location and makes it publicly accessible, which can help citizens understand the health and wellness strengths and weaknesses of their neighbourhoods and advocate for change. This data includes income averages, walkability, healthcare, food accessibility, and more, grouped by neighbourhood. These factors and others are considered “social determinants of health”: environmental factors that predict health outcomes.
The ONS data also includes an arts and culture theme. While arts and culture do not directly affect health and well-being, like the other factors mentioned above, they do have an impact. Arts and culture give us a sense of identity, community, and belonging, and challenge us intellectually, emotionally, and aesthetically. They can’t cure a disease, but art and culture play a role in prevention by keeping us active and supporting our mental health.
Defining and measuring arts and culture is tricky, and the way the ONS does so is not necessarily how one would expect. This may lead to an inaccurate reflection of the arts and culture in Ottawa by contributing to questionable conclusions about what’s available in each neighbourhood.
Here are the current ONS data categories that are grouped under the arts and culture theme:
- Coffee shops
- Specialty food stores
- Outdoor sports arenas (summer)
- Cool-off areas (summer)
- Outdoor recreation areas (winter)
At first glance, it feels like this list is missing many of the things that intuitively come to mind when we think of arts and culture: museums, galleries, theatres, festivals, and parks. Fortunately, this theme can be updated in the future to include new data.
The two closest approximations to my own understanding of arts and culture currently listed by the ONS are nightlife and coffee shops. Nightlife is defined as restaurants and bars that are open late and serve alcohol, while coffee shops are fast-food outlets primarily serving coffee. Places that meet these definitions can certainly contribute to the arts and culture of a neighbourhood, but do they necessarily? Whether or not they host events or allow organizations to meet there, for example, are factors that could be considered.
According to Kaitlyn Carr from the ONS team, specialty food stores were included as an attempt “to provide any information that might help paint a picture of the social and cultural side of a neighbourhood,” because the ONS is currently “lacking in data regarding the artistic and cultural aspects of neighbourhoods.” Specialty food stores might contribute to the culture of a neighbourhood, especially if they cater to a specific ethnic community and are sources of information or gathering spaces. However, in this case, they are proximate measures.
Parks are not currently included under the arts and culture theme. Cool-off areas (summer) and outdoor sports arenas (summer) are limited to outdoor public pools and purpose-built sports fields, such as baseball diamonds and basketball courts, many of which are located in parks, though parks lacking these facilities are not counted in this category. To make up for this, the ONS team is working on a parks and greenspace dataset, which will be added to the study data.
Beyond the data itself, how it is sliced leads to other questions. Straightforward data analytics, such as the number of locations in a neighbourhood compared to a city-wide average, are very useful. Others, such as providing per capita measures of specific categories per neighbourhood, raise questions.
Specifically, under the nightlife category, there is a sub-category titled “number of venues within a 50m buffer per 1,000 people.” That means this category includes venues within 50 meters of the boundary of the neighbourhood. This sum is then averaged per 1,000 people. (Some further reading on this: Counts Per Neighbourhood, Average Distance to Services, Population Coverage.) It’s not surprising that the winning neighbourhood in this category is the ByWard Market, with a high score of 15.2. What is surprising, at least to me, is that the runner-up neighbourhood in this category is dubbed East Industrial – an odd section of the map that encompasses Hurdman Station, Trainyards, and parts of St. Laurent Blvd and Ramsayville – with a score of 7.4. It’s a big stretch to consider this whole area one neighbourhood.
City-wide averages for this per capita data category are not given, but its very existence makes me wonder: What score should neighbourhoods aim for? Is 15.2 too high? Most other areas appear to score between 2 and 0. Is this bad? Beyond this, how does proximity to a nightlife venue translate into arts and culture? Thinking back to the overall purpose of this survey, it would be helpful to know what neighbourhoods should be striving for in terms of arts and culture resources or, at least, what could be done with this information.
Carr explained that, while they don’t have an answer to this question directly, their intention in providing neighbourhoods with a score is to demonstrate how many locations are within a 15-minute walking distance, as that is considered to be as far as most people are willing to walk to a service or location. Despite this, many neighbourhoods in the ONS comprise areas that it would take more than 15 minutes to walk within. For example, it would take over 1 hour to walk from Hurdman Station to Walkley Bowling, and both are considered to be in the same neighbourhood.
Since the ONS is an evergreen project, new data, categories, and themes can be added to the project in the future. A few additional data sets can already be found on the City of Ottawa’s open data portal that speak to arts and culture categories currently missing from the ONS, including cultural facilities, cultural festivals, heritage conservation districts, and natural heritage areas.
The first step in advocating for the resources needed is finding out what is available versus what is needed, and addressing that gap. To this end, some steps could be taken so the ONS more accurately measures arts and culture resources in order to facilitate this advocacy.