Guest blogger: Ottawa and good urbanism

Submitted to yowLAB
April 18, 2014
by Muktirajsinhji Chauhan

I write this to share my anguish at a mini urban design disaster happening right across my street and to defend an Ottawa development that has come to be derided quite a bit by many including a Federal minister calling it ‘not among NCC’s best work’ or some such words. Some may regard what is happening right now as insignificant, but I fear for the rest of the development in the neighbourhood and, many more such developments in future.

I am talking about the new condos at Le Breton Flats and the amusing situation of two sides of a street, Fleet Street, with buildings on either side of this rather well thought out street, which is part of a larger development of about 30 ha, being clad in two different coloured tiles.

Let me explain what is amiss here.

We all love traditional towns such as Quebec city, others few located on the east coast Canada and many in Europe. The reason we love them is because the public spaces of these towns are positively defined by buildings that are formed, or shaped, in response to the street and other public spaces and there is a harmony about the total built environment be it owing to the humane scale and heights of the buildings, harmonious street facades, materials, colours and texture of the building materials.

Simply put, the urban experience of a city gains when architecture lets go and individual buildings are less assertive, and instead they all add up to a harmonious whole. Anything else is like a box of assorted chocolates as a friend once put it, or worse with some gummies in there too competing for your attention.

We also love the traditional towns because the way buildings meet the street allows some of the life in the buildings spill out on the street and vice versa. Modern city fabric, typically dotted by point block high-rises set back from the street, on the other hand, make for dead streets and other public spaces like what one sees along Carling Avenue.

We chose to buy our home here after studying in great detail the master plan and building design proposals approved by NCC for the entire area which seem strongly based on the principles of New Urbanism, NU, movement which seeks to remedy many ills of the modern town planning and incorporating the good practices from traditional towns in contemporary developments.

Though the Le Breton development may not be totally faithful to the principles of NU, there is a lot that is going good here which will be obvious to most people only when it is completed. But I would like to mention some features to make the case.

For example, the ground floor homes on the Fleet Street have an outdoor terrace which is full of life in good weather. And this makes for lively social experience good for both the residents and the passers by, as anyone who has come by from across the Pooley’s Bridge during the Bluesfest will can vouch for.

The existing development on the Fleet and Lett Streets wraps around a courtyard in the middle which makes a nice small park, play area for kids or a place for the residents to gather for any number of reasons and occasions. And again, the courtyard is ringed by well defined patios for each of the homes at the ground level.

Those who like to talk about safe, humane cities should see these features on Fleet Street and within, as allowing social supervision of the public spaces. Even so I have personally met a few, and heard many, who deride this development without being aware of what is actually happening here.

Just last week I talked to a person who was not very happy about it because it does not look anything like a regular residential tower surrounded by a green open land. When told that what he sees is what is known in my profession as a ‘perimeter block’ with a courtyard in the middle, and how the building responds to Fleet Street, he seemed at loss of words.

A bit about the small towers that rise at the corners is in order. While the six floor height all around makes for a more human scale of the streets at this development, the six more floors added only at the corners help achieve a denser land use to pay more for the development of the area as well as the critical number to animate the neighbourhood. With the LRT coming up, a more intense development will surely help along these lines.

So what gives? I like to think that the problem here is that, may be NCC and the design and planning firm which prepared the master plan for the entire area have not been very successful at communicating the humanizing goals and features of their proposals. But I fear a greater problem is, or will be, a retreat by them to more conventional kind of future development of the area in the face of negative criticism.

That will be bad and sad for Ottawa because to begin with, it has no strong good urbanism traditions and as I see it, a lot of new buildings are coming up in total disregard to the immediate surroundings. Sparks Street is, except for the paving, a pretty good example of an assorted chocolate box of urbanism.

Is there a dearth of talent, expertise? I doubt it. Is it then a problem arising from listening to an endless number of ‘stake holders’ and NCC and their consultants throwing up their hands in despair and adopting a path of least resistance?

Indeed a great tragedy of the field is that every one who has heard of Jane Jacobs, which is easy come since she was a Canadian and made it big in New York and came back to Toronto, or has travelled a bit is an expert on how to do everything right in a city, right from transit planning to city plans to placing a bench on a side walk?

I mean how can you hope to  meaningfully leran from a consultative process where each person seems to represent a very different vested interest as an enlightened citizen or a community representative or an NGO etc.

As they say, camel is a horse designed by a committee. That raises the question, so are our cities just a collage of fragments of styles and aesthetics representing a multitude of views, opinions and beliefs? Or should they manifest some shared positions like our traditional towns?

And here I am thinking of the criticism that the Le Breton flats received when the building on 200 Lett St was built for its use of blue tiles in the entrance area as well as the Baroque kind of yellow all over there and at 250 Lett St, adjoining it. Is the new colour, chocolate-clay brown on one side of Fleet Street, a, hopefully, safe choice some one made to avoid criticism?

Fragmented or harmonious urbanism, what is the fate of Ottawa? Luckily for us, its natural features, the ​two rivers , the Rideau Canal, places like Victoria Island, Chaudiere Falls and Island, Dow Lake, Arboretum and several parks will always make it a great place to work and live.

Back on the Fleet Street, I hope people will just smile as they look to the left and then right, and wonder as to how it came about!

Muktirajsinhji Chauhan recently retired after 40 years of teaching, writing and practicing architecture, urban design and town planning in India and has made Ottawa home since 2007.


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