How much of Ottawa came to be the way it is

How much of Ottawa came to be the way it is

Understanding all the complex factors that shape the neighbourhoods of Ottawa would require a graduate degree in urban geography, however, an influential historical plan and famous French town planner can be used as a starting point to better understand the urban form of Ottawa.  

Before 1950, Ottawa developed what can be characterized as a laissez-faire system that led to competing mixed uses of land, space, and infrastructure. Temporary offices were erected to accommodate the expansion of the federal government during the Second World War and abutted industries such as timber, which were foundational to the early Ottawa economy. Residents of Ottawa struggled with noise and air pollution. Finally, trains, streetcars, trucks, and pedestrians all had to compete for space in the narrow crowded pre-war streets. Since no formal plan existed, many homes and businesses were located next to industries such as railways. This crowding, unfortunately, led to Ottawa’s greatest disaster. In 1900 the great Hull fire started from a chimney fire in a home in Hull. After growing, it jumped the river and caught stacked lumber by the Chaudière falls ablaze. Over two-thirds of Hull were destroyed, and nearly all of western Ottawa from LeBreton Flats to Dows Lake was levelled. Prime Minister William Lyon Mackenzie King, who had a passion for city planning, believed the disorder of pre-1950 Ottawa was unbefitting of a capital, and therefore required a plan to address its shortcomings. He believed this plan would elevate Ottawa to one of the great cities of the world and compete with the likes of Paris, London, Berlin, and Washington.

Photo by B Nilsen

Introducing the Greber plan

The plan in question would be headed by renowned French town planner Jaques Greber. In his plan, Greber envisioned scenic parkways which prioritized the movement of automobile traffic within the city, streetcar tracks would be ripped out and replaced by busses. He also sought to relocate industry, including railways, from the city centre to the outskirts to mitigate the impact of pollution on city residents. The government would also be contained to several modern suburban campuses. Finally, he put specific emphasis on the creation of parks with community amenities such as recreation, entertainment, and leisure, this included recreational bike pathways, manicured spaces, and monuments for enhanced aesthetics fitting a nation’s capital.

Not all of Greber’s plan was completed; however, much of it, such as the greenbelt, scenic parkways and monumental parks, was implemented. This forever changed the urban environment of Ottawa. Gone were the streetcars and the train tracks that led to Ottawa Union Station. Replacing them were express parkways with high-speed automobile traffic. Gone were mixed competing land uses, replaced by Euclidean zoning (a type of zoning that only allows one kind of land use per zone), automobile suburbs and deindustrialization.

The Greber plan can be characterized as a success in its overall adherence to the vision of the plan, but now, over 70 years since its implementation, its effects are generally a mix of positive and negative. While work remains on creating safe commuting options for cyclists, the recreational infrastructure laid out by the plan is a priceless backbone of a strong cycling network, this can be seen in the Better South Keys Centre’s subject area at the Sawmill Creek path, which is enjoyed by many residents of the South Keys and surrounding areas. On the other side of the spectrum, over-reliance on the automobile and the creation of the Greenbelt has led to exurban sprawl, Ottawa has thus developed the derisive nickname of “Autowa”.

For more on the Greber Plan see this 11-minute National Film Board of Canada spot:

Lasting effects

This leads us back to the original question of the effects of Ottawa’s historic planning on South Keys. The first legacy of the Greber plan is the relocation of the city’s rail infrastructure and subsequent deindustrialization. As Ottawa continued to grow into the 21st century, greater demands were put on road and bus infrastructure which simply could not keep up. The city came up with a clever solution by repurposing the underutilized freight rail line for passenger rail services. This was the original O-train service that we now call line 2, the upgrade which is driving the redevelopment of South Keys.

The second legacy is the Airport Parkway as one of the ‘scenic parkways’ laid out by Greber, which is a necessity for the current use of South Keys. Most trips done to South Keys are enabled through automobiles, the convenience of the Airport Parkway, and the abundance of free parking as part of the shopping centre’s physical infrastructure. However, the Airport Parkway is also adjacent to greenspace and a multi-use pathway at Sawmill Creek and the ability to diversify our transit mode share in the future will be important to the connectivity and diversity of transportation options at South Keys and the creation of a mixed-use community that is not dependent on automobiles and segregates residential and commercial land uses.

Ottawa’s Greber plan informed our past – we can inform the future

This is part of what excites the members of Better South Keys Centre – the vision for change that can come about with the redevelopment. Our vision is that South Keys Centre will evolve into a vibrant, and amenity-rich community that embraces active transportation and healthy living and acts as a regional hub for Ottawa South where all life stages, income levels, and abilities are able to thrive.

While there are aspects of the redevelopment that will be controlled by the private firms behind the project, there are many public aspects we can have a say on. Whether it be the new public park and transit plaza, addressing the missing links in existing multi-use pathways, or the possibility of having affordable housing added to City-owned land there are opportunities for the community to weigh in on how we’d like to see the future of our neighbourhood.

If you want to join us, hear about opportunities to have your say, or just get updates, please join our mailing list. You can also follow us on X (formerly Twitter) and Facebook.

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