Skip to content

Canadian Urbanism Uncovered

A daytime date with Mr. Dark

Read more articles by

Courtyard behind Sussex Drive
Courtyard behind Sussex Drive

When you’re getting to know someone you think might have prospects it often a good idea to spend some sunshine hours with them before moving on to dinner and a movie and whatever might come next. Going for a walk can be a great strategy. Let them choose the route, maybe end up somewhere for a coffee, and spend a while with them where you can get a sense of who they are before there are any expectations.

One person we thought Ottawa needs to go on a daytime stroll with and get to know of a little better is George Dark, chair of the Strategic Design Review and Advisory Panel. That’s the panel charged with making sure the design of the new Lansdowne will do Ottawa proud. How important is that? Well, some argue that Lansdowne Live might be the biggest city-building project we’ve seen in decades. So this thing we’ve started with George might be very serious, indeed. But beyond getting paid for it, we wondered — why should a Toronto landscape architect care what a long-neglected site 400 kilometers away from his office really ends up looking like? Why should we trust him to care about us?

Well, George was in town exactly one week ago to be introduced to the local media along with his co-panelists, and given that he’ll likely be spending a lot of time in committee rooms over the next few months poring over documents and diagrams, we wanted to get in that afternoon stroll sooner rather than later.

So we asked him to describe for us what he likes about Ottawa right now. Favourite places, favourite spaces; you can tell a lot about a person that way. It can be a trust-building exercise.

With no further ado then, selections from Mr. Dark’s commentary on his Ottawa “happy places”:

George  likes:

  • Elgin Street, top to bottom , which he says is a “ceremonial mixed use neighborhood” and “a bit gritty, a bit tough, but very real”.  He likes it so well that he always stays on Cooper Street just off the middle stretch of Elgin, even if Cooper itself is a “very strange street of face-to-face slabs”; an apt way to describe the apartment hotels that crowd those blocks near City Hall.
  • “You can’t beat the Market/Sussesx Drive/Major’s Hill Park district” George maintains, and one of his very favourite spots within it is the courtyard slot of housing just east of Sussex across from the U.S. embassy.
  • The Plaza bridge especially “the hole in the middle of it that drops down to the canal”
  • The Garden of the Provinces at the far west end of Sparks Street

That brings George close to the escarpment area he has also been engaged to plan for, on a completely separate project. This is where we started to realize that George really is no tourist. He knows this city, and near this neglected corner, usually only glimpsed as a break in the trees as transitway climbs Nanny Goat Hill, his plan is to create a proper urban park in the area north of LaBreton flats close to Bronson Avenue.

It’s an appropriate time for George to point out that:

you can count the parks the city has downtown on the fingers of one hand.  There should be many more – that is why creating the central park in the escarpment district is so critical as so many people live in downtown. It’s a good thing the feds built and maintain a lot of open space, because Ottawa lives on the back of the federal landscape — the canals, the river, the parkways. I am always taken by all the jogging biking and blading and skating going on. There is a lot of generosity of space but civically, less so. Ottawa needs to understand and deliver Urban Parks which are much more complex than grass, trees and sports.

We couldn’t agree more. As much as we all enjoy the vistas and greenery along Ottawa’s recreational pathways, when it comes to civic amenities such as parks and squares that function as places to bring people together, Ottawa has a real deficit. Clearly, George sees that as a problem. It will be fascinating to see what that knowledge will bring to his vision for a site like Lansdowne.

And if you missed it last week, check out George’s thoughts as he fleshed out some of that vision for Maria Cook in a recent Citizen post; her interview with co-panelist Rick Haldenby is well worth your time as well.

photo by Dick Penn