U.S. urban strategist says Wellington Street should not be left open as a ‘commuter rat run’

Wellington Street sign

While conversations about the future of Wellington Street have been contentious around the city, one urban design strategist out of the U.S. argues that Ottawa would benefit more if the street were closed to traffic and re-designed as an extension of Parliament Hill. 

Andy Clark, director of strategy at Massachusetts-based Toole Design, delivered a keynote speech Wednesday evening at an event about reimagining Ottawa’s downtown core, organized by Ottawa Centre MP Yasir Naqvi and the Trans Canada Trail. 

In his address, Clark stressed the importance of recognizing and emphasizing a region’s most iconic cityscapes. 

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“The parliamentary precinct is an extraordinary place,” said Clark. “It’s a beautiful landscape with outstanding natural beauty. There are iconic buildings. It is the civic heart of the nation, a global capital in one of the G7 nations. And it’s the economic and social heart of a region that is thriving. That’s a lot of responsibility for a place, a relatively small place.”

As the primary buffer between Parliament Hill and the downtown core, Wellington Street, Clark argued, should be integrated into that iconography, rather than treated as a thoroughfare. 

“I have heard that Wellington Street is a critical street for through traffic in Ottawa,” said Clark. “If that is the case, I have to say, why? Why would you have your most iconic street, in front of your most important civic buildings in the nation, be a commuter rat run for people scurrying from one side of town to the other?”

The idea of closing Wellington Street to traffic, as Clark suggests, has proven controversial in local circles, especially among the city’s business leaders. 

The street was closed to vehicles for 15 months starting in January 2022, after the area was overrun for weeks by the “Freedom Convoy.” 

In April this year, the street reopened to traffic, but ideas about how it could be modified to improve safety, security and foot traffic have been floated across various levels of government. 

Among business leaders, the idea of closing the street permanently has been ill-received. In recent conversations with OBJ, several local businesspeople suggested that a hybrid model with widened sidewalks or reduced lanes would be more appropriate than blocking the street off to cars completely. 

Sparks Street, a pedestrianized stretch in the downtown core, is often cited as an example of why closing Wellington would fail. Storefronts along the pedestrian mall are increasingly empty and foot traffic has gone down, especially since the pandemic. 

In an interview with OBJ last month, Darren Fleming, CEO of Real Strategy Advisors, argued that Wellington Street would meet the same fate as Sparks if it were to close, while also deterring visitors from both sites. 

“Closing it would make crossing the city even more irritating and the last thing we want is to have people who want to come downtown to find it irritating,” he said. “You want people to be drawn downtown. We want to make it energized and fun and exciting.”

Clark said he doesn’t buy those arguments. 

“I have heard it said that people will be frustrated and confused if they are not able to use Wellington Street as a through street and will therefore be discouraged from visiting,” he said. “You can’t stop or park or do anything on Wellington Street except go somewhere else. Ottawa has 6,000 kilometres of street and this is about a kilometre-and-a-half. The city will survive without having it as a through street.”

He added that the problem with Sparks Street is not that it lacks vehicle traffic, but that it lacks economic diversity. Repurposing office space, introducing more mixed-use buildings, and building residential apartments are more appropriate ways to reanimate the area, Clark said. 

“Adding cars is not a way to animate streets,” he said. “It isn’t anywhere in the world and it won’t be here.”

If Ottawa decides to completely modify Wellington Street, it wouldn’t be the first major city to do so, Clark pointed out. 

The historic Grand-Place, or city square, in the heart of Brussels was open to car traffic well into the 1990s and has since transformed into a pedestrian plaza right outside the city hall. In Washington, D.C., Pennsylvania Avenue in front of the White House was closed in 1994 and has remained closed since as both a tourism and security measure. 

“All the arguments you see happening with Wellington happened 20 years earlier in Washington, D.C.,” said Clark. “People thought the sky was going to fall. Pennsylvania Avenue is a major corridor so this one connection was a major gap in the city’s street network.

“Within a matter of weeks, people adjusted,” he said. 

Other, similar changes have been made in D.C. near the Capitol Building, with more measures planned to increase security since the events of Jan. 6, 2021. It’s a situation similar to Wellington Street, Clark said, with governments here searching for ways to improve security after the convoy took over the area right in front of Parliament Hill.

“All over the world, security and emergency service access is only improved by restricting large vehicles and creating places that are made for people,” said Clark. “You’ve probably seen footage of crowds parting like the Red Sea to get out of the way of an ambulance. You can’t do that on a street with cars.”

During a panel discussion after Clark’s keynote presentation, Benjamin Gianni, an associate professor of architecture and urbanism at Carleton University, agreed that Wellington Street would benefit from pedestrianization. 

“I think we’re going to have a lot more people living downtown (in the coming years),” said Gianni. “It’s a transition period from a place where people work, to a place where people live. It’s going to take years but I’m optimistic about it.”

Gianni argued for reconceptualizing the street as an extension of Parliament Hill, potentially turning it into a plaza. Regardless, he said Wellington Street should not be considered a second Sparks Street. 

“If Wellington Street were primarily a plaza, it would have to be complementary to, as opposed to competing with, Sparks Street. I really see them being fundamentally different.”

The goal, he said, should be to turn Wellington Street into a “place” or a distinct destination, rather than a throughway. 

“From a design perspective, it’s challenging, but it’s a fantastic opportunity,” he said. “It can’t be simply a closed road. It has to be aspiring to something else. I think it needs to be a ceremonial extension of the central block, rather than trying to be a less successful Sparks Street.”

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