Garden of the Provinces and Territories: Best “least-known” public space in Ottawa?

Ottawa the lush and tropical getaway: we just have to wait for it

Following up on the previous post, below are my original notes for “best public space in Ottawa” the multi-part piece Maria Cook put together for an end-of-year  feature in the Citizen. I say “original notes” because Maria had to remind me that the idea was to be “built in 2010”, so in the end I had to submit notes for a different space altogether. (The “Wellington Marbles” sculpture walk, as it happens.)

Of course, I realize the obvious knock for picking the usually-deserted Garden of the Provinces is “well, where’s the public then?’ The photo above doesn’t show too many people lounging by the fountain; neither do these daytime shots of roughly the same part of the park. Still, it is a wonderful little spot, and the deserted feel can even work to its benefit. If you’ve had a long hard day with too many meetings, the quiet Garden can feel like a meditative space.

Here is the way I put it to Maria:

If this lovely park was near the eastern end of Sparks or Wellington it would be the public square we always complain is missing from our urban fabric. I love sitting on a bench in the late afternoon, perhaps with a Cuban cigar purchased from a one of the hotel tobacconists close by, and wondering where all the people are. It’s such a well-designed park; modern and spare, yet green and restful. It’s got its share of little surprises too; as the blogger “Midcentury Modernist” recently pointed out, like the gothic arches cut into the retaining wall under Christ Church Cathedral — actually the covered-over doors of disused public washrooms –or the trio of upside-down bronze sculptures by Bruce Garner, seemingly reeling from the fumes of the sewer vent that serves as their base.

The park functions like a reward for exploring the western reaches of Sparks Street where few pedestrians seem to go; someday if we are lucky it may also function as the perfect transition between downtown and a developed Nanny Goat Hill/ escarpment area.

What do you think? Do you ever venture out as far as the Garden of the Provinces, or do you have your own little-known public space to calm and soothe amidst the bustle?

photo by Jordan Young


  1. Whoa. Is that a scene from Ottawa, or a screenshot from Myst?

    Note: in the photos you linked to by snuffy, the photographer may have intentionally taken shots that excluded people. I know I often try to avoid people (and cars) from my photos of buildings and landscapes.

    I have to admit I think I’ve spent a grand total of zero time there, aside from the occasional ride by. I should go there this summer and check it out.

  2. “If this lovely park was near the eastern end of Sparks or Wellington…”

    But it isn’t, it’s on the edge of no man’s land. This space could be put to much better use by being built on, extending Wellington’s built form towards LeBreton, rather than extending the windswept emptiness around the dreary LeBreton Blvd-Portage intersection into downtown. A completely pointless and, in winter, hostile vacant space.

  3. GDH – Well I wouldn’t slag it too hard for being hostile and vacant in the winter; I think we can say the same for a lot of our parks. If we want an evening breeze in the summer chances are we’ll be getting more wind than we need in the winter.

    Still, I take your point about location and built form.

    But would I swap it for a building/buildings continuing along Wellington though?

    Not sure, to me the street interest along Wellington pretty much peters out by Lyon anyway, after that it seems strictly ceremonial/official/retail-free. Another pompous and set-back official edifice wouldn’t be an improvement, and some pod of sustaining retail or street-front activity seems unlikely; the very idea of selling anything would no doubt throw the NCC into a fit unless it was the retailer or at least the landord.

    I think for now I accept that if I want a main street experience going west I have to hoof it up to Somerset; meanwhile the Garden is a welcome place of rest and reflection, at least for me.

  4. Here’s a copy of a comment I just posted on David Reevely’s blog so I don’t have to repeat it:

    “In my opinion Ottawa has too many commemorative places, especially in uninteresting areas (i.e. the Garden of the Provinces), and not enough vibrant ones. Confederation Square is a perfect location but a memorial to remember the dead doesn’t exactly inspire vibrancy. There are a lot of Federal places but Government doesn’t exactly inspire vibrancy either.

    Looking at the location of the Garden of the Provinces it’s probably meant to mark the entrance to the parliamentary core so I understand its purpose. I’m not sure what else you could put there to fulfill that purpose. I guess this is what you have to put up with when you’re roommates with the Federal Government. It has its perks but also its setbacks.

    Ottawa needs a balance of symbolism/commemoration and vibrancy. If people never visit a place because of a bad location how commemorative can it be? Let’s stop making Ottawa into one big museum and start making it into a city.”

  5. It’s a beautiful place to gaze on the bureaucratic beauty of the LAC building, or watch and listen to the rush-hour traffic racing to and from Hull along six lanes of generously-curved “Wellington West”.


  6. Kevin B, that’s it exactly.

    Ottawa, especially official Ottawa, is too fixated on “space”, be it the “green”, “open”, or “public” varieties thereof… to the almost total exclusion of considering the things that define the space, like, I dunno, buildings.

    Cities are not made great or interesting or liveable by “space”, they are made so by the occupation of space.

  7. I’ve been there many times – taking a break from Blues Fest, or just passing by on bike or foot and finding that the overflowing gardens in particular always inspire my camera to come out of the backpack.  I like that it is not a high-traffic public space, that is part of it’s charm for me.  If I want a people filled park I only have to go up to Somerset (Dundonald Park) to get to people watching.  Nice lunch spot, and always great photo’s, no matter the weather.

  8. Although I work at Lyon and Albert I have to admit… I had no idea the park was even there.

  9. Living nearby this past year, I have stopped at the Garden of the Provinces regularly (until winter) for a breath of fresh air and relative tranquility. I love the hidden fountains under the trees; sundown during summer they play unexpected tricks with the orange light. I’ve seen children hopping across the stones in the fountain, delighted by the opportunity for playfulness, and couples walking hand in hand. I like the unusual sculptures and actually enjoy the sweeping view of the traffic and the national library. It is a hidden gem. I’m not sure what there is to improve.

  10. It’s a nice little spot. Quiet gem. Maybe get rid of the traffic rather than the park? 😉

  11. My husband and I chanced on this spot two years ago in the autumn on an inclement day. We satisfied our curiosity and walked in to explore. I knew it wasn’t a well-known spot to us since I’d been driving or biking by it for a very long time and truth is I don’t think it looked appealing. Maybe it’s the location, maybe it’s the fact that Ottawa has cold weather a lot of the time…something wasn’t tempting me in. Fact is I haven’t returned, but I will, just to review what it felt like again. Guess I’m damning it with faint praise…don’t want to. Will give it another go on a warmer day to see if my enthusiasm will be pulled up a notch.

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