2013/06 Modern oversight

Originally published in the Centretown Buzz
by Sarah Gelbard
June 17, 2013

For a week, I bike home along Wellington from Lebreton Flats. At the top of what, after a long day, seems an interminable hill, I am smacked in the face with an overwhelmingly refreshing and uplifting smell of lilacs as I roll through the intersection at Bay Street.

The Garden of the Provinces and Territories. Photo: Sarah Gelbard

Too late to turn around and locate the source, I make a mental note to pay closer attention tomorrow. Of course I forget. Finally, on the fourth or fifth day, the wind shifts just enough that the unmistakable scent catches my attention. Just before crossing the intersection, I look up Bay Street to see the lilacs lining the full length of the street—the eastern extent of the Garden of the Provinces and Territories. This exceptional modern public space always seems to sit just outside my mental geography.

As an avid walker, I cut through and pass by many of the parks of Centretown on a near daily basis. In fact, I tend to route myself intentionally to take advantage of their presence; the shade from the trees, the peace of stepping back from the bustling traffic of the street and, of course, the diagonal shortcut.

Festivals, fairs, and lunchtime rendezvous make these parks common destinations. Yet most of the parks lack visual interest and fall short of inspiring in their design. The elegance and simplicity of the modern design of the formal terraces of the Garden of the Provinces and Territories, which set the stage for the equally elegant fountains of the Great Lakes and the bronze tree, is complemented by generous shade trees and a luscious sprawling lawn to the west. It is a truly urban landscape, bringing together structure and nature.

The Garden of the Provinces and Territories is symptomatic of Ottawa’s often overlooked modern heritage. The Garden was designed by Don W. Graham and opened in 1962. It was originally proposed in the infamous Gréber Plan—the urban master plan conceived in the 1950s to transform the still highly industrial Ottawa into not only a nation’s capital but also an exemplar of the modern city. Many components of the plan were indeed exemplars of the modern city ideal, both to its credit and its detriment.

Interestingly, Confederation Park on Elgin at Laurier was also among the parks proposed by Gréber. Yet, unlike the Garden, it can easily be confused as contemporary to Dundonald or Strathcona or Central Parks—parks of a much different era. Confederation Park is an anachronism. It hides its modernity. Perhaps this is part of the reason Ottawans seem to lack an appreciation for our modern heritage, because Ottawa has a tendency to hide its modern heritage by making it look like it belongs to another era. That other era receives credit and no one sees when and where the modern developments of the city succeeded.

Obviously, I have already alluded to a significant shortcoming of the Garden. It is one well in keeping with a now far less popular urban planning component of the modern ideal. The garden was designed to be primarily experienced by automobiles speeding along a grand boulevard. The Garden is the western gateway of Confederation Boulevard, punctuating the entry/exit to the monumental core of the national capital—four kilometres along on the Ottawa side before looping back through Gatineau—hardly intended to be experienced on foot. There is no destination on the other side of the garden but an inhospitable six lanes of traffic. No wonder I rarely find myself happening by the way I do with so many other Centretown parks. At least while speeding by on my bike, I had occasion to smell the lilacs and remind myself of the beautifully designed space just beyond.

As a final interesting note; the buildings and infrastructure demolished and erased by the Gréber Plan, with its voraciously future-oriented vision, are often lamented and their loss highly criticized. We scratch our heads about how our predecessors so recklessly and disrespectfully disregarded our city’s heritage. We also tend to forget many of those buildings were only 50 to 70 years old at the time. The modern buildings and infrastructure we often overlook and whose significance we fail to register today now also fall into that age bracket.

I hope we make better stewards and continue to develop a more nuanced and inclusive understanding of heritage that extends past the early 20th century.


I always catch myself quickly running out of space in my wordcount when writing UrbSanity. I originally planned to elaborate a bit more on some of the other interesting points of the Gréber Plan and other notable modern buildings and spaces in Ottawa. If you aren’t familiar with the plan, here are some highlights:

  • relocation of the railway system and industries from the inner city to the suburbs
  • construction of new cross-town boulevards and bridges
  • decentralize government offices to the suburbs
  • slum clearance urban renewal of the LeBreton Flats district
  • expansion of the urban area from 250,000 to 500,000 in neighbourhood units
  • surround the future built-up area with a Greenbelt
  • a wilderness park in the Gatineau hills and a parks system along the canal and rivers

Additional suggested reading

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