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February 2005 Issue

Capital Planning
Ottawa redefines its downtown.

By Frank Edgerton Martin

Capital Planning
Urban Strategies

Canadians like to say that Ottawa, their national capital, is located well north of the American border because Queen Victoria feared an invasion from the United States. Indeed, Canadian kids still learn in school that their ancestors defeated the United States when it invaded in the War of 1812. Today, the colossus to the south is perceived much more in terms of trade and popular culture, and Canadians take pride in their differences, both as a collection of languages and cultures and as a social democracy.

Canadian cities are also visibly different from their sprawling American cousins. Even though financially pressed, Vancouver, Toronto, and Montreal are living demonstrations of multimodal transit and the relatively dense development that it fosters. As the national capital, Ottawa is a surprisingly contradictory city: The gothic-style architecture of Parliament Hill is in the middle of what had been an industrial milling and shipping town before confederation. It is the home to Canadian federalism, yet—more than most of the country’s other cities—it is crisscrossed with arterials, truck routes, and a surprising lack of public open space in its commercial core.

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