The City as Machine or the City as Citizen

Parisian public enjoying a Unesco World Heritage Site

If I was still a city councilor and traveling around Europe ‘au frais de la princess’ (at public expense), I would be with a group of other city officials and we would be earnestly studying ‘best practices’. In Sweden, we would be looking at the ‘waste treatment and heating systems’  In Amsterdam, it would be bicycle transportation. In Bordeaux, it would be their new surface rail.

It’s the city as machine approach to running a city. Find out who does what best (best practices) and then come home with a recommendation to copy it. This is how change usually happens. Innovation rarely happens by invention, it is transmitted mostly by imitation. People have run cities this way from the beginning of time. The phonetic alphabet was invented in a couple of small Sumerian cities in modern day Iraq and within a couple of generations, the concept of the phonetic alphabet had spread to Egypt and throughout the eastern Mediterranean.

We see exactly the same thing happening today with something as mundane city bicycle rentals. It began in Lyon and a year later was adopted by Paris and within a few more just about every city in Europe was rushing to bring in their own versions. But I’m no longer a city councilor and no one is paying for my travel time but me. I don’t have to rush back to Ottawa on a red-eye flight and write a report up on the ‘best practices’ of Stockholm, Barcelona or Bordeaux.

I’m just hanging out in cities, going where I want, when I want, talking to who I want: Buskers in the subway, the guys cleaning and sweeping the streets, a young mother diapering her baby on a park bench. It’s not the travel of ‘best practices’, but it is how a city lives and breathes. And it’s a very different place from the city as machine vision that I spent so many years fighting at Ottawa City Hall.

For most city councilors managing a city is an accounting exercise. “How do I keep the ‘machine’ of the city going for the cheapest, possible price?’ Will a bicycle reduce my transportation costs? And if so how and by how much? Everything is always reduced to an accounting exercise. When I was fighting the Lansdowne Park conversion to a mall, I was told over and over again, “Clive, don’t talk about civic values or heritage or grass versus a parking lot, talk about costs – that’s what council and people care about.

But when I travel in European cities, what I see is all the physical stuff is quite similar from Istanbul to Paris. Some cities have slightly better water treatment systems than others, some have better bus service or rail and so on, but what really varies from the Canadian scene is the vision of a the city as citizen. You see this in Paris in spades.

At Paris city hall, you can pick up brochures on free legal advice, summer in the city for seniors, sports in the city for the young. Paris City Hall funds 50 student/municipal projects. In Ottawa, it took more than 10 years of city hall opposing students request for a universal transit pass before a temporary one was approved. The oldest, most photographed and most important part of the city is something that was built back in 1833. It’s a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The heart of Paris, the Seine is also a UNESCO World Heritage Site, but what an exceptional difference in the way the citizens of Paris approached their world heritage site and the way Ottawa has. Paris city hall is now in the process like Ottawa is of redeveloping the banks of their most important and famous site, the river banks of the Seine. Their redevelopment features nine different projects – all public – and the purpose of which is to better integrate the pedestrian uses and the park spaces with the river.

The Tuileries, a park about the size of Lansdowne Park is now cut off from the Seine by a broad and busy highway. The project will integrate the park with the Seine by taking part of it right down to the river’s edge. The roadway is going to be reduced in size. In Paris, the public space beside the Seine is going to be increased to improve the local and tourist access to and use of the banks of the Seine.  Compare this to what is happening in Ottawa where the public space of Lansdowne is being dramatically reduced through a conversion to consumer and private use.

How do you account for such a dramatic difference between the two capital cities? I don’t think you will find the answer in ‘best practices’. They do it differently in Paris because Parisians see their city as something more than a collection of functions harnessed to credit and debit columns. They see Paris as their home and they want their home to be beautiful and comfortable as possible.

From Paris to Barcelona, Berlin to Copenhagen, you will find one common threat that unites all these cities and it won’t be the ‘best practices’ machinery of running the city.  It will be civic pride. It will be the sense of being a Berliner, a Barcelonan, a Parisian. There is a stone in front of Paris City Hall which is engraved with a message from Charles DeGaulle.  The General want it recorded in stone that no one liberated Paris including his troops. The Parisians liberated themselves with their own blood, and though that’s not a best practice anyone can record and take home for their city council to copy with a new by-law, it’s no less real.

photo by Mathieu Marquer


  1. Clive,

    Give it a rest.  It’s over.  Get over it. Move on.

    I don’t like what’s happened with Lansdowne either but I have to accept the will of city councillors, courts, environment committee, and most citizens.  

    Time to find your next battle.

  2. I take Clive’s point about Lansdowne, specifically as far as the importance of the Rideau Canal as a UNESCO site. But here’s what gets me: Why are we approaching the Rideau Canal as a UNESCO site only as it surrounds Lansdowne? I mean, the Canal stretches along 8 kilometers of the Ottawa core that could be far more lively than it actually is. Save for Le Cafe and the Ritz, there aren’t any restaurants along there. It’s a blank slate, viable for programming (aside from the work of the NCC) and retail.

    I agree that the way that Lansdowne has been treated is unfortunate, but I think we need to start considering other possible public spaces…

  3. Give it a rest Doucet,  You suffered a humiliating election defeat.  Your vision is not the vision of Ottawa residents.

