Urban specialist says Lansdowne Park must be rescued 'from the clutches of mediocrity'

"This is your chance to really distinguish yourself with a civic asset. It's perfectly located. It's by the canal. It should be a really special place." George Dark (2010)

Following analysis of the City of Ottawa's ongoing negotiations to develop Lansdowne Park, researchers from Carleton University and Ottawa University conclude that the process is seriously flawed and likely to produce sub-optimal outcomes.

Two papers recently presented to the Canadian Political Science Association conference in Montreal identify a number of concerns relating to the process being used to reach decisions about the use of public space and methods of financing commercial development.

The paper by researchers at Ottawa University focuses on the financial arrangements and the adoption of a public private partnership (PPP) and highlights the contradictions that arise when trying to combine 1) a micro-level, private sector mindset geared toward short/medium term profitability with 2) a strategic perspective based on a macro-level, public sector concern for city-wide objectives and long-term societal benefits. In particular it raises a number of issues related to the arrangements proposed by the Lansdowne live proposals:

The Carleton professors, located in the School of Public Policy and Administration (the Centre for Urban Research and Education), examine the process being employed to develop Lansdowne and the roles adopted by the various actors. They conclude that the 'Lansdowne Live' process represents an unfortunate shift in city politics; a divisive form of politics that elevates short-term economic interests above all others in decisions about public space, dismisses the importance of due process and pits various communities against each other.

They question the appropriateness of the 'expedited' process on a number of grounds:

It is perplexing to that a municipality which is committed to substantive community engagement through its official and strategic plans, the Neighbourhood Planning Initiative and Integrated Community Sustainability Plan (ICSP) could adopt such an exclusive and corporate model for such an important public site and suggests that other factors are driving the process.

The paper also contends that it is astonishingly short-sighted and highly contradictory that the City is seriously proposing to locate a major event site far away from its proposed LRT route. This is especially troubling when one considers that all other Canadian cities with similar sized venues have located stadia adjacent to mass transit systems. In Lansdowne's case the land around the park will become increasingly populated and developed over the next few years and decades, adding to the already significant traffic congestion in the area and eroding the various parking sites now being considered within a mile or so of the site.

Common sense as well as sustainable planning logic presents a compelling case for locating the stadium close to where LRT will run. If Lansdowne is to be the chosen site for development then the City still has a chance to reconsider its LRT route.

As an unsolicited, sole sourced project it is impossible to meaningfully assess the merits of the OSEG proposal and so the paper remains focused on the paper for the most part. However, despite the best efforts of the developers, parts of the media, the Mayor and some councillors to talk up the merits of the 'Lansdowne Live' plan, this was quickly dismissed by George Dark — the renowned specialist in urban design invited by the Council to head the committee formed to oversee the Lansdowne plans and the competition to design the front lawn of the site. Soon after his appointment, Dark was asked for his views on the Lansdowne Live design plans and his comments were both candid and revealing:

"I didn't really think there was a design. I think there was a series of diagrams designed to back-stop a commercial discussion. It does not reflect the kind of hard, slogging, detailed evolution of ideas that is required for this site," Dark said. [He] told CBC News he wants to save Lansdowne Park from the clutches of mediocrity [and] saw little in the original concept for the park that excited him. (Mayes 2010)

In spite of ongoing efforts to improve the design plan, the fundamentals of this process remain flawed. Several councillors voting for the Lansdowne Live proposal expressed their dissatisfaction with the process but appear to support the proposal on the grounds that the ends justify the means: this view is short-sighted and in our opinion misses the real point of community engagement. Due process is now widely recognised in public policy and urban planning as a major factor in determining successful outcomes and is not something to be conveniently ignored by public officials when expedient to do so.

To conclude, the paper argues that it would be easy to see the events unfolding at Lansdowne Park as just another example in a long line of developments marking the 'tragedy of the commons'. However, given that all sides agree that this public space really is Ottawa's 'jewel in the crown' the decision to exploit it for commercial gain without even considering alternatives of what it could have been makes this an especially tragic episode for Canada's capital city, its citizens and future generations.

18 September 2009 — Return to cover.