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Write On Ottawa: The man who changed our city forever

By Alejandro Bustos on June 19, 2015

Jacques Gréber is arguably the most important person in Ottawa’s history.  If you want to know why Canada’s capital looks the way it does, then you can thank (or blame) this famous French architect who played a pivot role in our city’s development.

Following a request by Prime Minister MacKenzie King, the Gréber Plan was released in 1950.  This massively influential report led to numerous changes in our region, including: the demolition of Lebreton Flats; Gatineau Park expanding; the train station leaving downtown; and the expansion of numerous downtown roads (thank you for all the trucks on King Edward!)

Eager to chronicle this pivotal report in Ottawa’s history, urban planner and amateur historian Alain Miguelez has written Transforming Ottawa: Canada’s Capital in the Eyes of Jacques Gréber.  In order to publish this book professionally, he has launched an Indiegogo campaign to raise $20,000 to cover editing and production costs — see video below.

(Ed: Given that Alain Miguelez is employed by the City of Ottawa as an urban planner, any potential donors who have official business dealings with the City should refrain from contributing. For everyone else, any contribution of $50 or more is essentially a pre-order of the book).

“The Gréber Plan is unique because much of it was implemented,” says Miguelez in an interview.  “Under this Plan, Ottawa got lots of good things that still matter a lot to us today, including the view protections of the Peace Tower, some key recommendations for the construction of national museums and what became the National Arts Centre, as well as a sense of dignified aesthetics that befits a national capital.”

But not everything worked out as originally envisioned.

“[T]hat Plan was (also) responsible for other things that, in retrospect, people might think twice about repeating today, such as moving the Via Rail station out of downtown, removing the streetcars, decentralizing the city’s employment hubs and putting such a high emphasis on the automobile and single-purpose neighbourhoods, instead of the dynamic, mixed neighbourhoods we had before and want again.”

[vimeo]https://vimeo.com/129622435[/vimeo]

In his book, Miguelez  chronicles how Ottawa looked like before the Gréber Plan, and how it was subsequently transformed after the report was released.  Among the key consequences that are explored is how this French architect, who had good intentions, created a chain of events that allowed for the car to be king.

“The Plan is credited with solving the ‘railway problem,’ and it’s true that Ottawa was in an untenable situation, crisscrossed by surface railway tracks with hundreds of level crossings all over the old neighbourhoods,” says Miguelez, whose previous book A Theatre Near You looks at the theatres that existed in Ottawa-Gatineau since the 1850s.

“But the result is that we replaced high-impact rail infrastructure with high-impact car infrastructure, neither of which is helpful if we want to have a good pedestrian-scale city.  Gréber created the Greenbelt, which was intended to contain urban growth.  But his Plan was predicated on the population of the national capital topping out at half a million, a threshold we crossed just fifteen years after it was adopted, so (as we know today), the city just jumped the Greenbelt and grew outward.

“So my purpose is to look at the plan, 65 years after it was adopted, and ask some questions about its outcomes from the standpoint of the city it gave us and the city we now say we’d like to have.  I’m looking to add to a conversation that is well underway all across the city about how to grow, by looking at where we’ve been and why we grew the way we did.”

If Miguelez can raise the $20,000 from his crowdfunding campaign, then he will publish a hardcover book with over 300 black-and-white images of Ottawa’s streets from the 1930s that were rediscovered in the National Archives.  (These photos were the genesis of this book project).

“Those photos were the ones commissioned by Prime Minister Mackenzie King to give to Jacques Gréber in order to help him with documentation about a city that Mr. Gréber did not know at all,” explains Miguelez, who would like the book to be on the shelves by Christmas.

And if he cannot raise the full amount?

“[I]f I come within a few hundred dollars of the finish line I’ll consider the goal reached,” replies Miguelez.  “If I fall short by a more significant amount, I will pursue other avenues to get this book published.  I fully intend to publish this book.”

In addition to the Indiegogo campaign, there will also be a crowd-funding party with the partnership of Heritage Ottawa on July 8, in which some of the unique photos in the book will be shown as part of a slideshow.