the sky gods are puzzled – Ottawa urban planning (built form)

This wonderful photo sums up basically everything about Ottawa built form planning
[Greber with a big stick]

Originally from Ottawa Citizen – Building a better capital – February 3, 2012 – text available in the Internet Archive; image recovered from La PresseLe plan Gréber dévoilé aux Communes – 08 mars 2013

How does the NCC see Ottawa now?


Models tell us a lot about the people creating the model, and often much less about the thing being modelled.  In this case, to the NCC the actual city of Ottawa, the downtown (Centretown) simply doesn’t exist.  It’s flattened out, nothing but a grid of streets.  In NCC world, all that exists are two things:

1. First and foremost, CONFEDERATION BOULEVARD, a shining ribbon of gold where imaginary 1950s-era tourists in cars have Sunday drive promenades gasping at (a very select set of) built wonders.

2. Secondarily, the built form that NCC considers significant, spanning Parliament (which is fair enough) to… Place du Portage.  Place du Portage, an inward-facing clustercuss of 1960s era design that presents a blank yet ugly and hostile concrete face to anyone unfortunate enough to be outside it at street level.

It’s no wonder that if you think Ottawa is a golden street ribbon edged by two dozen buildings, you’re not going to do so great at urban planning.

You might say I’m not being fair to the NCC, that’s an outside model.  Ok, here’s page 18 of the 2005 Capital Core Sector Plan (“[The Plan] sets out how federal government lands in this core area will be developed until 2025.”)

AVPageView 06022012 92339 PM

And here’s a display from Downtown Moves


And here’s the 3D model for the LRT

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There’s a problem with all of these displays: no one lives hovering above the city.  No one works hovering above the city.  No one travels hovering above the city (as much as one might wish there were, say, dirigibles).  People live at street level.

In his fantastic book Cities for People, Jan Gehl describes three scales in Chapter 5.1 “The Brasilia Syndrome”.  You can also hear him describe this briefly in the movie Urbanized and for a while you could watch a video of him in Ottawa describing the issue in an extensive, very funny speech (I periodically beg the NCC to put it back online, they are working on it – right now you can only see the page where his slides used to be).

The scales are:

  • the large scale (the entire city) – we rarely see much Ottawa planning at this level which is not surprising since the “city” is supposed to pretend it covers 2760 square kilometres.
  • the middle scale (Gehl also calls it the helicopter scale) – most Ottawa planning happens at this level
  • the small scale, the human landscape – almost no Ottawa planning happens at this level, which is a problem, because the small scale is WHERE PEOPLE ACTUALLY LIVE

The problem is that when you look down godlike, like Christos looking down on his artificial town in the Truman Show, it looks like you can control everything.  It looks like it’s all just a matter of arranging shapes and lines, and everything else will sort itself out.  It’s actually even worse.  At the helicopter scale, all you see is streets and the tops of buildings.  Check out the NAC.

Ottawa, ON - Google Maps - Mozilla Firefox 06022012 113405 PM

Wow!  Hexagons!  Cool!  But you can stare down from the sky all you want and you will never know that the canal front space is dead, blank brutalism, to the point that even though there is a public patio overlooking the canal in the heart of downtown, no one ever goes there.  To know that, you have to look across, look at the three storeys that span the the viewing field of people walking around.

NCC canal

You can stare down from the sky at some red zone called “Sparks Street Capital Core Character Area” and never be able to understand why it is a dead zone at ground level.

In fact, when you look down from the sky, people are either invisible or insects.  Watch sometime you are taking off and landing in an airplane – look at what you can see – what’s the first movement?  That’s right, it’s cars.  It’s rivers of cars that look from the sky all the world like orderly silent conveyor belts, zooming red blood cells in arteries, glowing lines of energy.

When this is your view of the city, it looks like the cars are what keeps the city alive, what animates the city. So of course you’re going to think the only things that are important are buildings and roads (ideally nice wide roads for the lifeblood of cars to flow). What did Greber think? He thought the beating heart of the city should look like this

from 1950 Plan for the National Capital (Gréber Plan)

And of course if your view of the city is looking down from the sky, you think the solution to urban life is to drop new buildings in.
Now I have no objection to great buildings as part of city building.  And again we don’t have to have a special committee or plans upon plans to figure out what to build.  A central library and a concert hall for the chamber music festival have both been begged for (the concert hall only needed a few million dollars).  Ottawa is not short of ideas, it’s short of action.

