Op-ed: We can be better than bland, but it will take a coherent vision for our city
In the post-war years, the federal government commissioned the General Report on the Plan for the National Capital, known as the Greber Plan. It established ambitious goals for the design of Ottawa as the nation’s capital and as a city for the people who live here.
Starting in 2019, Ottawa city council embarked, as required under the Planning Act, on a new Official Plan, which also aims to set a vision for the city.
There has been legitimate criticism of the Greber Plan. Its focus on roads and cars to serve post-war sprawl and the destruction of LeBreton Flats are cases in point. No one denies that removing the rail lines from the Rideau Canal is a good thing, but if our main passenger rail hub had remained at Union Station, how might that have shaped public transit over the past 50 years?
Then there is the challenge that all this land is the unceded territory of the Algonquin Anishabe people. Reconciliation calls to action are meaningless if there is no action.
Ottawa’s new Official Plan also has challenges. Council needs to address growth, climate change and reconciliation. In November 2020, the National Capital Commission endorsed and supported a proposal for surface trams and reduced car traffic on Wellington Street. This was defeated by city council, who voted in favour of running transit in a tunnel, at higher cost, a block away, unable to imagine Wellington Street with trams for fear of spoiling the view.
What’s missing in both the Greber Plan and Ottawa’s new Official Plan is coherent design leadership. As a city, we’ve largely given up having a vision for LeBreton Flats. While there is a grand plan in the works, approved in 2021, it will be decades before it is completed and it does not seem to consider the context of the city as a whole.
Nearby, Tunney’s Pasture is a complex of aged federal government office buildings, many of which are at or beyond their end of life, in need of major investment. This was the NCC’s preferred site for Ottawa’s new Civic Hospital but the city and the hospital announced a different, less preferred site with poor transit connections and unstable geology that would entail destroying acres of much-loved greenspace for parking garages.
Short-term solutions have turned Wellington Street into a pedestrian-only space. Temporary barriers and checkpoints do a good job of keeping cars off the street, but we need something more permanent and better designed than concrete barriers and stop signs held up with sandbags.
Meanwhile, the Parliamentary Precinct is subject to a Long-Term Vision and Plan, having its own set of goals. Expanding the precinct beyond the “town and crown” line of Wellington Street is problematic.
Public Services and Procurement Canada plans to demolish the Alexandra Bridge, in part to increase bridge capacity, but with no thought on where that added traffic will go.
Famously, Mayor Jim Watson tempered visions for the LRT being transformative by saying that it’s going to be “a great Chevy, it’s not going to be a Cadillac.” We can see where that went.
The blandness of our city’s buildings and overall lack of design quality is partly the product of a federal government that doesn’t want to be seen as spending “extravagantly” and a city government dedicated to low-fee, low-effort, mediocre design proposals, shying away from competitions to get the best ideas. A lack of architectural leadership is telling: a “minister of architecture” or “city architect” could provide guidance, advice and input to these important discussions.
We need to look beyond politics and establish a goal for the kind of city — and the kind of national image — we want. Ottawa needs to be a place that works for the people who live in the city and want affordable homes, decent parks, public amenities and places to go about their lives with dignity and respect. We also need a place where people can gather: to protest, to celebrate, to mourn or to learn from each other.
We need to be both a city for people and a city for the world.
A design competition could help us get the best solutions. It would create a framework where ideas can be proposed, professionally juried and considered across broad sectors to create the place we aspire to be. This process could be led by the City of Ottawa, funded by the federal government and juried by peers, leaders and professionals.
Professional teams should include architects, planners, landscape architects, civil engineers and other disciplines. The best teams could be permitted to finalize their submissions to create a short list for public engagement and more detailed design.
This is not an easy process, but it is one that can be led by a design vision to identify issues, consider solutions and consult with people.
We can present the Canada we are while creating the place we want to be.
This article was also published on The Ottawa Business Journal.
Toon Dreessen is president of Ottawa-based Architects DCA and past-president of the Ontario Association of Architects. For a sample of our projects, check out our portfolio here. Follow us @ArchitectsDCA on Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn and Instagram.