John Leaning

John Leaning, 1926–2022

A tribute to a great architect and planner

By Randal Marlin

Comparatively few people living in the Glebe today are aware of the enormous impact on their community made by John Leaning, architect and city planner, who died September 22, following a long illness.

When I arrived in the area in 1966, the Glebe was seemingly in irreversible decline.

Plans were to extend four-lane Carling Avenue through what is now Glebe Avenue to Ottawa East with a new full traffic bridge over the Canal. Housing expropriation also threatened homes north of Lansdowne Park to Fifth Avenue. Commuter traffic on O’Connor Street to Fifth Avenue connecting with Bank Street hindered pedestrian traffic across that street. Homeowners saw no future in restoring their homes and many moved to places like Alta Vista. The Glebe was not the connected community it is today.

Indeed, a politician who favoured Lansdowne expansion remarked that expropriation would become cheaper as houses became more run down. As an example, a real estate agent advised a purchaser around 1969 that the asking price of $20,000 was too high for 1 Regent Street.

Into that situation came John Leaning, inspired by Jane Jacobs, to show what needed to be done if Ottawa was not to become like so many American cities.

His first study, “The Revitalization of Older Residential Districts,” in 1968-69, supported by CMHC, was more visionary than what has been accomplished so far in the Glebe, but many ideas have still been implemented. He remarked that the area had “potential charm and great convenience.”

His idea was essentially to “deal with the environment as we presently find it, accentuate the best, eliminate the worst, and build the new to fit the old.” The prime cause of deterioration, he wrote, was lack of a comprehensive plan for land use, traffic and urban renewal in areas such as the Glebe, legally binding on both the public and on private bodies.  Among the things he considered worth preserving were the Aberdeen Pavilion and First Avenue School.

Leaning’s second major contribution to the development of the Glebe we know and value today was “A Proposal for Roadway Environment in an Existing Community,” in 1969 for the National Capital Commission (NCC), where he was chief architect for a time. His idea was to slow down traffic in the residential areas, while designing arterial roads to accommodate more traffic safely with uninterrupted flow. He recommended the introduction of traffic impediments to protect residential areas. He noted that residential streets had the same width as arterial routes. He thought that road closures could free up some of the excess residential road space for recreational purposes.

With the cooperation of earlier city councils, an active Glebe Community Association and community bonding through the Glebe Report, many, though not all, of Leaning’s ideas have been successfully implemented. One of the biggest successes was the redirecting of traffic headed downtown through the Glebe via O’Connor and Fifth Avenue, by means of the forced diversion at Isabella towards the Driveway.

Not so successful was the total road closures of the avenues north of Fifth, preventing access on those avenues to Bronson in the west and the Driveway in the east. Traffic was supposed to be directed to collector streets, notably Fifth and Carling (the old name for Glebe Avenue), but people on those streets tended to vote against the proposal, seeing increased traffic on their streets with no direct benefit to themselves. Rumble strips, also known as road bumps, were not acceptable to many residents at the beginning, though the idea has been implemented in many parts of the city now.

The NCC under Doug Fullerton helped ensure that the Lansdowne expansion did not happen. Roderick Clack of the NCC came up with a compromise regarding streets connecting with the Driveway. Instead of closing them to traffic, he proposed having one-way exits. The NCC did not like the way traffic would be slowed by cars turning into the avenues from the Driveway.

The list of improvements that can be traced to Leaning’s principles and to his enthusiastic communicating of these ideas to Glebe residents is very long. The implementation required political and technocratic cooperation, along with a greater awareness among residents. City staff became helpful in planning for the Glebe, but the recent experience with Lansdowne shows the need for greater vigilance, especially with the enlarged city Council and the addition of areas that don’t always share the interests of core area residents of the City.

Despite all the improvements traceable to Leaning, we see out-of-character infill homes replacing older in-character homes and taking away some of the charm of the latter. He also believed in preserving the mixed character of the community. Success in making the Glebe a thoroughly desirable place has upped property values, to the point where economically strapped people, especially the young, cannot afford to live here. I believe he would call that bad planning.

In any case, John and his much-loved wife, Blenda, have left, among their four children Anthony, Kristina, Jonathan and Séan – two of them architects who live in Ottawa, three if you count Kristina Leaning’s husband – and they can be expected to carry on his deep concern for livable, vibrant and attractive communities.

Randal Marlin was GCA president in 1972 and subsequently Traffic Committee chair.

 John Leaning, architect, urban planner and visionary, played a major role in shaping the future of the Glebe at critical moments in its development. He is the author of, among many other titles, The Story of the Glebe: from 1800 to 2000.

Photos: Courtesy of Leaning family

John Leaning, 1926-2022

By Anthony Leaning and Kristina Leaning

John Leaning, our father, is probably best known in Ottawa for his role in developing the Centretown Plan, a community-planning exercise that was ahead of its time for inclusion of residents in the planning process and for protecting the best of a downtown neighbourhood that might otherwise been degraded by traffic planning and high-rise redevelopment.

