Prior Plans for the Capital

Many ideas found in earlier plans for the Capital have been carried forward in the current plan. Those ideas transcend generations, such as the premise that the natural beauty of a capital, on the edge of a northern wilderness is a defining feature. Planner Edward Bennett summed up this perspective in the 1915 Report of the Federal Plan Commission on a General Plan for the Cities of Ottawa and Hull (also known as the Holt Report):

“In some respects Ottawa was happily chosen for its role. It lies on the banks of a great and beautiful river, the Ottawa, and has direct communication by water with the mighty St. Lawrence, which discharges the waters of the Great Lakes. Two subsidiary rivers flow into the Ottawa near the site of the capital, the Gatineau, which comes through a picturesque valley from the north, and the Rideau, which reaches the Ottawa from the south. Two striking waterfalls, the Chaudière[s] and the Rideau, lie within the borders of Ottawa. A canal of the dimensions of a river passes through the heart of the city, and is available not merely for commerce but for recreation. Parliament Hill is a high bluff rising one hundred and fifty feet [46 metres] from the Ottawa River. Looking northward across this river, the observer has in view the Laurentian mountains stretching away into the distance and still covered, in part, by the primeval forest. London, Paris, and Washington are all great capitals, each of them situated on the banks of a river, but none of them has the natural beauty of Ottawa. Nature, indeed, offers a direct invitation to make this northern capital one of the most beautiful in the world.”

The comprehensive planning of the “capital” elements of the region began in 1899, with the establishment of the Ottawa Improvement Commission. Four years later, the Commission engaged Frederick Todd, a pioneer of landscape architecture, to help reshape the city. Todd believed that the Capital’s location afforded an opportunity to build a great city of “unusual beauty.” He foresaw a large and populous district, reflecting the good character of the nation and its citizens, growing in step with its country.

A decade later, the Holt Commission secured the services of Edward Bennett, who had previously worked with Daniel Burnham on the renowned plan for Chicago. Bennett’s plan was among the first comprehensive urban plans in Canada, and it examined all aspects of the city systems, including housing, transportation and open space. The Holt-Bennett Plan proposed more formalized government precincts, reorganization of the rail lines and the creation of a new park in the Gatineau Hills.

In 1950, the completion of Jacques Gréber’s plan for the Capital left its mark on the region. It proposed major new federal facilities, organized into a number of discrete federal campuses. It proposed a complete system of ring roads culminating in a series of parkways along the shores, as well as an expansive greenbelt to contain future urban growth.

The Federal Land Use Plan that followed in 1988 was succeeded by the 1999 Plan for Canada’s Capital. This incorporated thematic planning—the Capital setting, the Capital destination, and the Capital network—and for the first time it highlighted the symbolic role of Confederation Boulevard. It was also a forerunner in foregrounding sustainable development as central to urban planning, and it emphasized the need for closer collaboration between local, regional and federal bodies.

In many ways, these previous plans were demonstrably successful. The federal government secured the majority of industrialized waterfront lands as public land to create linear public green spaces and parkways. It acquired a vast area in the Gatineau Hills for a park of national significance, conserved key heritage buildings in the ByWard Market and established the 203-square-kilometre National Capital Greenbelt around Ottawa.

Less foresight was evident in these planners’ tacit acceptance of 20th century planning philosophies that promoted monumentalism over urban vitality, and segregated employment districts for federal workers. They fragmented the city, removed entire neighbourhoods, and gave considerable privilege to the private automobile over other modes of mobility. While they successfully recovered the waterfront lands from industrial use, it remained for planners of the next century to animate these lands and make them widely accessible.