BUT.  I disagree fundamentally that simply zoning, Section 37 (a way for the city to be compensated when developers exceed the zoning) and a few monumental successes are going to save us.  When I went to the SAW City Debates screening of Urbanized, Andrew Cohen and Barrie McKenna listed the usual litany of monumental failures: LeBreton, Lansdowne, the Daly Building, Union Station and so on.  This is a typical Ottawa lament (NCC Watch even goes to the effort of a catalogue of the NCC’s blunders).  Where did we go wrong, woe is us, etc.

Where we went wrong is the 1950s were crazy and the Modernists were crazy and Brutalism was crazy and ripping the heart out of your city for cars was crazy and tearing up working streetcar lines was crazy and… well, basically urban planning was shit for like 40 years straight.  But it was wrong EVERYWHERE.  We weren’t unique.  New York almost failed in the 70s.  The parks tourists flock to now were full of drug sellers and drug users.  Detroit actually did fail.  (Detroit whose impossible size and low single-family-home density, mentioned in Urbanized, are 370 square km and 1985 people per square km, as compared to Ottawa‘s 2760 square km and 292 people per square km.)

What was unique is we happened to be building our city, making our transition from a town, in the 60s and 70s, at the very height of the clustercuss of bad urban ideas.  Which is how you end up with all these inward facing employment-only towers and a mall downtown that sucks up all destination retail, and so on.

Ottawa is just Detroit, except worse by a factor of at least 10, except our single industry didn’t collapse and they haven’t been able to (yet) move Parliament Hill into the suburbs (although they do invite the suburbs right to Parliament’s doorstep, with sprawling parking right on the river, using land in the most scenic, most historic area of Ottawa for… empty asphalt).

Where Ottawa actually went wrong, where you can actual blame it for a unique failure, is that as everyone was pulling themselves out of their car death spiral starting in the 80s but really ramping up in the 90s and the 2000s, to the point where New York simply reclaimed an entire stretch of Broadway for pedestrians, Ottawa is still a suburban-flight, car-commute “city”.  You can’t just drop some building into this


and hey presto! Urbanism!  Because those red lines viewed from above are not abstractions.  Those are very fast mostly one-way streets where cars KILL PEDESTRIANS AND CYCLISTS.  Over and over and over.  That is the reality of the street-level city.  That’s why you can’t just look down from the sky at lines and boxes.  There are actual people trying to live down there in your SimCity.  And the cars pouring around the city and the lack of street-level retail and the lack of good local parks and the lack of all the things that make people want to walk outside at street level are what kill the city.

I told Cohen and McKenna their solution to monumental failures was monumental successes, as if some magical anti-Robert Moses was going to come and build only GOOD giant projects.  If I’d had time, I would have told them that their fantasy of dropping a stadium nearer the city core could work, but most times city stadiums end up being massively subsidized (sucking up tax dollars for decades) and killing the local area, not lifting them up. What I did say was something like:

You list monumental failures (which I agree with) but your solution
appears to be monumental successes.
You’re talking about the city as viewed from Google Earth satellite
view, I’m interested in the city that I can see, in the viewplane that
Jan Gehl describes.  If ten stories above me the building is ugly,
that’s not a big deal, if the street level is ugly, that’s a serious
problem.  Jane Jacobs talked about the city she saw from her window,
the shops and stoops she could see across the street.  What you’re
talking about is needing to find some Robert Moses, except one with
good ideas, one who builds grand buildings instead of highways.

If the city was a book, you’re saying it doesn’t have enough
exclamation points.  I’m more concerned about having interesting
sentences, about an interesting day-to-day experience of the city.
While I would love to have a great Central Library, if I have to
choose between that and an interesting Bank Street, I’d choose an
interesting Bank Street.

The New York city planner talked about creating an envelope within
which interesting street life can thrive, about setting the parameters
so that you get good design, how can Ottawa do that?

Cohen basically said it’s up to individual store owners and the
shopping choices of citizens.  Of which um, a little bit sure, and a
fair bit on where we shop (in particular spending money on the street,
not in the mall or online).  He also said that the city can play
around with street furniture but it’s individual decisions that are
more important.

