Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Building vibrant places on Ottawa's waterfront

One of my favourite subjects to read about nower days is Urban Planning, particularly Placemaking.  One of the most trusted voices on the subject of placemaking is Project for Public Spaces, also known as PPS.  They are the firm behind New York's Times Square being transformed into a pedestrian friendly place. 

There is a growing global trend towards building public places around people which has big implications on vibrancy, economic development, and social interaction.  As I've written before, I have a deep love for old European cities.  I read about urban planning in the Roman Empire and sometimes look at pictures of old European squares.  While I would consider myself to be progressive, I wonder if cities will ever return to the days where people met in the city square for hours, talked and shared a coffee. 

Within placemaking I've developed a fondness for waterfront development.  In my opinion, the waterfront should be one of the most vibrant places in a city.  Before reading PPS' articles on waterfront placemaking I didn't realize how many cities were getting it wrong.  Building a vibrant waterfront is an art.  Unfortunately, Canada's capital city, and my home, is one of those cities that seems to be getting it wrong at the moment. 
PPS's articles "9 Steps to Creating a Great Waterfront", "Great Waterfronts of the World", "10 Qualities of a Great Waterfront Destination" and "Mistakes by the Lake, River or Sea" provide us with some insight into building a successful or failing waterfront.  How does Ottawa measure up to PPS's waterfront placemaking principles?

Create a Shared Community Vision

PPS encourages cities to develop a citizen-driven vision for a waterfront through a participatory effort which is more flexible than a master plan.  Unfortunately Ottawa doesn't seem to have a comprehensive waterfront development master plan nor has Ottawa residents been given the opportunity to envision what they want the waterfront to look like.  Like many places in the National Capital Region, the waterfront seems to be on the path of being developed around the tourist experience, mainly Canadians, and not for local residents.  One of the ways to create vibrancy and draw tourists is to create a buzz among residents.  Tourists will go wherever there's a buzz created by local residents, and the grand cultural buildings and parks envisioned for our waterfront are not buzz-worthy.

Create Multiple-use Destintations by Tapping the Power of 10

PPS' fifth step to creating a great waterfront tells us to create ten great destinations along a waterfront.  "This focus on destinations, rather than “open space” or parks, enables a genuine community-led process to take root."  Step six then says that these destinations need to be connected to each other seemlessly and should be walkable. 

Ottawa's waterfronts are currently full of open park spaces with undentified uses.  The Rideau Canal, Ottawa's UNESCO world heritage site, is surrounded by green spaces and paths that are great for pedestrians and cyclists but doesn't have the destinations requires to draw the average resident and tourists.  A family in the suburbs doesn't say to themselves, "Let's leave our house in the suburbs on a Saturday morning to go walk along the canal" which means it is not yet a destination. What we learn from the art of placemaking is that open, park spaces are not destinations.

Balance Environmental Benefits with Human Needs

This step tells us that successful destinations find the median between environmental and human uses.  PPS explains this balance.  "But this natural restoration should not preclude human use. Boardwalks, interpretive displays, and even more active uses such as playgrounds and picnic areas can be incorporated into the shoreline design without sacrificing environmental benefits."

As a UNESCO world heritage site, the Federal Government and its departments and agencies seem to be opposed to development along the Rideau Canal in order to maintain a natural environment, but there are human uses that can complement environmental uses.  San Antonio, Texas, nicknamed the Venice of America because of the development of its canal, has tapped into this balance. 

With a visionary Federal Government, Parks Canada and NCC, Ottawa could be "Venice North" or "the Venice of Canada".  The reason why the canals in Venice, Italy; Venice Beach, California; and San Antonio, Texas have become tourist attractions is not because of UNESCO world heritage designations, but because of the unique, world-class experience along the canal.  What would experience are we creating on the Rideau Canal?
Too Much Passive Space or Too Much Recreation

According to PPS there are a few design elements that can ruin a waterfront.  "Passive areas where people can sit or stroll are successful when they connect to destinations where more activities are available, forming a diverse whole. But when the waterfront is limited to natural areas, which are often seen as a healthy contrast to the city, the place loses the vibrant qualities that draw many people to the water...Natural areas and recreational areas work best when mixed with other sorts of destinations."

Whether on the canal or the river, Ottawa and Gatineau's waterfronts are full of passive space that are not a part of a larger mixed use place.

Lack of Destinations

Another noted pitfall in waterfront development is a lack of destinations.  "Even well-designed and maintained waterfronts that provide excellent public access may not necessarily fulfill their potential as gathering places. If there are no special places that draw people, then the intrinsic vibrancy of waterfront gets squandered. Creating popular destinations doesn’t mean relying on big projects. Rather, it involves layering smaller attractions that work together: A small boat dock, a restaurant, and a playground, if combined the right way, can all build off each other and enliven a waterfront much more than any single use ever could."

