The Smith Report: Hope for Ottawa’s Heritage Conservation Districts?

Ottawa is going through a difficult time. There is a structural flaw in its management and how it listens to its citizens, especially when it comes to protecting its heritage conservation districts (HCDs). Yesterday, the Smith Report was released, outlining the state of crisis in preserving and protecting Ottawa’s HCDs. There are key insights in the report that everyone should be aware of.

The present situation is not surprising since most governments are ‘amber organizations’: highly structured hierarchies of power, with few opportunities for staff to engage with communities in a meaningful way and often lacking in transparency. They are out of date and likely part of the cause of such polarity in politics today.

Because Ottawa is driven mostly by federal government institutions and employment, there’s little room to advance how we can have a better and more engaged polity. We imagine ourselves to be humane and leaders in progressive urbanism , but sadly this is lost on a Council that has inherent structural flaws – thanks mostly to the Mike Harris government of the 1990s. Ottawa is not known for its bottom-up innovation, though there are sometimes glimmers of change.

There are many actions the City could easily take, but a key one that I have heard mention is it should be more transparent. Politicians and senior executives always have a difficult time being open in these old-fashioned organizations. When they don’t truly listen to citizens, there is the reason why we have such consistent frustration and dissatisfaction by the public. Many citizens have experienced this first hand when attending and/or speaking at committees (which also have low public turn-out).

There are many innovations the City could adopt: free public transportation, better bike infrastructure, low-carbon incentives (imagine free full-electric car parking), develop real public space etc. But, an easy step in the right direction would be for the City to take heritage conservation seriously.

Place only has meaning when it is cared for through passion, intimacy and immediacy. This was understood in Ottawa a century ago when the City Beautiful movement was influencing the transformation of the City from a lumber town into a capital.

Heritage conservation at its heart is sustainable and the only option for our future. Why? Because it works within its means. Yes, there are disastrous abuses of heritage, such as the Chateau Laurier addition, though this debacle was avoidable if there was better independent leadership by the City. Where there was once a strong sense of how Ottawa could be a livable city, this is being challenged, particularly by certain developers wishing for short-term gain.

Heritage can be a loaded term. It can be manipulated to benefit different stakeholders, but ultimately, the goal is to maintain unique and distinctive qualities of a space that imparts connection between each other and rootedness in place, time and history.

In many ways heritage districts were born out of a need to counter the modernist project of the past century. It speaks to the local, which many people lack in their lives (especially by globalised people).

Beauty, love and social fabric should be in your backyard, and those social values are part of preserving the architecture, design and sense of place of neighbourhoods and districts. Tower landscapes may be the lollipops of councillors, but the sweetness of Ottawa will not be found in the proposed Lebreton Flats developments, instead it is found on main streets and in small mixed neighbourhoods.

What Ottawa must better understand is the natural and cultural capital of its 20 heritage districts and improve on their protection. They are being compromised and eroded, to the disappointment and frustration of citizens who live within them. Personally, we were attracted to our neighbourhood because our house was within a heritage district. This is a good quality to preserve.

A very important report has been circulated addressing the crisis of heritage conservation districts in Ottawa. Written by architect, planner and heritage advocate, Julian Smith, it was spearheaded by the Rockcilffe Park Residents Association, with support of other Ottawa community associations.

It succinctly outlines why protection of heritage conservation districts is not being supported by the City and constructive suggestions on how to improve this situation. Read it here:

The Smith Report

 

I want a livable and unique city. One that is healthy and related to both the human and natural world. That is Ottawa’s identity, and yet, the tendency for our leaders is a wish-fulfillment for being Toronto or Vancouver instead of seeing the love of our place for what it is. Let us hope this report will bring about a better council and a better commitment to protect our heritage conservation districts.

Heritage & Loneliness

The theme of loneliness in a digital world keeps coming up in various articles I have recently read. Last weekend’s Globe & Mail article by Elizabeth Renzetti profiled various people who are isolated in the Global Village. While the article was somewhat unscientific and selective in choosing her stories, it seems that the modern condition of the 21st century is not the alienation of the industrial capitalism of the last 150 years, it is now about our lack of sociability in a digital age. The irony of this post-modern condition is not lost on any of us, however she did refer to the design of our cities as a consequence of our loss of community. Increasing developments of intensified city cores: the Vancouver model was noted. Renzetti writes:

Research has shown that a varied streetscape will cause people to slow down, and perhaps even exchange a smile or flirtatious glance, and that even a brief exposure to nature – cutting through a park – makes us feel more generous, and more social.

Charles Montgomery has recently examined this view of cities. The issue of varied human-scaled cities has preoccupied architects for the past 40 years, especially in Canada by architect Jack Diamond and others who came to urban design in the 1960s.

Can protecting heritage encourage sociability and reduce the unwanted loneliness felt in many highly developed nations? Perhaps. If interesting streetscapes, visual variety, dense yet low-rise buildings, meaningful historic places, roots in communities and cultural diversity are aspects of heritage, then the discussion on countering loneliness must include heritage values. The notion that social media frames people within isolated worlds may be better framed when you imagine the coffee shop in a historic building. True, the people there may be working in their own head space, but their social space is within that cafe. There may be less ennui, less sense of displacement or placelessness felt in that adaptively reused coffee shop than in many contemporary environments.

Many ‘Millenials’ live in a mediated world, determined by their links through various on-line platforms. Are they any lonelier than other generations in human history? Probably not. Are they less engaged with interpreting the world, maybe…

Heritage matters to us because of its Gestalt effect. It engages the whole, yet can focus on the particular. The challenge is to convey the importance of its effect. Loneliness in the 21st century could be a symptom of many conditions, whether the digital age, the condofication of our cores, the impact of suburban planning (though this may be debated). Faith Popcorn’s coining of the word ‘cocooning’ in the 1990s has returned now that social media is our obsession. Yet, we remain social and where best to meet but in places that are meaningful to us. It may be in a suburban plaza, a rehabilitated historic warehouse district, a large mall, a restored community centre or even as ancient as Stonehenge. All these gathering places are heritage to whoever is brought out of their cocoon and into a community.

To alleviate loneliness one need only to visit a historic place. History is identity and heritage is social.