Heritage Ottawa Celebrates 50 Years

On Jan. 18, 2017, Heritage Ottawa marked 50 years of important local advocacy work. I was delighted to participate as the keynote speaker as well as join a discussion panel with former Presidents Carolyn Quinn and David Flemming. 

Heritage Ottawa at Fifty - Tobi

Heritage in the service of City Building: Celebrating 50 years of Heritage Ottawa

We gather here tonight to celebrate the 50th anniversary of an organization that has made an immense contribution to our city. As a result of the hard work, research, advocacy and engagement of the volunteers of this organization, Ottawa is a more beautiful, more thoughtful, more knowing and ultimately a better place for residents and visitors alike. As we all know, the year Heritage Ottawa was founded also marked the centennial celebrations of the confederation of Canada. It was a year that saw important changes to the city from the opening of the National Arts Centre to the Garden of the Provinces and Territories, to the Sir John Carling Building.

But tonight I want to look to the future, not the past, which may be a very odd way to begin a speech on heritage. In fact, I’d like to offer a thought experiment. I want to imagine what success will look like for those marking Heritage Ottawa’s 100th anniversary in 2067.

My thesis is that heritage will be able to make an even greater contribution to Ottawa if we can scale up and implement the invaluable lessons that Heritage Ottawa and other heritage promoters have offered over the last 50 years and apply them more broadly to our City in the next fifty. Hence the title of my speech tonight is Heritage in the Service of City Building.
It may seem radical to propose that a practice focussed on preservation offers a path to a more dynamic, more vibrant, more successful city, but I hope to convince you of the argument. It’s premised on the idea that care and attention on what came before us will lead to a place of thoughtfulness in how we continue to grow our city. Moreover, heritage helps us imagine a better city. While the notion of preservation is obviously critical, heritage management is as much about fashioning the future and civic identity than it is about memorializing the past.

I will suggest that heritage can achieve this role – as our guide and a blueprint for better city building –  in three ways: by engendering better urbanism, design and architecture; by encouraging more proactive civic engagement and by supporting stronger planning outcomes. I will offer a few thoughts on each of these three elements. 
First, on better design, architecture and urbanism.

Heritage is not, as some critics claim, an exercise in nostalgia. It is about history yes, but equally about celebrating quality in the built environment. I often wonder if our commitment to heritage would be less necessary if we were surrounded by ubiquitous excellence in contemporary architecture. If every new building had the same commitment to craftsmanship, design and beauty as many of the older buildings we aim to preserve there might be greater scope for creativity and flexibility in the approach to heritage protection.

Instead, battle lines are often drawn in part because older buildings have value not only in a historic or contextual way, but also because they may represent remote islands of design or architectural value. If those buildings were instead pebbles on a vast beach of equally beautiful pebbles – old and new – heritage advocacy would be a much easier practice. Unfortunately, although not always fair or accurate, contemporary building form is associated with a lesser commitment to principles of building quality.

And so while students and experts of heritage understand the value of design and architectural excellence, I believe we need to widen the argument for why such excellence has public benefit far beyond heritage protection. This argument starts with the premise that promoting beauty in our built environment is something from which all citizens should benefit. It has myriad policy benefits. The evidence for this is clear.

In 2007, a study by West Virginia University conducted interviews of 1,000 people from ten major cities across the world. It concluded that among a whole series of different factors, the perception of living in a beautiful city had the strongest correlation with happiness. Happiness, in turn, is associated with positive health outcomes, longer life expectancy and greater civic engagement, which I’ll talk about shortly.

I’ve always found it distinctly unjust that attractive neighbourhoods and the socioeconomic status of their inhabitants are so closely correlated. With all of the other disadvantages of poverty, why as a society do we accept that the built environment of those among us who are low income is less beautiful, treed, composed of lesser materials or attention to less detail than those of others.

I think of my house in Lindenlea, built modestly, with few bells and whistles, with the objective of affordable housing for returning First World War Veterans by the Canada Lands Company in 1919.  Nearly 100 years later, the house remains – the brick hasn’t required re-pointing, the mortar is intact, the joists, soffits and rafters are all original: even a simple 900 square foot house in 1919 was built well and to last. And the neighbourhood was built with community in mind. Trees were planted, a community centre planned, tennis courts built, a playground at the centre of the community, small lots with front porches to encourage neighbourly interaction. There was even provision for lawn bowling of all sports, although the court never came to fruition. And while other problems plagued the promising beginnings of Lindenlea, it offers an example of quality, community and affordability intertwined.

