Community streetscape design: part II
By Andrew Elliott
Last month we looked at the development of Clemow Avenue as an example of a productive partnership between a federal agency and private developers to the long-term benefit of the neighbourhood. This month, looking for inspiration in planning the Glebe today, we can go back 40 years to the creative planning exercises conducted by the City of Ottawa.
Starting with the 1972 Report on the Mayor’s Committee on Heritage, we read: “If there is one message which the committee wishes to underline in this report, it is the urgent necessity of civic involvement in heritage conservation. Past indifference to heritage conservation has no doubt been based largely on ignorance of its economic and cultural value to the city. There is no longer cause for ignorance of such an important issue.” The committee then recommended that “heritage conservation should become a major consideration in civic planning and administration.” From this landmark report came surveys in the mid-1970s of most buildings in older neighbourhoods, with the information keyed into a heritage reference list. Thirty priority areas were earmarked for designation as heritage conservation districts. In some cases, more detailed studies of these areas were done in the 1980s and 1990s, which led to the actual designation of parts of downtown, Lowertown, Sandy Hill and Centretown.
Parts of the Glebe were also identified: Glebe Strathcona was number 17 and Central Glebe was number 24 on the list of proposed heritage conservation districts. Back in the 1970s and 1980s, the plans showed that the Glebe had over 400 buildings with heritage value. Interestingly, within this initial list, no houses on Clemow or Monkland avenues appear to have been considered of high heritage value. Of interest as well, none of the buildings located elsewhere that were deemed of high heritage value have yet been designated. Finally, neither of the two proposed heritage districts has been implemented. Yet as of last year, a section of Clemow Avenue is now protected within a Heritage Conservation District.
Meanwhile, in the 1970s, major planning exercises were occurring. Creative plans contained proposals that are still relevant in today’s Glebe. In one of these, the 1975 Glebe Land Use and Physical Environment Proposals, three areas of the neighbourhood were identified: low density residential (Clemow and Monkland, Glebe west (south of Glebe, north of Fifth, Dow’s Lake); low-density mixed residential (most of the Glebe), and low/medium-density mixed residential (near Bronson, Bank, sections of Lyon streets). The uncontrolled demolition of properties was to stop, and the “irreplaceable architectural styles which contribute to the character of the neighbourhood” were not only to be maintained, but in some cases, preserved through individual designation and by the creation of two large heritage districts. Moreover, the walkable village atmosphere of the Glebe’s main street with its two- to four-storey commercial buildings was to be preserved. Also, front yard parking was not to be permitted.
HERITAGE AND PLANNING TODAY
So what is the state of heritage and planning today? Thanks to out-of-date zoning laws and improper interpretation of the meaning of the word “intensification,” every month more historic Glebe houses are demolished and more front yards are paved over for driveways. Current city planning policies don’t encourage developers to try adaptive re-use of older buildings. When new homes are built, there are no rules to encourage outstanding creative designs or even designs sympathetic to the existing streetscape. And the official plan states that all homes must have a driveway! So our streets get dotted with inappropriate-looking replacements.
I recently attended three planning and design primer courses offered by the City of Ottawa. These courses opened my eyes to the way the city sees long-term planning for its neighbourhoods and what I saw made me shudder. The process is bogged down in rules that hamper creativity and out-dated zoning laws that hinder any long-term vision for historic neighbourhoods. In the words of a recent Federation of Citizen Associations news release, a “lack of alignment between zoning and the Official Plan has been repeatedly used to justify spot rezoning.”
I am currently reading Straphanger: Saving Our Cities and Ourselves from the Automobile, by Taras Grescoe, a book that looks at public rail transit systems around the world. It argues that a city without a reliable rail network – and without active policies that force people out of cars – is doomed to fail.
ENVISIONING THE GLEBE OF TOMORROW
So what kind of Glebe do you envision living in 40 years from now? We could bring streetcars back to Bank Street and add a bike lane or two. We could encourage paid-for Vrtucar memberships or transit passes to those who buy into new condo buildings. We could create more heritage districts, or define where our high-rise buildings get built, or impose some strict design rules on developers.
For more creative ideas on how to plan the Glebe, here is some further reading: Walkable City: How Downtown Can Save America, One Step at a Time, by Jeff Speck. www.pps.org/blog/book-review-walkable-city-how-downtown-can-save-america-one-step-at-a-time/; Project for Public Spaces www.pps.org/; Centre for Applied Transect Studies www.transect.org/, specifically the “Neighborhood Conservation Code.”
In other parts of the world – Copenhagen and Paris come to mind – there is a direct link between good rail transit (subways and streetcars) and low-rise yet dense, walkable, vibrant, well-designed streetscapes. In other Ottawa neighbourhoods – Hintonburg is one example – active discussions are occurring between planning and heritage committees and city planners, even developers, and forward-thinking community design is being proposed. We too should think about preserving our streetscape heritage. We too should look for creative ways to foster new life in our urban fabric. Act now, before it is too late.
Glebe resident Andrew Elliott is an archivist and architectural historian who can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.