When it comes to identity, Ottawa, Ontario is still in the questioning phase. As the capital city of Canada, this once-small logging and lumber town must continuously stand up to the responsibility of being a fair, inclusive and even impressive representation of the entire country. Just like every city though, it is the setting for the unfolding lives of ordinary people, and is home to challenged social groups like recent immigrants and homeless people.

Current LeBreton flats site, sitting empty, Ottawa, Ontario

I was half-expecting these tensions to play out when I attended a recent open-house presenting design proposals for LeBreton Flats, a former industrial site on the Ottawa River that now sits empty. The event was organized by the National Capital Commission (NCC), a body responsible for a wide range of development, preservation, and programming designed to communicate the capital’s national significance to Canadians and visitors.

Sure enough, each of the three design proposals presented at the open-house contained a piece of Ottawa’s complex identity puzzle.

Homage tells the story of Ottawa the lumber town, paying tribute to the site’s industrial, pulp and paper past. The design brings back heritage streetcars, fixed to a short spur line that runs to a mysterious and symbolic lumber sculpture. The ground, which recalls the earlier street grid, is paved with cobblestones, and blocks of lumber serve as benches. Decidedly, historical, Homage nonetheless frees a small corner of downtown Ottawa to tell its own history, rather than the entire nation’s.

Open houses attendee looking at Pimisi Gateway design proposal, Ottawa, Ontario

Next came Pimisi Gateway, a tribute to the area’s aboriginal people. This design was inspired by a cultural symbol of the Algonquin nation, the American eel (or Kichisippi pimisi, as it is known in the Algonquian languages). Symbolic, rather than historical, Pimisi Gateway features extensive landscaping of the area to produce the most topographically intriguing of the designs. While the kids play in a long, winding eel-shaped sculpture, the adults can relax on one of the terraced landforms. For drivers entering Canada’s capital, this design reminds them that the country’s aboriginal people are at the heart of its founding mythology.

The final proposal, Capital Art-scape, is the story of Ottawa the contemporary city. This simple design, featuring art walls surrounding plazas with benches, is the most open-ended of the three. It presents an opportunity for creative place-making through art that is contemporary, personal and real, produced by the city’s own people. By rotating art exhibits, it is democracy in action. Here, ordinary Ottawans, unshackled from the city’s history, mythology, and civic duties, can tell their own story.

This simple concept spoke to me. But as one representative of the NCC pointed out, the design’s success depends on the community’s willingness to provide artwork and cultural events. Its own strength, in other words, made it a risk. But there was another concern in the room: wouldn’t a flat plaza of low-lying benches attract skateboarders and other unwanted groups, who could potentially occupy the space?

Model of Ottawa showing parliament buildings and nearby LeBreton Flats siteOttawa, Ontario

On the way out, I was still racking my brains to understand who had the authority to decide how public space ought to be used, and by whom. Eventually, it hit me that what was at stake here was not just competing designs for a public site, but competing narratives of a city and its people. Personal interest, moral values, diverging visions, and power would all compete for a piece of the city. In places like Ottawa, still questioning who, or what they are, this underscores the importance of planning as a public process that includes everybody. Even skateboarders.

What public (or private) spaces in your city tell a story about its people and identity? Who is included in those spaces and stories? Who is excluded?

Credits: Images by Nour Aoude. Data linked to sources.