The lesson to be learned by all of us is to incorporate those principles of quality that are so much at the core of heritage into our approach to all buildings, all streetscapes and all neighbourhoods. And in fairness many heritage experts are already doing that. The public conversation on the proposed addition to the Chateau Laurier – and other additions to, adaptive reuse and transformations of heritage building – is about heritage and it’s not about heritage. Of course, it’s about abiding by the Standards and Guidelines for the Conservation of Historic Places in Canada, respecting the heritage attributes of the present building and ensuring compatibility. However, it’s also about the creation of new architecture in a prominent place that will help shape everything from the experience of the pedestrian on Mackenzie, to the path of the Sunday stroll through Major Hill’s Park to the future identity of our city.

Imagine if we had the same sort of energy, civic interest and engagement on design and architecture in all of its manifestations – from the commercial shopping mall to the latest subdivision. It would force me and my counterparts to think more deeply about the look and experience of moving through our city. It could highlight the need for more robust design guidelines and review. Maybe it would stimulate adding teeth to the Urban Design Review Panel. Perhaps it’s establishing stronger design requirements in the City’s Official Plan. Critics will say design is subjective – that beauty is in the eye of the beholder. But heritage advocacy has taught us that while there exists many types of beauty – Victorian and Georgian, symmetrical and varied, stylistically uniform and eclectic – there are objective criteria of form, massing, proportion and context that help us shape, understand and interpret good design.

Let’s aim to have our successors thank heritage advocates for pushing and widening the conversation on quality and beauty as it pertains to city building writ large. Let’s shout from the steeples of the churches we aim to preserve that design and beauty matters for what we will build not just for what we have built. Because, ultimately, the new buildings of today become the heritage buildings of tomorrow.

That leads me naturally into my second element to help us learn the lessons of heritage for better city building. Heritage advocacy has had impressive successes in developing proactive civic engagement.

In my two years in municipal politics, I’ve been surprised to the extent that civic engagement is often activated in response to a perceived threat. The NIMBY phenomenon is real; that said, it is not always wrong. Change can be threatening to the integrity of neighbourhoods, including to built heritage. But an exciting element of heritage work is that it can be proactive, imagining a future or vision to get excited about. It could be working to create a heritage conservation district, adapting a building for a modern use, developing criteria to determine how a neighbourhood will grow, how a city will change. 
I would love to take the forward looking, imagining parts of heritage and see an organization initiated that replicates the energy with a banner of an even better city. A group that focuses on harnessing civic engagement for better outcomes be they social, economic or environmental.

I look at groups such as CivicAction in Toronto, which identifies challenges facing its region and develops partnerships, programs and initiatives to solve them. It does not rely on governments. It works across sectors to find opportunities for improvement. An example of its current priorities include transit infrastructure and jobs for youth facing barriers. What Heritage Ottawa has taught us, and why I am optimistic that Ottawa will see growing civic engagement as we move form a big small city to a small big city, is that when you inspire people to think about civic identity, there are dedicated, interested people who are willing to invest in that work and in that project.

The interesting thing about civic engagement is it has virtue in both achieving outcomes but also in strengthening bonds between and among citizens – the value lies in both the means and the ends. I’m willing to bet that some of you who are members of Heritage Ottawa have become friends with others you’ve met here. The ties and connections you’ve made have been useful in improving the efficacy of your work, widening your social networks and contributing to your personal sense of well-being. That’s what civic engagement does. And I’m not just making this up. This is not just intuition.

There is much evidence that civic engagement, social capital and trust operate in what I like to call a golden triangle of positive outcomes. Now given the great built heritage of the other Golden Triangle, the phrase is particularly apt for this audience. Those reinforcing concepts are critical because they contribute to great social cohesion. Societies with high levels of trust witness greater voter turnout. Neighbourhoods with high levels of social capital see lower rates of crime and better educational outcomes. Civic engagement reinforces both and provides therefore both collective and individual benefits.

