Canada’s Only Good Boulevard

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Canadian cities fail miserably grandiose urban planning. Every single effort at creating a monumental boulevard has resulted in something mediocre. University Street in Toronto, which runs straight into the Ontario provincial parliament building, has a nice median and a good visual terminus, but it’s ruined by drab furnishings and even more banal buildings. Montreal’s René-Lévesque Boulevard starts nowhere in particular and ends nowhere in particular; although it passes by a number of great Modernist landmarks, like Place Ville-Marie, the CIBC Tower, Hydro-Quebec building and Maison Radio-Canada, it feels aimless and kind of pointless. Ottawa, the one city that could really use a boulevard or two, suffers from an ordinary provincial street grid that ignores the existence of the capital’s many important buildings.

The only example of a Canadian boulevard that really works, at least in my experience, is in Quebec City: Honoré-Mercier Avenue, formerly known as Dufferin Avenue (it was renamed in 1996, with Dufferin’s name given to an expressway, an exchange that brings to mind the renaming, in Montreal, of Dorchester Boulevard after René Lévesque and Dominion Square after Lord Dorchester). First planned in the late nineteenth century, after the construction of Quebec’s provincial legislature, it runs between the Mercier Monument and the edge of the hill separating Quebec’s upper and lower towns. What makes it so remarkable is that it opens up a spectacular vista of the suburbs and hills to the north of Quebec. Restrained street furniture keeps the view uncluttered. Walking down from the parliament, or from the narrow streets of either Old Quebec or Saint-Jean-Baptiste, it is breathtaking.

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This entry was written by Christopher DeWolf , posted on Wednesday June 11 2008at 10:06 pm , filed under Art and Design, Canada, Heritage and Preservation, Public Space and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink . Post a comment below or leave a trackback: Trackback URL.

2 Responses to “Canada’s Only Good Boulevard”

  • Ken Gildner says:

    Chris,

    Good post, but I feel as though I must make a point about Ottawa and its streets. There have been no fewer than four attempts to masterplan the Capital into some sort of “Washington of the North” — the Todd plan of 1903, the Holt Commission report of 1915, Noulan Couchon’s 1922 plan, and the famous Gréber Report of 1949 have all attempted to implant an aura of elegance into the city by replacing some of its streets with monumental boulevards.

    Gréber succeeded to a certain degree, transforming Elgin Street in the 1930s into a wide, tree-lined boulevard (at least for a few blocks) with a triangular terminus at the National War Memorial. This, however, came at the expense of the destruction of several blocks of traditional Ottawan construction.

    Wholesale replacement of streets fell out of vogue in the 1960s, when the NCC began to realize that the implementation of Gréber’s proposed Beaux-Arts-inspired boulevard system would cost the government millions of dollars. In the 1970s, the NCC succeeded in creating a ‘Confederation Boulevard’ by beautifying existing streets that loop around the Parliamentary Precinct and skirt into downtown Hull. Sidewalks on Wellington Street and Sussex Drive were widened, planted with maples, and street furniture, public art, and interpretive signage were added. On Sussex, the NCC saw to the wholesale revitalization of the streetscape, which dates back to the 1840s; back lots behind the previously-crumbling buildings were transformed into a series of connected pedestrian courtyards with outdoor patios and locally-commissioned statues.

    Confederation Boulevard, though not a boulevard in the true Parisian sense, remains one of the great walks in Canada, and is a fitting tribute to the urban form of Ottawa, which would have been spoiled had Todd’s City Beautiful vision or Gréber’s ‘City-as-a-Canvas’ ideal been realized.

    – Ken

  • Patrick Donovan says:

    Glad to see you post about Quebec City, but I can’t say I agree. My major beef with Honoré Mercier is that Quebec City does not need a 6-lane highway barreling through one of the most dense urban neighbourhoods on the continent. The unnecessary ramps zooming off towards Beauport are the last major obstacle to the regeneration of Saint Roch below. Removing them would improve the quality of life of everything around, and free up lots of land in the middle of the city centre to inject a bit of life into the city.

    They certainly used decent quality material for the street furnishings on Honoré Mercier, but I’m not sure about the “weed garden” concept for the median strip.

    There are also some major functionality issues if you’re trying to cross from east to west on some of the minor streets.

    What about McGill College Avenue in Montreal? That’s a nice boulevard – the mountain on one end and Ville-Marie on the other…