Thursday, January 6, 2011

Weighing in on the Garden of the Provinces

This morning Spacing Ottawa published a piece on the Garden of the Provinces in Ottawa.  Referring to this garden as a "bad park", David Reevely of the Ottawa Citizen responded with his views on the symbolic place.  So is this park a good public space or "bad park"?  I'd say the latter.  I agree with David Reevely in saying the location is bad and agree with Spacing Ottawa in saying than if it were elsewhere it would probably be a lot more alive than it is.  Unfortunately a good space in a bad location is a bad space.

At the core the real issue is not the Garden of the Provinces, but a mind set.  I personally believe that some agencies and organizations in the capital are functioning under an old model of urban development.  There are many Canadians who see Ottawa as boring and that has to do with urban design.  We have a habit of creating places that only few can enjoy like the Rideau Canal, Ottawa River waterfront, and the Garden of the Provinces.   

The few people who use these places think it's great because it becomes their personal paradise of escape, but on a large scale they are not really being enjoyed.  They're like that family or dining room at your grandmother's house, sometimes behind glass doors, that has great antique furniture, but no one ever sits in there to enjoy it.  Passers-by, on the way to the rooms where people really spend time like the kitchen, basement or bedrooms, marvel at its beauty but never go in there.  When people come to your house they want to spend time in the places where people are already gathering, not the sterile seemingly off limits family or dining room that is supposed to be for guests but they don't even want to spend time there.  It's the same with cities.

Cities are always in the business of building gathering places for people.  That's one of the major factors that makes a city vibrant; your ability to build places that can successfully gather people.  If that's what public spaces are for, and not just to look at, then parks like the Garden of the Provinces have failed. 

As a city, have we really provided Ottawa residents, Canadians and tourists with great, world-class places to gather in the capital or have we been left to envy other cities?  Sadly, building vibrant spaces usually isn't the focus of the Federal Government. 

So what's our strategy?  Should we attract visitors, including Canadians, through vibrancy then have them experience the symbolism and commemoration, or do we attract them through symbolism and commemoration first and then wow them with our vibrancy?  Does the chicken come before the egg, or the egg before the chicken?

Although national symbolism and commemoration are important in a capital, people are usually attracted to vibrant cities so we have to find a healthy balance.  Yes, Americans and international tourists seem to flock to Washington DC, but they have something we don't; they are the capital of the most politically influencial country in the world making it the most politically influential city in the world.

So we find ourselves between a rock and a hard place.  We're a single-function political capital that's not as nationally or internationally significant as a Washington DC, and we're not a multi-function capital like London that has a host of other exciting attractions to bring in visitors or excite residents.

All this to say, Ottawa needs an urban development model that doesn't consistently exalt symbolism and commemoration over vibrancy.  Is it possible to have both?  Of course...but I haven't seen anything like that in Ottawa yet.  Cities like London and Paris are capitals that are packed with history, heritage and symbolism, but are also fun and exciting.  Perhaps that should be the relationship between the federal and municipal governments in building public places- symbolism and vibrancy.  I'd love to see the federal and municipal governments work together to ensure that our city is both symbolic and vibrant.

Let's not be like grandmother.  Let's not build rooms that are beautiful to look at, but no one ever sits in them.

Here are some comments I posted on both the Spacing Ottawa and Greater Ottawa blogs:

"In my opinion Ottawa has too many commemorative places, especially in uninteresting areas (i.e. the Garden of the Provinces), and not enough vibrant ones. Confederation Square is a perfect location but a memorial to remember the dead doesn't exactly inspire vibrancy. There are a lot of Federal places but Government doesn't exactly inspire vibrancy either.

Looking at the location of the Garden of the Provinces it's probably meant to mark the entrance to the parliamentary core so I understand its purpose. I'm not sure what else you could put there to fulfill that purpose. I guess this is what you have to put up with when you're roommates with the Federal Government. It has its perks but also its setbacks.

Ottawa needs a balance of symbolism/commemoration and vibrancy. If people never visit a place because of a bad location how commemorative can it be? Let's stop making Ottawa into one big museum and start making it into a city."

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