Compared to other cities around the world, Ottawa’s history is short but nevertheless interesting. We’ve evolved from a small town to the capital of a G7 country in a fairly short period of time. Many people have left their fingerprints on the capital, from Wilfred Laurier, William Lyon Mackenzie King, and more recently Jean Pigott, but none more than French urban planner Jacques Gréber.
In his book Transforming Ottawa, city planner Alain Miguelez allows us to see the capital through the eyes of Gréber. [Editor’s note: Check out our article on the Indiegogo campaign for this book.] While the beginning of the book is slightly technical in providing context for urban planning and Gréber’s influences, the information is important in fully understanding Gréber and how Ottawa became the city it is today. With lots of history for the history buff and urbanist, and pictures for the reader who simply wants to see how life in Ottawa used to be, there’s something for everyone. Historical images are well-labelled letting you know what lies on a particular city block today and how it has changed.
Reading Transforming Ottawa, you realize how important urban planning is to everyday life. Planning decisions, and as a result, this book, are a time capsule into the thinking and cultural values of the time; they’re a glimpse into how Ottawans lived in a particular time period and a reflection of the aspirations of the leaders and residents of the day. It will also give you some answers. If you’ve ever wanted to know how Ottawa became known as a boring city, this book has an answer. If you’ve ever wanted to know why Ottawa’s downtown buildings are so short and stubby, this book has an answer. If you’ve ever wanted to know why they’re so much darn green space everywhere, this book has an answer. If you’ve ever wanted to know why Lebreton Flats is sitting empty, this book has an answer. All of these things can be chalked up to urban planning.
In reading this book and assessing the planning decisions of Gréber, certain questions arise. For instance, how will the city building decisions being made today, like the redevelopment of Lansdowne Park, Lebreton Flats, and the former Domtar waterfront lands, be judged by future generations? What decisions will they thank us for and which ones will they wish we never made?
Whether you recently moved to Ottawa or have been here all your life, this book will change the way you look at the city. During a recent walk through downtown I looked around at the Byward Market, the Rideau-Sussex intersection, and Elgin Street and understood the city so much more. I felt an even greater appreciation for Ottawa and a deeper connection to past generations, their lives, values and aspirations.
Transforming Ottawa ends with both an Epilogue and section entitled The Way Ahead, arguably the most compelling parts of the book, where Miguelez briefly casts a vision of what Ottawa can and should be. He makes statements about the city’s prospects as a world city and its relationship with the federal government that I’ve always wanted to hear someone say. After reading this book, I can say that Ottawa is lucky to have a thinker and asset like Alain Miguelez working for the city every day.
Whether you’re an urbanist, city staffer, public official, or you’re someone who simply loves Ottawa, this is a book you need to read to better understand who Ottawa was, is and can be.