For three weeks, trucks took over Wellington Street. The so-called “Freedom Convoy” used vehicles to occupy and dominate the symbolic heart of Ottawa.
Now that they’re gone, private vehicles should never come back. The thoroughfare in front of Parliament Hill ought to become a different kind of public space, one suited to celebration and protest, walking and rolling – but not transport trucks.
This is an idea that has been brewing for many years. Now, Wellington Street is closed to traffic, and Ottawa’s governments have the chance to rethink when and how it will reopen.
A local discussion is under way. The city councillor and declared mayoral candidate Catherine McKenney, who represents the downtown Somerset ward, has called for it to be largely or completely free of cars.
Ariel Troster, a Centretown resident who is running for Mx. McKenney’s seat on council, agrees. The “traumatic experience” of the protests may be unusual, she says, but the convoy’s use of trucks teaches an important lesson. “It’s a metaphor for the way people treat the downtown as a parking lot,” she says. “And that has to change.”
What should that change look like?
“Downtown would benefit from having a people-centred space,” suggests Ms. Troster. (Full disclosure: She and I are long-time friends.) “When we open the streets to people, we open up so many more possibilities than when we treat the downtown as mini-highways.”
This is the crucial insight that the convoy protest brought into sharp relief: Vehicles should be kept away from here, both for reasons of security and of place-making. The two objectives go together.
Right now, Wellington has five lanes for vehicles; a broad sidewalk on the north side, along Parliament; and a tight sidewalk on the south side. Combining all this space, and redesigning it to prioritize pedestrians and gatherings, would radically transform the experience of Parliament Hill.
Then there is the question of security. Five years ago, the Bank of Canada closed off its wonderful public atrium nearby, citing nebulous security concerns. Yet until recently, a terrorist could have driven a truck bomb down Wellington to the front door of the Prime Minister’s Office.
How did we get here? In the postwar years, much of central Ottawa was re-engineered for the car. Now the results are almost invisible. In recent years, local activists were angry that a modernist addition to the Château Laurier would damage the heritage landscape. Meanwhile the hotel’s front door overlooks seven lanes of belching traffic, and everyone takes it for granted.
The prominent urban designer George Dark agrees that it is time for change. “The lawn on Parliament Hill is Canada’s most important landscape: It invites the world to stand in front of our people’s house,” says Mr. Dark, a consultant with the firm Urban Strategies who has worked extensively in Ottawa. “You don’t need vehicles for that; you need feet.”
Mr. Dark (who led Ottawa’s Mid-Centretown Community Design Plan) argues that all of downtown’s one-way streets should be rearranged as two-way; Sparks Street should potentially be reopened to vehicles. As for Wellington, “I suspect you can push cars off the table,” he says. “Then the palette is open and you’re free to create another kind of civic space.”
There are multiple options. Wellington could be a narrow street open only to buses, or open to cars as well at certain times of the week. It could become part of a light-rail transit loop extending Gatineau’s new LRT into the capital, as some local officials have proposed.
In any case, the Parliamentary Precinct has already expanded well beyond Parliament Hill and continues to do so. The Block 2 project will remake nine buildings on Wellington into government office space and a new Indigenous centre.
Who will lead this work is an open question. It would be an ideal job for a chief architect of Canada, or of Ottawa, if there were such a job.
Giving Wellington more of a symbolic role would serve the integration of the city and the federal government – which Ms. Troster argues is long overdue. “Today, the places in downtown that are thriving are those that serve local people,” she says. “Making a more vibrant place for those who live here also serves those who visit. It’s good for the entire region.”
That means public space; space to cycle, walk and hang out; space to get a drink and a meal; and space to demonstrate at Parliament Hill. But cars and trucks should, even under normal circumstances, make way for different kinds of freedom.
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