Skip to main content
opinion

Queen Elizabeth Driveway is a picturesque road that wends alongside the Rideau Canal through the heart of Canada’s capital. It is overseen by the National Capital Commission and, in the first year of the pandemic and each summer since, the road has been closed to car traffic.

The seasonal shift is a big success, drawing more than 100,000 people each year. But one prominent local is not a fan. Last week, Ottawa Mayor Mark Sutcliffe posted a video of himself on road and said closing it to cars is “punishing drivers in a way that creates very little benefit for anyone else.”

Mr. Sutcliffe’s view is too typical of past political leadership, where the top priority in cities was – and often remains – cars, cars, cars. The late Rob Ford’s campaign in Toronto against a perceived “war on cars” was an example. Mr. Sutcliffe’s view is likewise, that a seasonal closing of a single short stretch of road equals punishment for drivers.

Civic leaders need to shake off visions of speedy roadways and expand their view of cities to include vibrant pedestrian spaces, particularly waterfronts. The first pandemic summer in 2020 saw some progress in many cities, Ottawa among them. But others, like Toronto, have curtailed such changes, from closed roads to street patios.

This space in July advocated for bolder leadership, as we have in the past. The reason, as we wrote in July, is simple: vibrant public spaces make for a great city. And it doesn’t necessarily take a lot of money. The key, we argued, is city leaders have to embrace its value.

On Queen Elizabeth Driveway, how about turning the whole thing into a year-round Queen Elizabeth Park? Brandon Lind, an architect and urban designer in Ottawa, in July showed how eliminating cars from the federally owned land and road could transform the area alongside the canal into a green gem for the nation’s capital. Mr. Lind’s sketches included everything from playgrounds, courts for various sports and greenery, to a beach and pool area on Dow’s Lake.

Montreal is a leader in Canada for reimagining what a city can be. It’s been celebrated for dedicating Mont-Royal Avenue, normally busy with cars, to only pedestrians in summer – a pandemic change that’s endured. The popular initiative is one of 10 such closings in and around the city centre. Other good ideas, however, remain works in progress. In 2015, then-mayor Denis Coderre said, “Montreal is an island that has forgotten it is an island.” The plan was to improve access to the water. Since then, a small beach on the St. Lawrence River in Verdun was built for $7-million, but creating a place to swim in the Old Port hasn’t happened.

Quebec City last summer opened exactly such a facility, in the Louise Basin at the Port of Quebec. The $2.6-million project includes a place to swim laps or for fun. Billed as a first in North America, the Louise Basin swimming spot follows similar facilities in Europe, such as the harbour bath in the Danish city of Aarhus designed by star architect Bjarke Ingels.

It’s too often said urban design in Europe, whether for bikes or otherwise, simply won’t translate to North America. But that ignores the fact that vibrant public spaces in Europe didn’t emerge from nowhere. Amsterdam used to be clogged with cars. Paris in recent years has remade itself – including restricting cars from busy central streets such as Rue de Rivoli. It plans to overhaul the Champs Elysées and is also working on a series of public swimming areas in the Seine.

Some cities are going in the wrong direction. Vancouver, with a bounty of natural advantages, features a long seawall promenade and a network of bike lanes built since 2008. This year, however, the centre-right ABC party removed a bike lane from Stanley Park, and didn’t include a bike lane on Broadway as it is rebuilt with a new subway going in. ABC instead prioritized street parking.

Another message: every bit counts. In Toronto, which should push forward on a major new park along University Avenue, the small Love Park opened this summer near Lake Ontario and was immediately popular. The space was previously an offramp from the elevated Gardiner Expressway, which has long been a wall between the city and the lake.

Back in the capital, while the mayor advocates for cars, the city’s official plan, as of last year, sees something different: to lessen Queen Elizabeth Driveway’s use by car commuters to favour pedestrians and greenspaces.

That’s exactly the type of path civic leaders across Canada need to take.

Follow related authors and topics

Authors and topics you follow will be added to your personal news feed in Following.

Interact with The Globe