SAVING the Eastern Ontario look As new development rolls through the region, a group of planners is documenting the special places, landscapes and buildings that make Eastern Ontario unique — and worth protecting
Don’t it always seem to go That you don’t know what you’ve got Till it’s gone They paved paradise And put up a parking lot — Big Yellow Taxi,
The Rideau Canal, Almonte’s main street, the farms of Prescott-Russell, even the relatively new Nortel campus, are all places that help define Eastern Ontario. But as growing cities continue to plough under the countryside, a fear is growing that these elemental places may be lost or disfigured by the onrush of development.
So how do we preserve these places? One first step is being taken by 16 members of the Eastern Ontario chapter of the Ontario Professional Planners Institute. They are compiling an inventory of buildings and landscapes, rural and urban, that captures what is special about Eastern Ontario. These volunteers believe that being able to articulate why these places have value is a first step toward preserving them.
The Eastern Ontario Visual Character Project identifies key features under the headings of natural areas and waterways, agricultural landscapes, special places, military places, main streets, scenic routes, and architecture.
The group warns that the region’s unique landscapes and character could be altered utterly if inappropriate and unchecked development continues to gobble farm fields and intrude upon historic towns.
“It boils down to this,” they write. “If the visual environment is deteriorating, how much are we, as planners and society, willing to accept?”
Already, large swaths of countryside look like giant suburbs and palatial summer homes are invading cottage country.
“There is a rich character to Eastern Ontario that sets it apart from other districts in Ontario and Canada,” says Donald Morse, chairman of the institute’s Eastern Ontario chapter and a City of Ottawa planner.
“Let’s document what we have that’s really good here and what will be missing if we jeopardize those things. The intention is to help raise awareness about visual character and to engage in a dialogue about the importance of creating a design culture in Eastern Ontario.”
The visual character project encompasses a wide variety of places, including the Opeongo Line with its ghost towns and pioneer log fences, the Larose Forest (the second largest manmade forest in North America and home to a moose herd) and Kingston’s Royal Military College.
It ranges from the stone bridge in Pakenham to the University of Ottawa campus, and the Frontenac Arch, evocatively described as “rolling, heavily forested landscape with lakes, swamps, bogs, rock ridges and barrens ... small pockets of productive farm land ... vacant dairy barns, stone houses, old farmhouses.”
Louise Sweet-Lindsay, a City of Ottawa planner who is part of the project team, notes the diversity of landscapes compared to other parts of the province.
“We have very good agricultural land, Canadian Shield rock outcroppings, rolling hills, significant wooded areas and many lakes and rivers,” she says. Proximity to Quebec has added French culture to the mix, while the three major waterways, the St. Lawrence, the Ottawa River, and the Rideau Canal, help tell the area’s history.
Eastern Ontario, adds Mr. Morse, is a “quieter place” in which to live.
“People are generally happy to be here and seldom restless to leave,” he says. “We have the best of both worlds. We are part of a modern, connected society yet we are able to live in any way imaginable,” including in a village, a farmhouse, by the water, or in a city.
The group presented the project recently at a planning workshop in Gananoque. It aims to make images and information available on the Internet by the end of the year. The material is meant for planners, urban designers, municipalities and the public.
Doug Thompson, Osgoode ward councillor and vice chairman of Ottawa’s agriculture and rural affairs committee, says the inventory reflects concerns of rural residents.
“We want to keep the areas outside of the villages in their own rural character. How long we’ll be be able to continue that I don’t know,” he says. “A lot of the big developers are buying up land along Bank Street between Mitch Owens Drive and Leitrim expecting that in 15 years the residential explosion will continue from( Osgoode) to Greely.”
Meanwhile, rural tourism is thriving, he says, with city dwellers flocking to country fairs, farmers’ markets and farms offering maple syrup and berry picking.
“The rural character is a huge sell, especially for Chinese and Japanese tourists,” he adds. “They want to come out and enjoy the land and the trees. We have seven forests within the rural area of Ottawa. That’s sort of unheard of.”
