Ottawa’s Suburban Heritage

Ottawa is transforming from a suburban city into a denser and more urban one. Light Rail Transit is coming, densification has brought more condominium towers to the city core and the post-war generation of baby boomers are beginning to downsize their living spaces. But what will become of the vast tracts of once sought-after suburban houses stretching from Carp to Cumberland?

Half a century ago, Ottawa was a very different city. Ottawa’s population grew by 60% after the Second World War as a cadre of public servants supported the transformation of Canada’s post-war economy and the building of the welfare state.

Ottawa experienced a feverish pace of construction. Government campuses and suburban developments appeared overnight. Developers could begin as small-town builders one day and become wealthy financiers the next. They built custom homes, tract housing, townhomes – whatever the market dictated as veterans and public servants could now realistically own a piece of private property, albeit in 25 years’ time. One could buy a home in “Alta Vista”, at “Crystal Beach”, or in “Lynwood Village” – all pleasant places on offer to nuclear families. A suburban home was the “key to better living” according to developer Robert Campeau.

Today, interest in suburban history and heritage has lagged behind other areas of heritage protection and management. Tangible elements of ‘suburbia’ are a challenge to conserve when there has been such a strong social stigma attached to the idea of the suburbs. Even in the 1950s, the ‘Organization Man’ in the ‘grey flannel suit’ or the kaffeklatsch of housewives brought stereotypes to suburban life that remain ingrained in North American perceptions of suburbia, ironically even by the people who enjoyed the suburban lifestyle.

To high-style architects, and especially to critics who were examining the North America’s urban blight in the wake of the flight to the suburbs, uniform places were anathema to their ideals of community, and these opinions continue today as the environmental impact of the suburban landscape may be unsustainable into the future.

Our city’s version of Frank Lloyd Wright’s Broadacre City now causes us to questions of what value are these neighbourhoods. Are they important to the identity of the city? Are they spaces that may be transformed yet retain their pastoral landscape qualities?

The trees have matured, the 60-year old split-levels, the CMHC 1,000-square-foot model homes, and the Victory Houses are now at an age that the history of suburbs is up for discussion as large grassy lots become attractive potential for infill. Aside from Lindenlea and a few Garden City imaginations, Ottawa’s post-war suburbs are a touchpoint for discussion on how these places will evolve in the coming decades.

Suburbs emerged beyond towns and cities and their evolution follow different patterns, shaped by modern planning and stricter zoning. Places of worship, schools and plazas were well planned around the mobility of the automobile. Yet Ottawa’s suburbs are probably more layered and complex than what is imagined.

A unique feature of Ottawa’s suburbs are its federal campuses developed after the 1950 Gréber Plan. Tunney’s Pasture, a low-rise semi-secure campus for federal departments which may soon be transformed into a high-density urban hub, or Confederation Heights, a spread-out campus gradually transforming, or the high-tech campus of the National Research Council were experiments in public-sector pastoralism. Of course these campuses have evolved since the 1950s, yet they remain overlooked monumental modern complexes. Even today similar suburban headquarters continue to be built for well-funded government agencies, such as the $1.2 billion “spy palace” on Ogilvie Road for the Communications Security Establishment Canada Agency.

Other places are unfortunately neglected. The abandoned former Federal Study Centre on Heron Road – once a religious campus – holds a wealth of modern artistry and planning that could potentially be an adaptively reused signature site for the city’s Guildwood Estates neighbourhood.

The first steps to envisioning a sustainable future for the suburbs is to recognize its diversity and evolution. The home designs in Qualicum, the evolution of Westgate or Billings Bridge shopping plazas, or the intact veteran homes of Viscount Avenue, each possess potential value that may bridge mid-century modernism with the ecological age that is today.

A rare architect-designed neighbourhood, Briarcliffe, has been protected, but what of the model homes of Manor Park, or the experimental cooperative of Fairhaven Way? As Millennials seek out smaller more affordable homes, the Victory Home may be reinvented as sustainable and restored homes that their great-grandparents enjoyed in 1946.

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