Planner . Filmmaker . Edmontonian
The Spacing Roadshow in Ottawa: Building a City, Building a Capital
By Adam Bentley
August 9 2011
Four in five Canadians today live in urban or suburban communities, so to find out what this means for the average homeowner, BMO SmartSteps for Homeowners has partnered with Spacing Magazine as they head on a cross-country road trip to celebrate what city-living is like in Canada today. They’ll be sending us updates along the way (We’ve already heard from Winnipeg, Saskatoon, Edmonton, Calgary, Vancouver, Toronto, Montreal), and now they’re in our nation’s capital, Ottawa.
Ottawa was never meant to be a national capital. When Queen Victoria chose Ottawa as the capital of the Province of Canada in the late 1850’s, the town was a dirty, polluted centre of lumber processing known for brawls between Irish and French immigrants, dirt roads filled with livestock, open sewers, and wooden housing that often burned down. Ottawa was precisely selected for its difficulty to access by invading armies due to its remote location and undesirable physical qualities befitting a capital city.
The first residential areas included Uppertown (the area now containing the Central Business District) for Ottawa’s moneyed citizenry, and Lowertown, a cholera-infested slum for new immigrants. Housing in both areas consisted of a mix of 2- and 3-level free-standing and semi-detached homes with Victorian architectural influences from Toronto, and row housing influenced by those of Montreal. Building methods and materials included wooden frames and roughly cut stones.
New streetcar suburbs such as The Glebe, Old Ottawa South, Sandy Hill, and New Edinburgh were built to accommodate new Federal Government civil servants. While the lots were wider than in Lowertown, that neighbourhood’s architecture influenced residential styles in new communities. Working class families settled in wood-frame handyman homes built over shoveled out cellars in Mechanicsville and Hintonburg. These two neighbourhoods are now sites for some of the most innovative infill efforts in the entire city.
Today, Ottawa’s architectural heritage can be best described as a never-ending perceived conflict between the belief of what should be built in a city consisting of hundreds of thousands of unique and diverse residents and what should be built in the national capital of a G8 country. Within an area of just a few square blocks, a person may find buildings including a mix of Victorian, Gothic Revival, Neo-Classical, Federal, Second Empire, Queen Anne, Arts and Crafts, Islamic, Modern, and Post-Modern influences.
It may be an unfinished capital city, but it has become one that reflects Canada’s many influences.
By Adam Bentley, urban planner and contributor with Spacing Ottawa