As the author of the Glebe Neighbour
-hood Study, he similarly helped in the preservation of a vibrant community from the extension of Carling Avenue as a multi-lane road through the heart of the Glebe to the Rideau Canal and across it by bridge.

These two well-known contributions to Ottawa are among a number of achievements that were influenced by a rich life experience that exposed him to diverse influences and helped form his character as an architect, community activist, citizen and individual.

John came to Canada to escape the social and career limitations of an upbringing in Sidcup, a working-class London suburb, in war-time England. Dreaming of becoming an architect but unable to afford university, he studied drafting at night school. He got a job in a London firm of architects, followed by a remarkable opportunity during the Second World War as a draftsman in MI6 as part of the team developing the early “Colossus” computer by Alan Turing, which broke the German Enigma cipher code. After the war, he was entitled as an ex-service man to a grant to go to Architecture School.

After the war, he travelled on foot and by hitchhiking through England and Europe. His exposure to a rich European history of buildings eventually led him to his later work as a heritage architect and his books about the architectural heritage of Ottawa.

While hitchhiking through France, he caught a ride with a French architect, who, in exchange for help fixing a flat tire, arranged for a paying job with Le Corbusier’s drafting studio. Like most young architects of that time, John was originally enamoured of Le Corbusier’s vision for a new architecture. However, after meeting his future Swedish wife Blenda as a volunteer at a post-war reconstruction camp in Germany and moving to Sweden, he embraced the Scandinavian sensibility of a more romantic and humane approach to architecture. This was best expressed later in two distinctive architectural designs of his: the worship space for the Toronto Quakers that combines a striking modernist interior with a view through a full-height window to a treed courtyard; and the outdoor Astrolabe Theatre constructed for the 1967 Centennial son-et-lumière on Nepean Point where the seating gently stepped up to follow the natural contours of the hillside.

After several years in Sweden, John and his young family moved to Canada, which offered more opportunity than class-ridden England or post-war Europe. A grant to study urban planning at McGill University led him to another career direction that strongly influenced his future work. The family settled in the Glebe in the late 1950s when many neighbourhood residents were moving to the suburbs. They lived first in the highly ornamented Victorian townhouse at the corner of Queen Elizabeth Driveway and First Avenue, then moved to Third Avenue where they lived for 50 years.

During this time, he developed a series of proposals for protecting thestyle=”border: none;” Glebe’s architectural and neighbourhood character that included traffic calming, preserving residential housing and walkable communities. While unpalatable to city planners at the time, these have been embraced now in the “15-minute neighbourhood” that is being widely adopted in city planning.  He joined the fight against the extension of Carling Avenue through the community from Bronson Avenue to a bridge across the Rideau Canal. John developed a friendship with Jane Jacobs, first when she was in New York fighting to save Greenwich Village from highways and redevelopment, then later after she moved her family to Toronto to escape the draft. They shared many ideas.

In addition to many articles on community design, he also wrote: The Revitalization of Older Residential Districts (1970), using the Glebe as a model for his theories on ethical and people-friendly planning; The Story of the Glebe (1999); and A Narrative History of Hintonburg-Mechanicsville (2002).

From 1958 to1968, he was the first chief architect for the NCC, guiding the preservation of Sussex Drive, the Mackenzie King Estate and other historic properties, as well as establishing the Greenbelt and the Sparks Street pedestrian mall, one of the first of its kind in North America. This experience led to John’s later work as a heritage architect, one of the highlights being the restoration of the East Block of Parliament in 1979-80. His extensive knowledge of Ottawa’s buildings led him to co-write Our Architectural Ancestry (1983), which traced the city’s architectural styles from the end of the 18th century to the 1920s.

In 1970-72, he worked in Tanzania, developing a housing strategy and urban design policies for the new government. He later helped with planning for a university in Cochabamba, Bolivia.

John was invited to lead a multi-disciplinary team in the development of the Centretown Plan in 1972-73, a remarkable early example of citizen-led planning that saved much of downtown from degradation by roads and high-rise redevelopment. Through shear strength of citizen participation (never before achieved in Ottawa), good local leadership and the force of good ideas, the plan passed and helped create the city we now know, with healthy, inclusive, walkable downtown communities.

John drew prodigiously. His drawings ranged from sketches of historic villages and monuments to fantastic imaginary scenes. In the late 1970s, he joined a couple of Arctic research expeditions as the official artist and produced careful, visually engaging renderings of the landscape of Ellesmere Island.

A life-long pacifist, John was an active member of the Society of Friends (Quakers). John and Blenda’s house was a warm and welcoming place where there was always another place at the table and lively conversation to be had. They were well known for their lively parties, including their annual Christmas Eve Swedish smorgasbord.

Throughout his career and into his later life, John was often consulted and never hesitated to give his opinion on matters of urban design and community well being. His work spanned a long period where architects and planners moved from a focus on processes and systems towards a people-centred vision. His views have moved from the periphery to the middle.

Anthony Leaning is an architect and son of John Leaning. Kristina Leaning is a conservation architect and John Leaning’s daughter.

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