HIGHWAYS TO BOULEVARDS BLOG: King Edward Avenue, Ottawa

This post is a part of CNU’s Highways to Boulevards Blog series, which features interview summaries and insights from some of the best minds at the frontline of our Highways to Boulevards Initiative.

The following post was written by Marc Aubin, a sixth-generation resident of Lowertown, former chair of the King Edward Avenue Task Force and current president of the Lowertown Community Association. Read our previous entry on the Overtown Expressway in Miami.

If the residents of Lowertown, in Canada’s capital of Ottawa, had their way, and they almost did, then King Edward Avenue would once again be a worker’s paradise. This six to eight-lane “stub” of a highway has been the focal point of a major urban blunder in the centre of Ottawa for half a century. It’s not a highway. It’s not a boulevard. It really is a roadway trapped in limbo and waiting for new urbanism to bring back the glory of its old urbanism.

A Worker's Paradise Lost

Lowertown was always the poorest half of Canada’s capital. One of its two founding neighbourhoods in the mid-1800’s, it became home to the city’s earliest working-class families – Irish Catholic and French-Canadians.

The wealthier half of the city – Uppertown – was populated by Protestants of mostly English and Scottish origin. This was the bi-ethnic nature of Canada up until very recently – the Protestant English and the Catholic French (and Catholic Irish) struggling to get along. Ethnically, the capital city was a mirror of this greater national partnership between two European peoples.

Lowertown, in the late 1800’s, was a neighbourhood of predominantly wooden buildings and not more than 2-3 storeys and was towered over by its many Catholic churches, convents and other religious institutions. Early images show a city that seemed almost medieval. This sense of a medieval presence was emphasized even more by the fact that the Parliament buildings and most institutional buildings of the time were built in Gothic style architecture.

 Rideau Falls, Ottawa, ON, 1869, McCord Museum

Ottawa as a lumber town

 House of Parliament, Ottawa, ON, ca. 1878, McCord Museum 

House of Parliament, Ottawa : Gothic Revival

After Queen Victoria chose this sleepy lumber town as the national capital in the later 1800’s, it began to take on a more civilized and park-like look. An early national capital planning organization called the Ottawa Improvement Commission set about, like many North American cities, to beautify the cityscape. Trees, gardens, boulevards, roundabouts, fountains, and many other pleasant treatments were applied by the inspiring landscape architects of the time.

 Parliament Buildings from Major’s Hill Park, Mikan # 3319517, Library and Archives Canada    City of Ottawa Archives

Beautification efforts including fountains, parks, planted boulevards       Bywash, King Edward Avenue

Lowertown’s King Edward Avenue was an example of a street in great need of beautification. When building the Rideau Canal in Ottawa, now a world UNESCO heritage site, a smaller overflow canal was built through the Lowertown and down the middle of King Edward Avenue. As a consequence, the street was designed much wider than most streets in the neighbourhood. This mini-canal – called the Bywash – was covered up in the later 1800’s.

By the early 20th century, the Ottawa Improvement Commission had come on the scene and King Edward Avenue was one of it’s first and most significant projects. Two rows of American Elm trees – a popular choice at the time – were planted down the middle and rows on each side of the street as well.

Fast forward a generation, and King Edward Avenue had become a green canopy that inspired generations of Lowertown’s humble residents. This crown of trees led to the reference, many years later, of Lowertown as being a worker’s paradise. To the present day, people still speak of the beauty, the tranquility and the sense of community that defined Lowertown’s King Edward Avenue and the neighbourhood. But these things could not be measured by engineers – only by the human heart and, perhaps, by new urbanism.

Bywash buried and trees planted on King Edward, ca. 1900

 Library and Archives Canada

King Edward Avenue, looking south from Guigues Street, 1938

 Library and Archives Canada

King Edward Avenue, looking north from Rideau Street, 1938

Urban "Beautifcation"

In the mid-20th century, as transportation engineers were in ascendance, the emphasis on urban beautification as the key to a good urban life quickly vanished. Automobiles, progress, and engineering became paramount. Ottawa was caught up in the highway-building and urban renewal fever of the 1950’s and 60’s. A freeway system was planned for the city and part of it included levelling a large part of Lowertown and building a sunken freeway parallel to King Edward Avenue. It also included whole-sale expropriation and demolition of a large portion of the community and replacing it with social housing.

 National Capital Commission)

Planning freeways for Ottawa

Unlike the U.S., Canada’s highway system was never as fully realized. While a strong network was built, the infiltration into urban cores never reached the destructive levels witnessed in many U.S. cities. In Canada, funding was not tied to the gas tax and the federal government never took a significant role in highway building, besides the Trans-Canada Highway. While federal funding for urban freeways in the U.S. likely promoted the destruction of many urban landscapes, the lack of such funding in Canada likely led to the floundering of such intrusive plans. The U.S. was often ahead of the curve in areas such as highway building and urban renewal, but this also often meant that Canada had the privilege of learning from mistakes made by U.S. planners.

Fighting Back

By the late 60’s and early 70’s, the planning mandarins in Ottawa were facing a backlash. Newly elected mayor, Lorry Greenberg, referred to the planners at the city as the “technocrats” – void of any sense of human scale and relationships. Together with other progressive members of city council, politicians and citizens fought back against the machine of destructive urban highway and renewal schemes. This was prompted by communities, like Lowertown, that were fighting back.

The King Edward expressway was a victim of this urban backlash and was never fully completed. Nevertheless, in 1965, a large highway bridge – the Macdonald-Cartier – was built at the north end of Lowertown. The bridge connected to a newly constructed Autoroute 5 on the Hull (Gatineau), Province of Quebec, side of the bridge. Single-commuter car traffic poured into the city of Ottawa.

