Two Cities and The Meaning of Life,
(an invited lecture given by Clive Doucet at Carleton University)
I was born in 1946, just as the war in Europe was ending and I grew up in the old city of Ottawa. What I mean by the old city of Ottawa is the same as the old city of Toronto, Montreal, Winnipeg, Philadelphia, Boston or Des Moines. Old Ottawa is template for the kind of city that we built all over North America prior to 1950.
You can draw a line down the twentieth century in the exact middle of it and on one side you have one kind of city and on the other another one. The post-1950 city has a different landscape, different housing, different housing lots, different shopping, different car storage, different culture, different politics from the pre-1950 one.
It’s taken me a long time to realize that not only was I born in the pre-1950 North American city but that I’ve never left it. Without even being aware of it, I have always lived in the pre-1950 city. This city was built around streetcar lines. I still live in this kind of city, a block away from Bronson Ave which used to have a streetcar line that ran from the city centre to Sunnyside, traversed Old Ottawa South, and then returned to the downtown on Bank St. making a long, neat rectangle.
In 1950, few people in Ottawa owned cars. Almost everyone lived a few minutes away from a streetcar line and when they weren’t on their feet, that’s the way city people moved around. My father walked down Bayswater to Sherwood Drive to Carling Ave. and caught the streetcar downtown. Streetcar service was built on a series of interconnecting grids that followed where people actually lived. People didn’t have to find a way to the streetcar line, the streetcar line came to them. It was called the ten minute pedestrian shed. (Streetcar riders should never be more than a 10 minute walk from a line.)
In the summer, if you wanted to go to the country in Ottawa, you caught the tram to Britannia Beach. It was a dedicated line and the tram old and ugly as it was, could travel the 18 kilometers to the beach faster in 1950 than you can today in a car from the city centre. I don’t mean to imply here that the day calendar switched from to 1950 to 51 that the city suddenly changed from one kind of city to the other, but that is when the change to a different kind of city began.
This actual conversion would take decades and it continues unabated to this day, but this long process started as soon as the resources were available after the Second War. During the 1950s, cities all over North America would begin to actively destroy the pre-1950 urban form by physically tearing down old style neighbourhoods as they did with LeBreton Flats in Ottawa, under investing in the pre-1950 neighbourhoods that were still standing, and ripping up the streetcar systems around which they were built and upon which they depended. This happened everywhere from Pacific to Atlantic, from Canada to Mexico City. Toronto and San Francisco were two of exceptions to this rule. San Francisco’s hilly geography made getting rid of them seem a little crazy even to the most dedicated post war modernist, and Toronto escaped through luck.
In 1971, Toronto was in the process of ripping up its extensive streetcar lines but as luck would have it the OPEC oil crisis hit and suddenly people in Toronto began to ask themselves: Why was City Hall destroying the only alternative the city had to the internal combustion engine? With oil prices doubling, it didn’t seem to make much sense and the SOS movement was born, Save Our Streetcars. Today the pre-1950 city of Toronto is remarkably lively and livable primarily because of that decision. Just four of Toronto’s streetcar lines carry more passengers than the province’s entire Go train system.
I’m sure it’s very hard for young folks like yourself to imagine the enormity of these changes because you’ve all grown up in the post 1950 city. It’s a bit like asking a fish to imagine a different kind of fishbowl, but here’s a little story that will give you an idea of the extent of the changes, that were social, psychological and cultural as well as physical. In 1953, when I was seven years old, we lived on Bayswater Avenue. Bayswater is a little residential street that connects Carling Avenue to Somerset Street, both of streets had robust and busy streetcar lines. One day, the family across from our hung a banner in their driveway, it said: ‘WELCOME HOME, DAD!’ The banner was blue and had balloons which tugged and floated in the breeze. This was really intriguing. Our mother never thought to hang a banner saying ‘welcome home to our Dad and he came home every day just like the man across the street. My sisters and I wondered what was up and we camped out on the front porch to find out.
All day long we waited and finally the man across the street came home. He came home in an enormous, baby blue Chevrolet with fins like wings on the back. This boat of a car took up their entire laneway from sidewalk to house. Within a very short time, my Dad had purchased a black Pontiac and we parked it in our little laneway across from the baby blue Chevrolet and that’s about all I noticed. But if I had been a little bit older I might have noticed that we weren’t the only ones on the street with a new car.
Just seven years later, the Ottawa began tearing up, the city’s entire streetcar system about 300 kilometers. This was seen as progress. The transit ridership collapsed and never really recovered in spite of billions invested in buses. At the same time, Ottawa tore up the city’s east/west heavy railway line, replacing it with eight lanes of highway. In the 1960s, this new city highway was called romantically the ‘Queensway’. It’s now called the 417 and the entire city depends on it.
The conversion of the city went into hyper drive. Developers, immediately, bought farmland at both ends of the 417 and along its entire length. From, 1960 on, all new city construction would be built around the 417. Within a few years 90 per cent of the new construction would be controlled by five developers. They would become very rich and very powerful.