Project participants fanned out across the region last fall photographing the distinctive and prized. None brought back images of big-box malls. Instead, they photographed the traditional main streets of Merrickville, Vankleek Hill, Almonte and Kingston and the Glebe, where continuous two- and threestorey buildings close to the street provide a mix of uses to serve the local community.
Mr. Morse says that main streets are among Eastern Ontario’s best features. “They have survived relatively intact and function pretty well,” he says. “But there are signs of deterioration.
“A lot of modern businesses are not finding a place in our main streets,” he says. “They’re not revitalizing that older fabric and they suck a lot of energy from the main street. The (building) fabric they create in those new areas isn’t very good. It isn’t very pedestrianfriendly, it’s car-oriented.”
The provincial Ministry of Municipal Affairs used to fund main street improvements.
“You could get $750,000 or $2 million from the province and you’d get Hydro to chip in half a million or a million to bury the wires. This is how the streetscape improvements were done along Montreal Road in Vanier.
“That doesn’t happen anymore,” he says. “If you don’t invest, what signals are you sending?”
The sale of marginal agricultural land for estate lots (typically half an acre to 10 acres and used for a single large house) presents another issue.
“Farming small parcels is not economic and there are no incentives or tax breaks like in the United States to encourage landowners to keep their lands natural,” says Ms. Sweet-Lindsay. “So, one of the easiest and best returns for these lands is to subdivide it into estate lots. It’s a real dilemma.”
Mr. Thompson, who has nothing against estate lots, adds “the developers can’t develop them fast enough. There is a huge demand.”
Urban guru Richard Florida has spoken of the potential for a renaissance of small towns and villages in Canada as city houses become increasingly expensive.
Manotick is a case in point. It could expand, and planned to do so in keeping with its established patterns. But, instead, large-scale development risks absorbing Manotick into the expanding suburbia of Ottawa.
“We do have some very good, very interesting rural villages; the core of Manotick is one of them,” says Mr. Morse. “We have to ask ourselves, is the new development plugging in to that? Is it extending that good stuff, or is it doing something else?
“There’s this view that the city should expand outwards like a water spill,” he says. “That scares the hell out of the rural people. We could certainly do it in a much more contextual way. Why can’t we do finger development out along rail corridors and start new villages along the way?"
What the visual character inventory brings to these debates is the ability to view proposals for individual sites in the context of larger patterns of rural or urban development.
Looked at in isolation, the construction of a subdivision or shopping centre may seem a reasonable use of a given piece of land. However, if understood within a larger landscape, then a big box store or suburb dominating the view would appear out of place. New houses or stores developed elsewhere, in a form sympathetic to context, could reinforce visual character. For example, a new winery would be a plus on the Prince Edward County Taste Trail but could blight another setting.
Increasingly, the term cultural landscape is used in preservation. UNESCO’s world heritage committee, which last year designated the Rideau Canal as a world heritage site, defines cultural landscapes as distinct geographical areas or properties representing the combined work of nature and of man.
Buildings can be preserved as heritage. Nature can be protected in federal and provincial parks. But what of livedin places, like the Lake Country (Golden Lake, Cranberry Lake, Mink Lake, Buck Lake) or the Franco-Ontarian towns of Alfred and L’Orignal, which have history, beauty and ongoing economic life?
The Eastern Ontario group is not seeking UNESCO status for their list, but hope that a visual character inventory can help to clarify issues for future planning. Without awareness of the big picture, important elements risk being lost.
“It’s important to invest in the areas you like,” says Mr. Morse Among the planners’ suggestions: Preserve Class 1 agricultural land to meet expected increases in demand for fuel and energy products such as ethanol.
Put marginal farmland to better use than estate lot development.
Develop new villages connected by a district-wide transit system
Encourage reforestation and alternate forms of agriculture.
Expand trails, pathways and corridors for recreational use, protection and appreciation.