But what I would have said in a followup was that it is unrealistic to
place the burden of urban design on city users.  The burden needs to
be on city builders, including the city and NCC (if they ever actually
built anything) and in Ottawa’s case, the developers.  If Ottawa can’t
enforce design, we’ll get lowest-common-denominator developer design.
If it can’t enforce zoning, we’ll get whatever giant ugly tower
maximizes developer profits.  If it can’t engage developers in a
positive conversation with neighbourhoods about building a liveable
Ottawa, every building will be yet another one-off fight about height,
rather than a discussion about using developer dollars for good, to
build a better city (a city in which, incidentally, developers could
charge much more for their new buildings).

So this is what it comes down to: if you look at the city from the sky, all your solutions are about big scale plans, wide roads, traffic flow, a bunch of abstract architecture BS that doesn’t touch the actual street level experience of being in the city.  We live in sentences, not in exclamation points.  We went from Robert Moses road heroics to Gehry Bilbao magic buildings.  That’s not how you build a city.  How you build a city is: constraints, culture and lots of time.  That’s why Lansdowne and LeBreton are so utterly disheartening.  You don’t do city building with some master-planned community.  That doesn’t work.  Ottawa is not Celebration (and Celebration and this kind of porch-front small-town America fantasy New Urbanism don’t work anyway).

What to do

1. Set good zoning parameters that allow for diverse use


If we can’t make zoning that survives OMB, it’s game over.

2. When there is a very strong case, extract maximum Section 37 benefits for any alteration to the zoning.


3. Mandate high-quality design, including rich, interesting street-level interaction, street-level retail, street-level beauty.


4. Allow important parcels that you want to be city-like to evolve organically

This means LeBreton should have been sold off in parcels with good overall constraints, to become an actual Market-like neighbourhood (as it used to be before they flattened it), not some Claridge condo tower in a field “we’re building the urban village any day now” disaster.

5. Observe, measure, engage with the richly detailed fine grained heterogeneous street level.  I know this is not as easy as the big sky god abstraction of looking down.  On the street there are actual people moving around, and they move around in the ways actual humans do (not, for example, standing in the middle of vast empty windswept plazas, as architectural renderings would inevitably have you believe).  It is hard work to engage at this level, to raise a street from a pure pedestrian corridor to an actual lively place where, as Gehl says, people linger.


6. Experiment and adapt

We actually, incredibly, did this with the Laurier Bike Lanes.  No permanent install.  Just concrete barriers, some paint, and 2 years.  That is the way to evolve the downtown space.  We know how to do this.

Also, every time a regular streetscape renewal comes up, make sure you do it right.  We can evolve to a good town, maybe even a good city.  But it will take decades of incremental, thoughtful, adaptive improvement from the public and the private sector, not just some one-time solution that descends from the sky.

7. And of course, build and fix the obvious things.  Put in a standard transportation infrastructure and replace the pedestrian-killing (and urban life killing) arterials.  Put in the Museum of Nature East and West Lawns.  Get rid of the beer store across from Dundonald Park.  Build the effing Central Library.  Build the chamber music Concert Hall.  You don’t have to search for the big things.  We already know the big things.  Just fucking do the big things.


The good news is at the planning level, both the city planners and the senior NCC people seem to understand some of this.  But we don’t seem to be able to execute on anything (it doesn’t help that no one wants to spend any money on anything).

There is a lot more to say about the importance of the fine-grained streetlevel, but for the moment I’m just going to say please read The Death and Life of Great American Cities and Cities for People. If you have extra time, Greenberg’s Walking Home and Doucet’s Urban Meltdown also provide good perspectives and ideas.  Read Eric Darwin’s WestSideAction blog, he has a great understanding of street-level design.

And please, please stop fighting about spot zoning height and one-off street changes and megaprojects.  Fight for good enforced zoning, fight for loophole-free section 37 for (rare) cases when zoning should be exceeded, fight for street-level design that makes people want to actually stop and interact with those glorious new towers, not just zoom by them in cars or zoom up them in elevators, open a street-level store, figure out a way to bring Art-is-in and Nicastro’s and Saslove’s into Centretown, fight for a funded modern transit network, fight for the few big projects that would make a difference, fight most of all to move the street-level life and the urban culture increment by increment, adjustment by adjustment, so that in 5 years we’re better, in 10 years we’re good, in 20 years (I can dream) we’re Copenhagen.