In some parts of the city, you can still see the dividing line between the pre-1950 city and the post, but in most parts it has been gradually erased by demolitions and construction. In the west and east end, the malls, strip malls and arterials just kind of blend into what’s left of the pre-1950’s city. But in the south end, if you go to the bridge that spans the Rideau River in Old Ottawa South, you can still see the line separating the two cities as clear as bell. On the south side of the bridge, the first shopping centre in Ottawa was built. It was called Billings Bridge Shopping Centre (and still is) after the village which was demolished and a rather beautiful creek called Saw Mill which was buried to allow its construction.
If you stand in the middle of the bridge and look south across the river towards the shopping centre, you can see nothing but six lane arterials, a massive parking lot, the mall itself and few high rises dotting the edge of the Bank St. arterial before the tract housing begins. There’s nothing unusual about the view. This is the way the post 1950s city have been built everywhere. The same pattern is repeated from Denver to New Orleans, New Orleans to Edmonton.
But you’re not in Denver or Edmonton, you’re standing on a bridge crossing the Rideau River in Old Ottawa South. Now, turn 180 degrees from your view of Billings Bridge Shopping Centre and look north. You will see a completely differently landscape. The street you’re looking up has the same name, Bank Street as it does south of the Rideau River but it looks entirely different. It’s not six lanes wide and has not a single bleed-off or turning lane at the intersections. It’s a narrow commercial street lined with a wide variety of stores, restaurants, pubs. The intersections are right angled, square and small. There’s even an old fashioned a movie theatre from the 1930s which is now considered a heritage building. I can’t say the street looks particularly graceful, elegant or even chic. It looks kind of jumbled and crowded. The buildings are mostly old. The sidewalks are busy with pedestrians. The only parking is in the curb lane, leaving only two through lanes. There are no parking lots or none big enough to notice. Curiously, Bank Street, the surrounding neighborhood and shopping north of the Rideau River functions without the streetcars much the same way it did pre-1950 when streetcars rumbled up and down it.
You may be familiar with this story of the demise of the streetcar or its Boston, Winnipeg or wherever equivalent, but what people everywhere have trouble grasping is the massive consequences the loss of streetcar based cities had, not just for how we move around the city but how we work, live, govern ourselves and even imagine life itself to be possible; because most people now think it is only possible to live a mall based, parking lot and arterial road existence; that everything else is ‘boutique’ which is another way of saying ‘just not practical’.
Why all this matters is because of the sustainability issue, not that a pre-1950 city was perfectly sustainable. It was not but then no city ever has been. Cities from their first invention in Mesopotamia have been leaches on the landscape, sucking up clean water, sending back polluted water and depending on rural immigration to sustain their dense populations. But the post 1950, North American city has taken this sustainability problem to a new level. We now pave over entire townships and call this progress. We are told we need more of it. Yet, the costs of this kind of city are crippling city governments everywhere. One half of most city budgets are now dedicated to building roads and repairing them. In the city of Ottawa that’s more than a billion dollars every year and this doesn’t include private investment which runs at about 15,000 dollars per private parking space.
The ballooning cost of roads is the reason cities can no longer afford what was routine in the pre-1950 city, community centres, ‘free’ recreation services, affordable housing, libraries, swimming pools, ice rinks, generous parks and of course, city wide transit. The costs of air pollution resulting from the post 1950 city are impossible to document as they are so broad. The problem is simply too large and too diffuse to calculate. For example, one hundred year storms cost millions to clean up and are regarded as exceptional, that’s why they’re called a one hundred year storms – so they don’t count. But cities now routinely get a one hundred year storms two, three, sometimes four times a year depending where they are..
Culturally and politically, the old cities of Ontario and Canada generally have been drowned in a wave of cross cutting changes. The Harris government amalgamated all the pre-1950 parts of Ontario cities with the post 1950 cities. This has made it impossible for residents of the pre-1950 cities to protect themselves from what for them was an invasive culture.
In pre-1950s Ottawa, Mr. O’Brien, (the Mayor who destroyed the city’s award winning light rail project) would never have been elected, but he appealed to the post 1950s part of the amalgamated city which is now dominant. Nor would the pre-1950 city have lost its oldest and most important public space to a condo/mall development because the old city of Ottawa would not have elected a Mayor who supported this loss.
Pre-amalgamated Toronto, would never have elected a Mayor (Mr. Ford) who regarded surface streetcars as an unhealthy encumbrance to the successful operation of private vehicles. Vancouver is the only city in Canada that has seen a decline in car ownership, has built no new roads and has the most complex, broad ranging transit system in the country – everything from sky trains, to surface and sub surface trains to trolley cars, to buses, to pedestrian ferries. Vancouver could never have done this if it had been amalgamated with the post 1950 cities of Surry and Richmond. As in Toronto, Ottawa, Winnipeg et al. the majority population in the post 1950 cities now dictate what happens to the pre-1950 city.
I have dedicated my whole life to a simple proposition: Cities if they are to endure must grow within their means. This is the only way we can assure their prosperity, security and success for future generations. So far, it has been a losing proposition. More people used public transit per capita in 1960 Ottawa than they do today. I have lost just about every sustainability battle that I was ever engaged in –which brings me around, in a round about way to the meaning of life or at least my life.
End Part One
Two Cities and The Meaning of Life