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Canadian Urbanism Uncovered

The Gréber plan: A ghost of Ottawa past

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In the late-1940s, Ottawa was a vastly different place from the city we know today. In spite of being Canada’s capital for 80 years, the city was still relatively small (just over 270,000 people on both sides of the river) and retained much of its industrial roots—especially its position as an important centre for the logging industry—and maintained a haphazard collection of poorly-built “temporary” office buildings to house a civil service that exploded in numbers during the war.

Several plans had been prepared throughout the first half of the 20th century to beautify Ottawa, but all wound up falling by the wayside, due to the First World War, Great Depression, and changes in the winds of political favour. It wasn’t until 1950, after several years of study, that a plan that would ultimately lead to the transformation of Canada’s capital would appear: the Plan for the National Capital General Report, more commonly known as the Gréber plan, after its chief architect, Jacques Gréber.

Though Gréber, a Frenchman, was primarily known for his work in the classical Beaux Arts style, he was also clearly influenced by the modernist movement within urban planning, as pioneered by fellow Frenchman Le Corbusier and American planning czar Robert Moses. In their minds, the modern city should be defined by open spaces, monumental buildings, and above all else, wide, fast highways allowing drivers to whiz quickly across the city.

Of course, the post-war Ottawa conformed to none of these ideals. At the time, there were no modern highways, the city was a confusing jumble considered unfit for a national capital, and many of its most scenic aspects were dominated by railways, as in the photo at the top of this article.

As far as Gréber was concerned, the solution seemed obvious: Ottawa would need to thoroughly modernized, and would become more beautiful as a result. The city needed more parks, and industry would have to relocate to the edge of town. Rails would be torn up and replaced with shiny new boulevards, helping to form a vast new network of roadways in the capital. In fact, when browsing the photos of the model of the plan, it’s hard not to be impressed by the sheer scale of some of the proposed roadways, such as this shot, looking from modern-day Hurdman Park towards Parliament Hill. As is typical of the plan, there are wide boulevards lined (at a distance) by monumental buildings and memorials, with sweeping curves and gigantic roundabouts, looking less like a downtown core and more like a suburban office park.

Ultimately, of course, Gréber’s plan was only ever partially realized. While much of the green space he envisioned eventually materialized, and most of Ottawa’s downtown rail network was removed, other aspects of the plan (like his extensive highway network) remain incomplete to this day. Not that that’s necessarily a bad thing—few Ottawans today would be impressed with highways running along the current Nicolas Street and Preston Street alignments. In fact, the auto-centric nature of the plan makes it easy for modern urbanists to dismiss it with a condemning sneer, but the reality of the plan is a bit more complex.

In the light of our post-Jane Jacobs cities, it’s easy to see the Gréber plan’s shortcomings, but when you consider the fact that it’s very much a product of it’s time, it’s possible to realize some positives in Gréber’s thinking. The plan is actually quite complimentary towards Ottawa’s leafy and green downtown neighborhoods, and while the loss of rail infrastructure in the city core is certainly lamentable, Gréber clearly recognized that surface railway tracks are detrimental to the urban environment. Of course, the flip-side of this is the fact that he didn’t understand that highways could and would come to play the same role.

What’s also interesting about the plan is how much it romanticizes the national capital. Take, for example, this passage from opening of the history chapter :

“Capital of the largest country in the two Americas, Ottawa profiles, in sharp relief, against an azure sky, an imposing and sculptural outline of monuments, churches and dwellings that rise, tier upon tier, from the height of her hills. Unfolding before her, at the confluence of two rivers, is a landscape of unique charm in which the variety of aspects adds itself to the harmony of the vistas…”

Similarly poetic writing can be found scattered throughout the plan—clearly it was intended to be something more than just another dry planning document, it was meant as a vision.

Oft-criticized, perhaps the biggest failing of the Plan for the National Capital General Report is, quite simply, its lack of follow-up. In the nearly six decades since the plan’s release, the National Capital Region has done little more than drift along, vaguely adhering to its now outdated ideals. Maybe it’s time for someone to come up with a new vision for Ottawa-Gatineau, something based on modern concepts of urbanism and development that can take us into the 21st century.

In writing this article use was made of the excellent resources on the Gréber Report maintained by the  Department of Geography at Queen’s University, Kingston.



  1. I suppose its all in the Interpretation, to me What the Gréber plan offered was a tool to dictate and facilitate future growth and development within the capital, utilizing form that upon completion could have resembled more Haussmann/Howard than Corbusier/Moses. What Gréber had envisioned for Canada’s national capital as a fully functioning regionally planned Garden city (Howard) for beyond the greenbelt. While utilizing long straight grand boulevards lined with monumental architecture (Haussmann) within the greenbelt. To me Le Corbusier and Moses “car culture” planning techniques are what Ottawa succumbed to as a result of not sticking to the Gréber plan wholeheartedly.