While the sunken freeway through Lowertown was never built, the planners did find a temporary alternative. King Edward Avenue, with its now towering and magnificent trees, planted over a half-century before, was widened from 4 to as many as 8 lanes. To the sheer horror of residents, the trees were all cut down. According to research conducted years later by Professor Joanna Dean of Carleton University, 50% of the neighbourhood’s tree cover was destroyed.

 Marcil Champlain Collection, Quebec Archives

Cutting down the elms on King Edward Avenue

Since the late 1960’s, King Edward Avenue and adjoining downtown streets, including the Rideau Street business district, have remained a dysfunctional and embarrassing urban problem. As the years have passed, more misguided decisions were made that led to this corridor being the main inter-provincial truck route between both provinces in this region. Each day, 3,000 trucks, along with 50,000 cars use King Edward Avenue. All this despite the fact that it remains a primarily residential city street.

 Marc Aubin)The consequences of this temporary solution are stark. In the past decade, eight people have died and several involved trucks and pedestrians. Prime property has sat vacant for the last two decades. Heritage buildings are rotting on other blocks. A former school and community centre have become home to the most troubled of the homeless in the capital. Where there were once trees, there is now a sea of cars, trucks and buses.

The re-engineering of King Edward Avenue stands as one of the single greatest urban planning mistakes ever made in Canada’s capital and it remains a lightning rod of controversy. It inspired the founding of a grass-roots group, the King Edward Avenue Task Force, in 1986. Since that time, this group has pushed for an ultimate solution to this urban road lost in a limbo between highway and boulevard.

Unfortunately, the traffic and transportation engineers continue to have an undue and damaging influence at city hall. Their solution? Build another urban highway in the east end of the city. No one really believes that the current technocrats would ever restore the King Edward boulevard. They will want to avoid the harsh truth that it was a mistake. They would never accept that the solutions offered by the highway tear-down movement are viable.

Renewed Interest in King Edward Avenue

In the early 2000’s, after a significant fight from the residential and business community, the City was ordered by a provincial oversight body – the Ontario Municipal Board – to renew King Edward Avenue. Transportation planners took a beautification plan that had previously been approved and adjusted it to protect all the highway characteristics of the street. This ensured that traffic speeds increased significantly above the posted speed limits, highway ramps and turn-lanes were plenty, and that there would be limited pedestrian crossings.

At the time, the King Edward Avenue Task Force had done research on road diets and was encouraged by the work of academics Cairns, Klauss, and Goodwin on the concept of induced travel demand. These researchers were in the early movement that recognized removing lanes from highways and other streets could lead to a net reduction in overall traffic and not result in the catastrophic network failures always predicted by traffic planners. While engineers and planners were not convinced by the Task Force, a promise was made by the municipal politicians at the time that a study of the idea of a road diet would take place.

Later, in 2006, during major construction on King Edward Avenue, the street was reduced from 6 to 4 lanes along a large stretch. The initial outcome was traffic chaos, including back-ups and long waits for commuters. Within several weeks, the traffic patterns had readjusted to the new capacity and was back to its previous flow. The street remained 4 lanes over the course of two years. The Task Force finally had real-world evidence of the presence of induced traffic – the idea that removing lanes could lead to overall reductions and redistribution of traffic.

The reduction in lanes in 2006 and subsequent impact on traffic were enough to convince the city council of the time. A study to examine the impacts of reducing King Edward Avenue – a road diet – from 6 to 4 lanes was requested. The technocrats at the city were incensed and undertook to quietly stop the study from ever going ahead. In a highly publicized and impressive coup, the King Edward community and local councillor were able to bring these same civil servants to task a year later and city council ordered them to do the study a second time.

 Ottawa Citizen, Aug. 21, 2008

City transportation planners tried to kill the study 

Following these events, a reputable local consulting firm was hired to undertake an unbiased and fresh look at the idea of lane reductions on King Edward Avenue. After two years of consultation, analysis, and meetings with community stakeholders and city officials, the study’s authors concluded that reducing lanes on King Edward Avenue would have no significant impacts on the transportation network in the city’s downtown. Quite the opposite – it concluded that there would be positive impacts on the quality of life in the local community in terms of green space, safety, etc.

The City’s transportation planners were incensed once again. In sheer arrogance, they postponed release of a public report until a newly elected city council came to power. This new council was not as well informed on the issue or transportation. The very highest levels of power at the city intervened at the behest of the city’s internal transportation planners. Many councillors demonstrated complete confusion about the whole affair while others, including the local councillor representing Lowertown, said they needed to listen to the “experts” at the city (i.e. the transportation planners). By this point, no one seemed to think that the independent conclusions from outside consultants had any merit.

Watch King Edward Avenue 4 Lane Options Video

In a last minute attempt to save years of work and goodwill from the community, the King Edward Avenue Task Force presented a compromise. Instead of spending significant amounts of money reducing King Edward Avenue to four lanes, an interim step (a pilot project) could be undertaken whereby there would be 24-hour parking instituted to eliminate the two outer lanes on King Edward Avenue. Although the compromise was put forward by two veteran councillors, it was surprisingly voted down. To this day, the strange circumstances that led to this turn of events continue to perplex many proponents of the values of new urbanism in Ottawa.

The dream – a restored urban boulevard on King Edward Avenue – continues to inspire the people of Lowertown. A website dedicated to the story of this urban street can be found at www.kingedwardavenue.com.

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