In 1950, a bold new plan was unveiled for Canada’s National Capital Region as the “guide for the rapid transformation of Ottawa and Hull from rather dreary industrial towns into an attractive modern capital.”
The plan – commonly known as the Gréber plan after its creator, French architect, planner and landscape architect Jacques Gréber – was, like so many urban visions of the post-war boom, predicated on the notion that the mighty automobile was now king and that roads could take an almost unlimited number of people anywhere to everywhere.
But where have those visions taken us 60 years later?
Major cities across Canada are choked by traffic congestion and gridlock. The preoccupation of most municipal planners now is to find ways to take autos off of the road and encourage commuters to instead take public transit.
The City of Ottawa’s protracted struggle to build a new light rail transit (LRT) system that, a) won’t break the bank, and, b) actually takes an adequate number of people in the right direction, illustrates the challenges which cities face to meet the needs of a modern world in which, for the first time, the urban population exceeds the rural.
But are we skidding further into the weeds if we continue to focus on ways to move massive numbers of people from the ‘burbs to downtown, or from neighbourhoods on one end of a sprawling urban area such as Ottawa to their jobs in business parks at the other?
Consider this: The maximum capacity for a lane of highway is to move about 2,000 cars past any point in an hour.
Take, for example, Rockland and Stittsville, two suburban communities on opposite sides of Ottawa connected by a 67-kilometre stretch of the four-lane Queensway. If 2,000 cars left Rockland between 7 and 8 a.m. one after the other in an orderly manner, and they were all going to Stittsville, with no one else on the road, they would consume the entire capacity of one lane of the Queensway all the way from Rockland to Stittsville for an hour. No one else would be able to squeeze into that lane.
These kind of commuting distances are typical in Ottawa, which, thanks to Gréber’s plan, has a Greenbelt – a broad swath of public land intended to contain urbanization within a specific boundary. Instead, development leap-frogged over the tree tops and farm fields and today we have rapidly growing suburban communities such as Kanata, Stittsville, Barrhaven and Orleans.
Ottawa’s Greenbelt has proven to be a mistake
Ottawa’s Greenbelt has proven to be a mistake because it increases travel distance, which increases the cost to everyone. Car drivers have to travel further, and transit operators must do the same with no additional revenue – just additional cost.
New transit solutions will be key to the success of modern cities, but the planning solution also must include cities made up of a series of villages that are for the most part self-sufficient and sustaining, and where a greater number of people work and live in close proximity to one another and where they live.
In this model, where more housing and employment are integrated, the total size of the city doesn’t matter.
How quickly can decentralized urbanization occur?
Of course, there is a limit to how effectively and quickly this integration can occur. There will always be a need for people to travel to and from work, and some will have to travel farther than others. Roads will continue to play the major role, as will autos, but the percentage of people travelling long distances has to be reduced.
Great mass transit is part of the solution provided there is a grid of interconnecting transit lines meeting at strategic nodes.
Unless we create an urban environment where a greater number of people can work near where they live, rush hour congestion and commute times will only worsen. The transition from the “anywhere to everywhere” commute to cities being a collection of viable villages will take time, and this change needs to respect the home location decisions city residents have made in the past.
A decade ago, when the Kanata area of Ottawa was suffering from commercial vacancy rates north of 30 percent following the collapse of the telecom boom, there was chatter about relocating government departments from the downtown core, since many civil servants lived in the Kanata area. Of course, such a move would have also forced many civil servants who live in Gatineau and in the community of Orleans on the east side of Ottawa to commute much further, and face unreasonable disruptions to their lives.
Ottawa’s Tunney’s Pasture start of a better option
Recently, the federal government announced a massive redevelopment of Ottawa’s Tunney’s Pasture which may be the start of a better option. Tunney’s Pasture is a cold collection of aging and unattractive government buildings scattered across an underused swath of land 49 hectares in size. Outside of working hours, the silence is deafening.
Tunney’s is relatively central in the city and adjacent to rapid transit options, and, more importantly, the proposed LRT/subway system that city hall has embarked on. These factors make it a decent location for traditional commuting. But it is also in the midst of what is arguably the hottest real estate market in the city, with the acreage to serve as a test bed for integrating housing and employment.
In August, the federal government unveiled a 25-year plan to redevelop the area and create a more dynamic mixed-use setting that will include housing and retail and double the number of public sector jobs located on site from 10,000 to 20,000.
There are plenty of details to be worked out and lots of public criticism already on record about how the feds are going about the planning and public consultation phases. Nonetheless, I believe this is the kind of mindset we need to develop urban planning strategies that make sense for the long-term.
It took us 60 years to create the traffic and congestion problems we have today. It likely will take another 30 years to fix them given that it will require wholesale changes in where people live and work, and how they get there. But we must revive an old idea that was once the mantra for the development industry: “there’s a job at the end of every street.”
About John Clark: With over 30 years of experience in the national real estate appraisal and valuation industry, John Clark (BA, AACI, P.App., FRICS, Chartered Valuation Surveyor) is a leading expert on real estate matters that impact the value of commercial, institutional, residential and other special use properties. He joined The Regional Group of Companies Inc. in 1988 and has served as Vice-President of Valuation and Consulting since 1990. He is a Fellow of the Appraisal Institute of Canada and served as its National President, 2001-2002.