  2. Gréber’s vision of Ottawa didn’t include anything like the elevated, limited access freeway that the Queensway became. If you look at the model and read the reports, you’ll see that he envisioned surface-level boulevards and parkways. Of course the Queensway is just as much a barrier between the neighborhoods to the north and south as the cross-town CNR tracks ever were.

    It wasn’t entirely Gréber’s doing that Ottawa lost its downtown passenger rail station, either. As late as 1958, plans still called for the retention of the downtown Union Station for at least twenty years (at which time it would be moved near the new freight yards at Walkley Road). Arguably, had the move out of downtown been delayed until the late seventies or early eighties, it might not have happened at all. CN certainly felt, as late as 1959, that it could compete with road and air travel between Ottawa and Montreal, at least, but only with a downtown Ottawa terminal.

    The earlier move of the station out of downtown—and the compromise new location in Alta Vista—was for one reason only: to save money on Queensway construction. Had the station remained downtown, the Queensway would have needed a costly overpass over the tracks where the Nicholas Street offramp is located today.

    Moving the freight yards out of downtown was the right thing to do, and even the railways were happy to move out of their cramped, old facilities. Moving the passenger station out of downtown remains the worst planning mistake Ottawa ever suffered. But then, in the 1950s and 60s, nobody believed intercity rail had a future anyway.

  3. Rick: I think that’s a fair interpretation, as well. To me, I see a lot of Moses\Le Corbusier influence modified by Greber’s own Beaux Arts background. It’s details like the way he envisioned the area around modern-day Confederation Park and LeBreton Flats that really nail home the autocentric mentality of the time, in my mind.

    Andrew: You’re definitely correct on freight rail, I probably should have noted that that was generally a good move, and did a lot to improve many of Ottawa’s urban neighborhoods.

    With regards to passenger rail, I think Greber did intend to have it moved away from downtown as well. Take a look at this map of his proposed railway system (in French only, unfortunately):

    He’s moved all rail to what was then the urban fringes of Ottawa and Hull, and his proposed Union Station is arguably even more suburban than the one we have now! You’re right in that the way rail was moved out played out in a different manner than that proposed in the plan, but Greber definitely intended to move passenger rail to the outskirts.

  4. David: I should have been more precise in my remarks about the Union Station relocation. I have spent many hours in the NCC archives looking at the Gréber plan and its various maps (if they were available online in 2005, I didn’t know about it). I was well aware of the plan to build a new Union Station beside the new freight marshaling yards at Walkley Road, but it was definitely intended to be a late phase of the implementation of the plan.

    In Gréber’s defence, seen through the autocentric lens of the time, putting the intercity passenger station out by Walkley and Heron Road made perfect sense. After all, people were willing to drive even further from downtown to get to Uplands Airport. As long as there was plenty of parking at the train station, and good roads to link it to the rest of the urban area, what did it matter how far out it was? Pedestrians and transit users definitely did not fit into Gréber’s vision of the capital. And when the new passenger station
    at Alta Vista opened in 1966, it did indeed have large parking lots, very poor pedestrian access and poor transit connections. It wasn’t until two decades after the station opened that it finally got a good bus link to downtown with a station on the east extension of the Transitway from Hurdman to St. Laurent.

    Gréber didn’t think a downtown rail terminus was important for Ottawa, but CN president Donald Gordon did. In a June, 1959 meeting with senior federal government officials, Gordon stated that Ottawa was one of few places where the railway had a chance of competing with other modes—specifically with service to Montreal and Toronto—but that the competitive advantage would be lost without the ability to deliver railway passengers directly to a central point in Ottawa. He didn’t mention that CN owned the Chateau Laurier hotel, right across from Union Station, though I bet that was part of his calculation.

    The Treasury Board and the NCC didn’t care. Their priority at that point was the cost-efficient and speedy completion of the Queensway. Gréber may have provided the ammunition that killed Ottawa’s downtown passenger rail station, but it was the Treasury Board that pulled the trigger.

  5. An often overlooked report regarding the planning of Ottawa is Douglas H. Fullerton’s – How the Capital Should be Governed. Though I can not find a digitized copy online, Ottawa’s library possesses at least one copy of each volume. The second volume contains copies of all essential documents relating to the direction of the Capital over the years – acts, issued statements, reports, etc.

    Though Fullerton focuses mainly on the governance of Ottawa, I believe the issue of governance is one half to a larger whole, with the Greber report providing the foundation for the Planning half.

    Have these two works ever been considered together?

    If not, how can they be properly, dually considered? What should be taken into consideration? If these primary documents were widely re-considered, what later conversation would such a public discussion facilitate?

    Thanks, Greber. Thanks, Fullerton. Ottawa needs all the help it can get.

  6. Why do comments format so skinny? They are impossible to read.