Re-Imagining Ottawa with Toon Dreessen: How do we build a great city?
For our first interview in our Re-Imagining Ottawa series, we talked to Toon Dreessen, president of the local firm Architects DCA about how to build a great city.
What does it mean to build a world-class city? How can Ottawa live up to its potential? We talked to Toon Dreessen, president of the local firm Architects DCA, and an outspoken member of the community about how to build a great city. We wanted to know what it’ll take to improve our city.
He has an idea that the city could be something more. What follows our conversation, which has been edited for length and clarity, where we talk about some of the issues about how things are built in this Ottawa.
Maybe the easiest question to start with is what got you interested in speaking out about city building?
What got me interested in this was the frustration of seeing things being done in a way that doesn't live up to their potential. So, we build a bike lane, but we don't put in a proper curb. We designed a beautiful building, but we don't maintain it properly.
The airport bridge was one of the first things that really got me irate, that we had this pedestrian bridge. We go through the effort of designing the bridge, and then we don't build it properly, and we don't manage the project properly. We're not honest with each other about how long something like this is gonna take or how complex something is. .
It's those bigger city building issues like LRT, or the library or Lansdowne or the ByWard Market. These are massive opportunities where we could really excel. But because we don't, because we choose not to, it always ends up being kind of meh. And it's fine, like, Lansdowne is fine. It's not great. It's fine.
It’s interesting you bring up Lansdowne, I moved away for a few years, and hadn’t been back to the park until after the redevelopment. I was underwhelmed that this massive project turned into a slightly different parking lot. I think like you say, that it’s emblematic of this city that it’s…fine. It’s functional, mostly, but there never seems to be that step beyond.
And I think that the challenge to that is when Lansdowne first opened someone said, ‘Well, it's better than it used to be.’ Well, yeah, how could it be worse than a chain link fence in a whole field of asphalt? But it isn't as good as it could have been. And the frustration is seeing these things and saying, well, the cheaper and easier thing to do is this. And so we cheap out.
The ByWard Market is the latest example. We could do an amazing design competition, we can have a really engaged process. Instead, we have this really narrow-focused mediocrity mindset to say we're only going to talk to people who are interested in the project, if you have the financial wherewithal to develop it. So community groups can't do it, Ottawa Community Housing can't do this. Nobody can contribute to this, and be part of the conversation.
It always seems like we have options, and then we limit ourselves because so often the city seems to favour those projects, like a P3 project, where money has to be made somewhere. So, eventually, the things that might be more beneficial to people get kind of chopped away until you get that sort of whittled-down project.
Yeah, and it's because we don't have a bold enough vision. I don't want to say that we shouldn't compromise and consult — we should — but I don't think we listen to the right voices.
Take Elgin Street as a good example. Public consultations were held people said, ‘Look, this is not a good design, the super sharrows in the street as a terrible design. We need to come up with something better.’ And the city said, ‘Very good point,’ then went away and did nothing with that. So as soon as Elgin Street reopens a cyclist is nearly killed. It's easy to say ‘I told you so,’ but now it's too late.
This was like a once-in-50-year opportunity and so we're stuck living with something lesser.
We don't think enough about how to design these things in a way that makes them last.
You’re part of a group of architects nationally who have put together a survey about what people across the country want to see out of a national policy. What do you hope to get out of the survey? What do you want to put in people's heads?
What we want to convey to people is recognition that architecture impacts their lives. We're all affected by architecture, whether it's your house, your street, your store, your community, you interact with architecture every day.
You're not just a passive user of the built environment, you don't look at it and then move on, you constantly interact with architecture. It matters, it has an impact on you.
If we want to have a positive effect on people's lives, we need to change the approach by which we're creating the built environment. We need to rethink our process of planning so that it works for people and isn't just driven by ‘Let’s build the cheapest, let's build the minimum.’
Earlier, you spoke about public consultation for Elgin Street and how none of that was taken seriously by the city and put into the final plan. How do we get public consultation to be more meaningful?
I think one approach is to be far more open-ended.
Arriving at a public consultation with beautiful design boards, drawings, illustrations and examples. Here's all the stuff you’ve done and you’re saying, ‘Here's what we did, tell us what you think.’ That sets up a performative kind of engagement, it's hard to engage.
So if you come to come to the table instead and say, ‘Tell me what you want, tell me what you're thinking.’ And then tease out those conversations to get to an understanding of what people need, what's important.
How do we change the mindset of not just the government, but the city as a whole to want something, not just okay, but good or even great? How do we get to that point?
Well, one part of that is to perform procurement. Edmonton has done a fantastic job of this, the process by which they hire professionals. Being open to ideas, and not limiting things through narrow RFPs.
Another part is having a better vision, having a goal. How do we link our ideas together? And how do we make sense of the ideas we have?
I think that's something we're really lacking. Part of that is, unfortunately, due to amalgamation, because of our political structure. We're so spread out, we're geographically so large, that it's tough to meet the expectations and needs of rural, suburban, and urban voters. We're all in this together. And we need that vision that's going to unite us and create that kind of vision for everybody.