This point has been exhausted in this article, in a previous article, and by a few other writers in the city. 

A Process Driven By Development, not by Community

The waterfront development process in Ottawa has thus far been driven by the NCC and Claridge Homes, and not by residents.  As residents we should be given the opportunity to not only participate in but lead this process.
"Many waterfront planning efforts are led by 'development corporations', but when development is the primary objective, public goals and public process get left behind. As with any public space, the knowledge and desires of the community should form the framework for shaping waterfronts. When a city hands over the future of its waterfront to developers, the essential public spirit of the waterfront is compromised. Development is a necessary component of this process, but not the only point. It should fit within the community’s vision, not override it."

Design Statements

"Many waterfronts today have become the site of stand-alone, iconic buildings. These buildings stand as design statements that neither foster lively public use nor connect their ground floor activity to the surrounding public spaces. In fact, these projects dampen public activity and diminish any sense of place...The success of a waterfront revitalization that relies on attention-grabbing design to draw people will be short-lived at best. Once the novelty wears off, there must be something substantial that keeps people coming back again and again."

In this article they refer to the Quadracci Pavilion in Milwaukee, Wisconsin which sits by the waterfront, the caption reads "it does nothing to support activity in the surrounding public spaces".  Looking at the picture I can't help but draw a parallel to our own War Museum which sits along the Ottawa River near the Chaudiere Falls.  Although the architecture is great it is a stand-alone, iconic building that doesn't add any vibrancy to the surrounding area.  Some may say, "Give them a chance.  The area is still developing."  A part of the unparticipatory plan is for more open, park space along the water which would make this exactly what we don't need. 

In another article where PPS commented on what the Buffalo, New York can learn from Granville Island in Vancouver about waterfront development.  In this quote we find what could be a key error in Ottawa's budding waterfront.  "...if you look at the [area around the Gugenheim Museum in] Bilboa, Spain, they only get about 800,000 visitors a year, and they’re all tourists. You take Granville Island, you get 10 million visitors, and a substantial number of them are locals who come on a repeating basis. There are 3,000 people who work on Granville Island and 270 businesses. When you go to Bilboa, there’s a museum and the people who work in the museum. And that’s it."

This quote demonstrated two contrasting waterfront development models.  The Bilboas anchored by a museum or iconic cultural building, and attracting primarilty tourists, and the Granville Islands anchored by vibrant commercial space, and attracting primarily local residents and businesses.  The prior attracts 800,000 visitors per year while the latter attracts 10 million.

City council recently carried a motion to support a National Indigenous Centre proposed by the Federal NDP party which would bring another iconic, stand-alone building adjacent to the War Museum.  I support the building of the centre on lands that are historically important to our First Nations, and I feel we don't do enough for them, but similar to the War Museum, it will not any vibrancy to the waterfront.

According to a recent Centretown News article there may be more museums on the way.

What's Next?

I encourage you to read more of PPS' articles on waterfront placemaking or follow them on twitter.  I would even encourage the NCC and City to enlist outside help from organizations like PPS to develop a world-class waterfront.

The residents of Ottawa and Canada need to be engaged in the development of our waterfront.  While for the most part I'm thankful for the presence of the NCC in Ottawa, if kept unchecked our waterfront can end up being iconic, stand-alone buildings connected by open, park spaces as seen across the river in Gatineau.

Ottawa's waterfront should be a destination filled with world-class attractions, whether cultural, commercial, or entertainment.

There's hope on the horizon.  Vancouver's Granville Island, built on old industrial land, hass become a model for waterfront development around the world and provides us with an example for the development of the Hydro Quebec lands in the Chaudiere Falls-Victoria Island area which is in the NCC's long term plans.  Ottawa deserves one of the most vibrant waterfronts in the world!  Do you agree?



  1. Great article, Kevin.

    One idea I've had for a while is that of always a cool "beach bar" of some sort, ideally along the canal but even on the newly developed Victoria Island. Dump truck full of sand, beach loungers, palm trees - a destination afternoon/evening spot for Ottawans.

  2. I totally agree with you Kevin. I moved from Toronto couple years ago and when I arrived to Ottawa, it was just starting to have a lot of interesting developments underway. The renovation at Rideau mall it's at least a start and the metro system will surely bring more people downtown. Every year I see Ottawa more crowded with both the people of Ottawa, Gatineau and tourists. But the lack of public places development needs to be address. It is a very humane thing to have where you can interact with one another, it even attracts more tourists. The government district area downtown needs to be less a ghost town and more a vibrant part of the city. Come to think of it, there is not really a city downtown Ottawa, at least not the cities am used to. One last thing, it is very important for Ottawa to continue to grow and have new projects underway to help the city of Ottawa, also the capital of Canada, to stand out more and make it more capital-material than just another town in Canada. I am very hopeful and I hope to see new interesting projects in the future. And good blog Kevin.