Water and the City of Ottawa

By Bruce Firestone | Uncategorized

Jul 06

The Giza Prize

Water is an important element in city design. People are calmer around water. People will sit for hours beside water (and campfires); the same people who can’t concentrate on an anything longer than it takes to watch a vine video (6 seconds).

Ottawa is fortunate to have three glorious rivers—the Gatineau, the Ottawa and the Rideau plus one great canal. Imagine what this place looked like 350 years ago before our rivers became polluted and the great pines and other trees were logged?

Given the magnificent setting, what have we done with it? Well, most of the waterfront is owned by the GOC (Government of Canada) via the NCC and they have built roads (called ‘Parkways’ for goodness sake) along the water separating people from their rivers and Canal.

Three Rivers and a Canal
Three Rivers and a Canal

Think Paris and the Seine or London and the Thames. Think the Left Bank. Then compare those places with Ottawa’s treatment of its waterfront; it’s a travesty.

Pont Alexandre III
Pont Alexandre III

Why not marvelous cafés, artisans’ lofts and much more along the Ottawa? How about building a national boardwalk alongside Ottawa’s waterfront to celebrate Canada turning 150 in 2017

Paris Café
Paris Café (Note how many people are facing out to the street)

Take Carleton University as an example—set between the Rideau and Dow’s Lake, it has incredible potential. And yet the entire campus turns its back on the water. Again, roadways separate the campus from water.

When I was at UCSC (University of California at Santa Cruz) back in the day, I couldn’t find their library despite being shown the way by a pretty co-ed. Huh? Turns out, they buried the entire building in the side of a cliff rather than mar the vista of the canyon below. Ottawa can do better with its land use planning and urban design.

One of my favourite places as a boy was to explore along the river banks of the Ottawa below Rockcliffe Park (and out of sight of passing cars and the prying eyes of adults). We built and launched rafts from there (I was arrested as a ten year old for cutting down tree branches for raft purposes) and we were the Tom Sawyers of our day (circa the 1960s).

The Park had a most wonderful stone pavilion. This huge structure overlooked the confluence of the Ottawa and Gatineau Rivers. It had a live element to it—a tuck shop in its lower level that made the best hot dogs on the planet. You know the kind—toasted bread instead of buns and b.b.q.’d to perfection. Mustard and relish and 25 cents at the end of a long day … The money was free too. We collected glass bottles, which we got 2 cents each for at the tuck shop and there were always enough of them for at least one dog each. Can it get any better than this? In those years, money for kids was much harder to come by than it is today. Here was opportunity (the shop) and the cash was at hand.

They had these fantastic WCs too—vast porcelain and tile areas—huge places in the bowels of the place so to speak.

There are a couple of lessons here for today’s neo urbanist. Firstly, kids and people without cars weren’t disenfranchised. They could get to places like a tuck shop, a corner store, a hardware store, whatever on their feet or by street car. Secondly, public parks weren’t these pristine, soulless places that they are today. Did you know what the NCC did with that tuck shop—they boarded it up 30 years ago (the WCs too). It remains that way to this day. We used to have change rooms and pavilions like this on all manner of Ottawa beaches; they were shut or torn down too.

Park and beach utilization has plummeted since then. It’s pathetic really. If you want public spaces to work, you have to allow for live uses like this. They become better places and safer too.

Last night, my wife and I visited Britannia beach. Here are a few scenes taken just before sunset–







If you look at the last image, you can see how carefully the seawall was built–each boulder strategically placed by huge diesel-electric shovels and their operators in a maze of protection for the beach. It’s worthy of a Giza prize, an imaginary honor I just created to bestow upon talented builders who use their machines as extensions of their own hands and minds. 


Watching the sun go down, I realized that you could never get the earthworks/seawall/fill/commercial enterprises at Britannia beach approved today. First of all, people with the vision and guts to do things like this (folks who made up perhaps the greatest generation ever–those that walked this earth sometime between 1913 and 2013 and who were born in the period 1913 to 1945) are all gone or retired now and, secondly, the National Capital Commission, the local municipal government, the governments of Ontario, Quebec and Canada together with all their ministries would require so many useless studies that one of two things would happen–either the proponent would run out of money and give up or s/he would die. Frankly, none of the above would care which came first.

@ profbruce



Hi Bruce,

I read and enjoyed your article and agree with you 100%. We have such a beautiful city but unfortunately, counting the NCC, have four levels of government that can’t agree with each other. Maybe someone should mention to them that there is only one taxpayer. The government bureaucracies that have been set up, at all levels, have become so cumbersome that they prohibit any visionary ideas. It is easier for them to just say “no” and hope that the developers and innovative thinkers go away. Thanks for now.

Glenn Falls
Vice President
Karson Group
3725 Carp Rd.
Carp, ON, K0A 1L0

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About the Author

Bruce is an entrepreneur/real estate broker/developer/coach/urban guru/keynote speaker/Sens founder/novelist/columnist/peerless husband/dad.