At the risk of sounding boring, I’m getting tired of discussions about municipal greatness. Concerns about status, prestige and grandeur may make suitable fodder for over-analysis in whatever passes for a civic salon these days, but such debates, for all their wonderful wordsmithing, ignore something pretty basic: a great city is a livable city.
And so we turn our eyes to the next bit of monumental city-building in the capital, Lebreton Flats. The federal government, via the NCC, is finally going to do something about the gaping hole in our city they created when they razed a working class neighbourhood (in an attempt to make a world-class capital, it should be noted).
The bidding process to develop this land clearly failed–eliciting only two bids. And we’re told both bids include a hockey arena as a central feature…and maybe a new library. Alongside the established War Museum, these would give the neighbourhood three large anchors, more than enough to sink it.
We need to get our minds divorced of the idea that the primary feature must be a monument or large marquee edifice. If the NCC wants to really make Lebreton Flats great, there can be only one primary feature: people. Architecture, design, tourist traps, these can come later. Establish a community where people can live, work and play. Get people on the streets, moving through the neighbourhood and engaging with it. People are the thread to be woven through the tapestry of every great city community. People make them beautiful and desirable.
It sounds too easy, I know, but there are a number of basic lessons we should have learned by now. First, we need a multitude of users, so we need homes, shops, restaurants, cultural institutions and offices. Different uses bring different people out at different times. There needs to be weekday life, weekend life and night life.
Further, these uses need to be intermixed. Do not segregate them, or each corner of the area will go to sleep at different times. We need to draw people along the street, through the neighbourhood. This means that people have to have reasons to keep going through the area.
Next, make it walkable: short blocks and narrow streets with lots of pedestrian crossings. There won’t be space for lots of parking, so people will need to be able to walk, bike and bus there (which will support the NCC’s mandate to create a sustainable capital). This means the NCC is going to have to break off its antiquated love affair with the car and not build anymore freeways in the city.
The area will need to be built to a human scale. The buildings must be constructed for the street life. We need a community that is beautiful when you’re walking through it, not just one that looks majestic from a sweeping, elevated panoramic shot. This doesn’t mean things will be small or short (in fact, big, dense buildings are the way to go). It just means that monuments and “anchors” have to be built so they engage the pedestrian and not just the helicopter pilot.
Because there will be monuments and cultural institutions, no doubt. We just have to make them subordinate to the concepts of livability.
What we need to avoid desperately is making the “Center Monumental”. In The Death and Life of Great American Cities, Jane Jacobs demonstrated the flaw with such planning:
We shall look briefly at on other, less important, in of ancestry in orthodox planning. This one begins more or less with the great Columbian Exposition in Chicago in 1893…The Chicago fair snubbed the exciting modern architecture which had begun to emerge in Chicago and instead dramatized a retrogressive imitation Renaissance style. One heavy, grandiose monument after another was arrayed in the exposition park, like frosted pastries on a tray, in a soft of squat, decorated forecast of Le Corbusier’s later repetitive ranks of towers in a park. This orgiastic assemblage of the rich and monumental captured the imagination of both planners and public. It gave impetus to a movement called the City Beautiful, and indeed the planning of the exposition was dominated by the man who became the leading City Beautiful planner, Daniel Burnham of Chicago.
The aim of the City Beautiful was the City Monumental. Great schemes were drawn up for systems of baroque boulevards, which mainly came to nothing. What did come out of the movement was the Center Monumental, modeled on the fair. City after city built its civic center or its cultural center. These buildings were arranged along a boulevard as at Benjamin Franklin Parkway in Philadelphia, or along a mall like the Government Center in Cleveland, or were bordered by park, like the Civic Center at St. Lous, or were interspersed with park, like the Civic Center at San Fransisco. However they were arranged, the important point was that they monuments had been sorted out from the rest of the city, the whole being treated as a complete unit, in a separate and well-defined way.
People were proud of them, but the centers were not a success. For one thing, invariably the ordinary city around them ran down instead of being uplifted, and they always acquired an incongruous rim of ratty tattoo parlours and second-hand-clothing stores, or else just nondescript, dispirited decay. For another, people stayed away from them to a remarkable degree. Somehow, when the fair became part of the city, it did not work like the fair.
This last result is what I most fear for Lebreton Flats. It’ll be big. It’ll be monumental. And people wills stay away. If we build the Center Monumental, we will be building failure.
The NCC is charged with making a great capital for all of Canada, not just Ottawa, but the capital can’t be great if the city isn’t. Life, vibrancy, interaction and engagement, there are the factors that will improve the capital. This is what we need to build–a city of people and for people.