Dreessen: Ambitions for Ottawa – a city architect would push us in the direction of expertise

As 2021 draws to a close, The Citizen asked a number of Ottawa residents what their dream is for this city in 2022. Today, architect Toon Dreessen shares his thoughts.

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The city of Ottawa strives to be the best sized city to live in. We have recently approved a new official plan that sets an ambitious path to realizing this vision. Climate issues, planning, traffic engineering and procurement seem to be central to the implementation.

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But even though we strive to be proficient in our built environment, we often settle for mediocrity. Why?

One reason is that Ottawa has no bourgeois architectural leadership.

The 1951 Massey Report, the definitive Canadian report on culture, noted that “Canadians are still too unaware of the architect’s power to enrich and enliven their lives.” Seventy years later, this is still true. As a society, we do not fully understand or appreciate how architecture can affect our mental or physical health, our well-being, or our economy.

The municipality has a very skilled planner in the role of daily manager of Planning, Infrastructure and Finance, and we have a few architects in project management and planning roles, but we have no architects in the management. This is an important gap in achieving the city we want to be.

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A city architect can play a crucial role in challenging the private sector to do better with development and push the conversation beyond land use planning to create lasting quality for society. A very small percentage of projects in Ottawa go to the Urban Design Review Panel l, a voluntary group of architects, planners and landscape architects, but their recommendations are not binding. We only need to look at the public dialogue about Ch√Ęteau Laurier to see the value that a city architect can add not only to the application process but also to the commitment of the public.

A city architect could, at the peer-to-peer level, challenge private projects and their architects to deliver better locations. At the same time, the architects behind these projects would have a better dialogue with city staff about design, a range of services that land use planners are not trained in. This was an express concern of the Ontario Association of Architects in the 2006 revisions to the Planning Act. To this day, we see planning staff managing the design through comments on color, material, interior layout, scale and mass – all without adequate architectural training.

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When the council questioned the outdoor LRT stations, an urban architect could have been ready to advise the council on ways to improve the design to provide the kind of comfort and care that citizens expect from their public transportation. Likewise, an urban architect could help solve the challenges of the housing emergency situation and engage in the crucial vision of places like Lansdowne and ByWard Market and work with NCC on LeBreton Flats.

We should not look far for good examples of how a city architect can help. In response to then-Mayor Steve Mandel’s 2005 statement, “No more crap,” regarding the quality of Edmonton architecture, the city embarked on a reform of its procurement processes, including the appointment of an urban architect. This has led to Edmonton becoming an internationally recognized leader in high quality public building design, providing better value for government spending. The development industry has kept pace and helped to create a positive and engagingly built form that supports the well-being of society.

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An urban architect could help reform Ottawa’s procurement system by solving long-standing problems with contracts and processes that focus on price, not value, and include clauses that undermine public interest. This can lead to more design competitions and better public engagement.

We are beginning to understand and appreciate the role that the built environment plays in our collective well-being. We are also realizing that the intersection between planning, municipal budgets, health, climate change, economy and ambition visions for our city are linked around the role that architecture plays in our lives.

The time for a City Architect is now.

Show Dreessen is the architect and president of Ottawa-based Architects DCA and is the former president of the Ontario Association of Architects.

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