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Canadian Urbanism Uncovered

Fish sewer grates in Ottawa

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While I was in Ottawa two weeks ago for the launch of our Spacing Ottawa blog I spent some time wandering around the Hintonburg neighbourhood (the site of our launch party and where I was staying). The area is undergoing streetscape improvements along Wellington St. and one of the features I quite enjoyed was the fish sewer grates. Spacing Ottawa editor Evan Thornton wrote a post about the sewer grates today and I thought it was worth sharing with Spacing Toronto readers.

Are the patterned openings to these storm sewer grates trying to tell us something? Some people look at them and see an odd jumble, others think a man’s necktie is being evoked for some strange reason, and still others see a fish in the middle of the pattern right away.

Of course, once the fish is pointed out, most people will see it that way from then on. Then the next mystery is why? Again, it’s a head-scratcher for some, while some intuit the reason right away. The fish symbol alerts us to the fact that however murky the flow of water below us might look through these grates, the ultimate point of outflow is directly into our rivers, either the Ottawa or the Rideau.

So the symbol is trying to tell us something. But does the City of Ottawa itself ever explain the meaning of its lovely fish grates?

Not according to Riverkeeper Meredith Brown, who works to educate governments and citizens about the ongoing threats to water quality in the Ottawa Valley watershed.

She says that unlike other cities in Canada who have signed up for the highly visible Yellowfish Road program, Ottawa largely leaves education around storm-sewer contamination to citizen-based NGOs like the Riverkeeper program, and lets its residents figure out the meaning of the decorated storm sewer drains for themselves.

The grates themselves are not cast especially for Ottawa, but are set design available to any municipality. However, storm drains and service covers are not treated as mere off-the-shelf items everywhere. In fact, many cities use them as locations for public art, as a dozen or more Flickr groups can show.


photo by Matthew Blackett