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Troubled Carlington rates poorly in study

March 18th, 2008 Comments off

By The Ottawa Citizen

The first step in solving a troubled neighbourhood's problems is often for a group of concerned residents to take charge.

But in Carlington, one of Ottawa's most problematic areas, a lack of attachment to the place is itself a problem, says a team of university researchers, city planners, health officials and community workers.

Only 38 per cent of people living in the neighbourhood feel a sense of belonging to their community, compared to a citywide average of almost 60 per cent, the team found.

It's but one observation in the most comprehensive look at Ottawa neighbourhoods and the health of people living in them. The findings -- hundreds of them, which are to go online today at neighbourhoodstudy.ca -- are meant to help tailor public health programs to fit the needs of each neighbourhood.

And Carlington has some needs.

It has a relatively high overall crime rate, lacks a neighbourhood grocery store, and its residents move more than in just about any other neighbourhood in town.

Carlington has one of the lowest average incomes in Ottawa, self-rated general health is disproportionately poor, the rate of low birth weight and pre-term births is well above the city average, and the number of emergency room visits for basic medical conditions is abnormally high. In fact, in several socio-economic and health indicators, the area is behind the rest of the city, said the study's lead researcher, Elizabeth Kristjansson, of the University of Ottawa's Institute of Population Health.

"If it's a neighbourhood you don't want to stay in, you're not going to build a strong sense of belonging," Ms. Kristjansson said.

Part of the problem lies in the type of housing concentrated in the area bounded by Carling, Fisher, and Clyde avenues and the Experimental Farm.

One-third of residents live in rental units, the study found, higher than most Ottawa neighbourhoods. Housing is generally unaffordable, with a third of residents spending more than 30 per cent of their income on shelter. Crowding is much worse in Carlington compared to the average. And a high proportion of dwellings -- 12 per cent -- are in need of major repairs.

It all contributes to a high level of transiency in Carlington, with 20 per cent of people moving within the last year.

"That probably explains a lot," Ms. Kristjansson said.

"If you're not sure you're going to be a tenant there in the next year, you're not going to be bothering to get to know your neighbours."

Michael Birmingham, the executive director of Carlington Community and Health Services, acknowledged that the area has poor socio-economic and health indicators, but he said the low sense of belonging and high transiency rates aren't necessarily bad things.

He points out that roughly half of residents live in social housing or cheap private rental units. He said for many immigrants and refugees, the area is a first stop before moving into their own homes. For others, the area is a temporary stop when they experience economic misfortune.

Another chunk of the population is first-time homeowners living in smaller houses that were built following the Second World War, who tend to move out when their homes become too small for their growing families.

Michael Kostiuk, president of the Carlington Community Association, said the area is not homogeneous and, because of this, building a sense of community has been difficult. He also said the physical boundaries of the area contribute to a sense of isolation.

"It's a neighbourhood of neighbourhoods, and it's like an island in the city, and both of these contribute to people not feeling connected," he said.

Mr. Kostiuk also said some parts of the neighbourhood have experienced a growth in drug use and prostitution as more central neighbourhoods gentrify and the antisocial elements are pushed out of them.

He said his group has approached the city and asked for help to turn Merivale Road, which bisects the neighbourhood, into a real main street with better choices for grocery shopping and other basics. The association is also planning to start a free wireless network and document the history of the area.

Mr. Birmingham said the fact that the area is so transient could be seen as a good thing, if people get on their feet quickly and move to better areas.

"This is a stopping point for many," he said. "There's been a lot of work done over the last few years stabilizing the area and improving the quality of life."

River Councillor Maria McRae said the numbers aside, Carlington is a neighbourhood with a lot of character and civic-minded residents.

"You've got a good group of people who have been around for a long time, who care about the community," she said.

And there are bright spots. Carlington has an abundance of pedestrian and cycling trails in the Experimental Farm, a fairly educated populace, and relatively low property-crime rates.

But the challenges are undeniable.

The lack of social cohesion is particularly felt in the community housing complex on Caldwell Avenue, Ms. McRae said. The two residential towers and series of townhomes make up what was once called the "Caldwell Projects," the largest public housing complex in Canada when it was built in 1972.

Now called Bellevue Manor, the architecture of the complex is not the making of a healthy and engaged community, Ms. McRae said.

"That's bad for everybody. It really keeps people segregated," she said.

Ms. McRae thinks redeveloping the area to introduce a socio-economic mix at the site, similar to the massive effort by the Toronto Community Housing Corp. to rebuild Regent Park, might be a good idea.

"Wouldn't it be nice to actually rip them down and redevelop that property?"

But for Mr. Birmingham, a better approach would be to take the area for what it is, a temporary stop for most people, and boost support programs designed to help people move on.

"The survey results may make this look like a desperate place," he said. "But a lot of good is being done here, and much of it is being done by neighbours helping neighbours. The high number of people moving out of the area shows the programs work to help people become independent, and that's what everybody wants."

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