It is not a coincidence that many of the neighbourhoods in our city that have become heritage conservation districts exhibit high civic engagement. It is a virtuous circle. You need an engaged community to gather the support, to do the groundwork, to become an HCD. And then, by virtue of being an HCD, a neighbourhood develops a sense of identity, strengthening civic engagement and belonging, which in turn positively impact on social capital and trust.

This positive feedback loop leads me to consider how we can create that sense of greater identity and definition in neighbourhoods that would not merit HCD status. Maybe we call them neighbourhood charters, or blueprints, or vision statements. The point is that HCDs and heritage advocacy have taught us the value of working to define identity in our many varied communities across the city.

Third, I think we can take the lessons of heritage advocacy to support stronger planning outcomes.

One of Heritage Ottawa’s successes of 2016 was its effective advocacy on the issue of the location of the new Civic Campus of the Ottawa Hospital.  Were it not for the efforts of many of the volunteers of this organization, we would be facing a future hospital site that not only sat on important agricultural land but a location that failed on other urban planning fronts such as the fact that it was removed from a $5 billion light rail investment and proposed to include more than 20 acres of parking and roads. 
That campaign was important for another reason as well. It signalled a willingness of many heritage advocates in our city to view land use – particularly agricultural land – as an element of heritage in its own right. I happen to agree with that position. The larger lesson from the hospital site case study is that we need to consider agricultural land as a form of collective heritage, both cultural and environmental. The roots of this city are in the country, the rural villages that dotted a valley rich for tilling, the forests that brought the loggers, and before the Europeans, an important meeting place for the Algonquin people, at this amazing junction of three mighty rivers. I would suggest that the ease by which we continue to convert productive agricultural and natural landscapes to inefficient built land uses needs more critical examination.  We need to look more creatively at how to encourage the greater conversion of so-called brownfields: land that has been used is some way for residential, commercial or industrial use that has the potential to be reconfigured, reused or intensified.

The Provincial Policy Statement, the master planning blueprint which cities need to follow in determining future land use puts a lot of emphasis on intensification. But it leaves open the possibility that cities with greenfields could conceivably continue to encroach on them ad infinitum or until there is no more land to convert.  In Ottawa’s case, with its vast agricultural lands, that means there are few obstacles to a continued encroachment of rural to urban lands.

So I’d like to posit that an important sign of success in 2067 that we have grown our appreciation of the heritage value of land is that we have contained the urban boundary. If our land use practices are more efficient, we would require less of it, leaving more land for non-urban purposes, whether agricultural or in a natural state. More efficient land-use could lead to a greater focus on developing existing land more thoughtfully, creatively and with purpose. The promise of limitless land dilutes the quality of what we put on top of it. It also provides less incentive to do things right with regard to achieving densities that allow us to supply growing areas with effective transit, or walkable main streets, both of which reduce our dependence on cars and offer opportunities for more creative design beyond the large-format retail store paradigm which dominates our commercial growth on the peripheries of our cities.

To put this argument into heritage terms, I think about the demolition and move of the Bradley-Craig barn in Stittsville, a file that came before Council last year. During the discussion it was suggested – without irony – that the barn would be better at a different farm to which the applicant wished to move it because its current location would diminish its value, surrounded as it would be by unattractive parking lots and commercial plazas.

I would turn the argument on its head by suggesting that if we aimed higher in terms of how we use newly developed land, by insisting on quality and thoughtfulness in the design of new commercial spaces, it would be much easier to imagine how a heritage barn could enhance, not detract, from a future community.

This brings me to by conclusion.

The land and its buildings of our city are an enduring legacy. The people who occupied them, the events that took place inside, the stories that emerged from them – these are the elements that help us to understand ourselves and where we came from, enrich our experience of our city today and hopefully guide us to an even better future.

I’ve suggested to you tonight that heritage awareness, protection and advancement offers us valuable lessons and insight for how we might build an even better city for our successors in 2067.

By engendering better urbanism, design and architecture; by encouraging more proactive civic engagement and by supporting stronger planning outcomes, we can honour the work of Heritage Ottawa and the incredible, dedicated people who have been working tirelessly for a half century to build an even better city.

For that I thank you and wish Heritage Ottawa a very happy birthday.

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