  4. Pretty narrow vision of urban planning being expressed in the article. The theory may be sound, but Mr. Doucet needs to recognize there are different visions of how that theory can be translated into practice.
    Arguably the new urban park at Lansdowne is exactly the same kind of integration of new public spaces into the canal that Mr. Doucet is suggesting. Unfortunately his opposition to the private component of the development leaves him incapable of recognizing any of the merits of the plan. This type of rigid adherence to a narrow vision of city planning results in an inability to recognize other interests and compromise on any points. Ultimately, it also results in an inability to get these types of projects off the ground.
    While this description of the urban utopia of Paris sounds compelling, I find it quite trite. I’d be much more interested to read about the specific types of compromises that were required in order to get the Paris projects to the construction stage.

  5. The difference between Ottawa and Paris can be seen by comparing the Lansdowne development with Les Halles. Les Halles needed private money, but they put the commercial side Underground, out of sight but easily accessible. They left the surface as a park for everyone and kept the magnificant view of St Eustache (without moving it!). This is the type of creative thinking that Ottawa’s present council and their developers lack.

  6. “Humiliating” is the wrong word for what happened. It was a defeat, to be sure, but it wasn’t a humiliation. Mr. Doucet fought for his causes as best he could, for the way of thinking he considers best for Ottawa. Many of those who voted for other candidates likely still consider Doucet’s opinions worth hearing out in any case.

    Telling him to be silent because he didn’t get the mayor’s chair and chain in the election is less than useless. It interferes with the process of debate, and that debate doesn’t stop between elections. All you need to do is see what goes on in regular council sessions to realize that.

    As for the proposed “Lansdowne Mall” of OSEG’s plans? That’s a duplication of services already on offer along the whole of Bank Street.

  7. Kaitlin hit it on the head. We live in a city with 3 rivers yet there are so few options to enjoy the riverside views. Yes, meandering bike paths are nice but how about more waterside destinations. Pubs with lawns that go to the river edge or more places to sit by the river…especially the Rideau…nothing there at all. It’s a real shame. On the other hand, even at the stinky worst time, the smell of urine does not permeate ones nostrils as it does when you get near the Seine. Public urination is one thing we don’t need to bring over from Paris.

  8. I appreciate Clive Doucet’s love for cities, but I have a few problems with this post. I think it’s wrong to imply that Ottawa’s approach is wrong and Paris’ approach is right. Why do we need to replicate what Paris is doing? What makes an approach right is what the people and the leaders they elect choose for the city they call home. I also think it’s wrong to point to one project in one city in the entire world to build a case that Ottawa is making a mistake with Lansdowne.

    Second, I think it’s ridiculous that Clive Doucet still refers to the retail component at Lansdowne as a mall when that issue was put to rest at the last council meeting. That manipulation of facts is getting old now.

    Lastly, Ottawa is different from many cities in North America because it’s a hybrid of European and North American culture. There seem to be a lot of people that want to make Ottawa into Paris or Copenhagen Junior ignoring its North American culture (similarly people who want to make Ottawa into New York Junior ignoring its European culture). Ottawa will never be a carbon copy of Paris nor will it be a carbon copy of New York.

  9. I think Clive is right – Ottawans do view their public spaces with a lot of practicality (in $ and cents) and do not use a lot of imagination. Even compared to other Canadian cities (never mind Europe and the US), we seem to seriously to lack vision. Read the recent Op-Eds in the Citizen on this topic. Perhaps we need to be more open to ideas about improving our city, rather than just getting on the defensive… Ottawa has some great aspects to be sure. But vision for our use and development of space is not one of them, sadly.

  10. I’ve seen how important UNESCO World Heritage Site designations are to European and Turkish cities.  They are considered gold.  If a municipality is lucky enough to have a site of this quality, even small towns invest millions in preparing the site for the tourists the designation inevitably brings.  I’ve just been to Perigord quite a small city in a rural area of France. They have just the basement outline of a large Roman villa that has received a UNESCO World heritage designation.  

    The city hired one of France’s most expensive and best known architects to create a building to cover the entire site which as luck would have it was on city park land – so there was no need to buy it.  The idea that the city would give parkland on or directly adjacent to a UNESCO World Heritage site wouldn’t even occur to developers in Europe.  It would seem like a ludicrous waste, that is one of the points I was making in the Spacing essay.

    A point I wasn’t making because it never occurred to me for a second is this: Since when did standing up for cherished values regardless of the circumstances or outcome become humiliating? 



  11. There’s nothing humiliating about it.  What’s embarrassing is that one all-mighty council controls the form and function of its city when not a single member of the council has the background for making such decisions nor the impetus to care about anything happening outside their own ward.  None have any training in planning, urbanism or architecture whatsoever.  Mr.Doucet, at the time of the lansdowne debacle, was the only councilor with such a background.  Elected councilors are more likely to be salesmen(& women) than visionaries, elected in large part by suburban citizens who’ve lost sight of urban issues.  Many have accused Mr.Doucet of just such short-sighted political jockeying and NIMBYism but anyone with a clue about CITY-building could see that he was protesting on behalf of the entire city.

    Is there any wonder the early lansdowne votes were split precisely with urban wards against and suburban wards in favor?  Like too many issues…

    Yes, its over indeed.  But elsewhere in the city, other urban wards are realizing that if they want change in their environment its up to the citizens to fight for it.  After decades of decline, the first-ring suburbs which surround the core (such as hintonburg/westboro) are going from NIMBY to YIMBI and leading the way to seeing the city as citizen.  The young and old alike who’ve spent the last 20+ years in the suburbs are returning to the city to bolster their ranks.  They’ll bring with them a passion for their environment, or a strong aversion to environmental deprivation.

  12. Elie – 86% of Ottawa voters rejected Clive Doucet’s platform.  Not much else needs to be said.  Clear, many urban dwellers also rejected vision.

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