Our built heritage – the cultural institutions that house our democracy, our collections of art or our history – is part of our culture. We need to conserve, restore and respect these places, because our built environment is the place we learn about our past, forge our sense of community, and give hope to our future.
The federal government, for its part, has been keen to invest in sustainable infrastructure. Recent budgets, as well as the Investing in Canada program, have devoted billions of dollars in funding toward projects that “support Canada’s ongoing transition to a clean growth economy” to help it meet its net-zero emissions target by 2050. But respecting heritage and prioritizing the environment are not contradictory aims: In 2018, the National Trust for Historic Preservation published a life-cycle analysis, which proved that the most sustainable building is the one that already exists.
It’s surprising, then, that Public Services and Procurement Canada (PSPC) is determined to demolish the Alexandra Bridge, announcing plans to replace it with a new vehicle crossing.
The Alexandra Bridge, now in its 12th decade, was once the longest bridge of its kind in Canada, and one of its most prominent; it was designated as a National Historic Site by the Canadian Society for Civil Engineering in 1995. Used for rail traffic for half its life, it was converted to carry cars as part of the mid-20th century removal of rail traffic from downtown Ottawa. Today, it carries less than 10 per cent of the vehicle traffic crossing the Ottawa River, but is the most heavily used pedestrian and cyclist river crossing in the area.
Interestingly, an internet search for images of Ottawa River bridges calls up numerous and iconic images of the Alexandra Bridge, the Prince of Wales Bridge, and Chaudière Bridge. All are similar steel-truss bridges built before 1920, reflecting our industrial heritage. These crossings have survived and continue to be used and loved. They are integral parts of our cultural heritage, provide some of the best views of the city, and they deserve respect, conservation and care.
Current public engagement on this process doesn’t disclose the rationale for the decision to scrap it, and there has been little to no public information about the process by which it was determined that replacement is the only option. Instead, the National Capital Commission (NCC) has simply declared that the bridge is at the end of its service life. This, despite the fact that we know that bridges can last for centuries, with its life span affected ultimately by how well it is designed, maintained and cared for, along with the type of traffic it carries; consider the iconic Golden Gate Bridge, which is nearly as old, but suffers from no debate about its replacement.
Demolishing the Alexandra Bridge would put millions of tonnes of steel and concrete to waste. Replacing the bridge with a new structure in the same location would be a prohibitive, unbudgeted expense. It would take years, disrupt traffic in the core of the city, affect the views locals and tourists cherish, and erase the sense of history overlooking the Rideau Canal, National Gallery of Canada and Museum of History.
There is a better way. In November, the NCC put forward a bold vision for public transit by proposing tram lines that would connect Ottawa and Gatineau, crossing the Ottawa River west of downtown and ending at Elgin Street, creating an enormous public benefit in the National Capital Region. Such a decarbonized transit vision would advance federal government goals for infrastructure spending, climate action, and support provincial and municipal objectives. While today, a view of Canada’s Parliament is typically obscured by tour buses and gridlocked traffic, and there are no cycling lanes and few public places, a tram line would clear car and bus traffic from Wellington Street, create a sustainable transportation route, improve public safety in front of some of the most secure offices in Canada, and bring a boost to tourism and the city’s social objectives. Conserving the Alexandra Bridge so that it was an integral part of this tram line would represent positive action on climate change.
We need to make an investment in sustainable and active transportation that reduces landfill waste and conserves the millions of tonnes of carbon dioxide that are embedded in the concrete and steel. That this can also show respect for our heritage and the innovative work of our predecessors is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.
Linking bridges with sustainable transportation creates a network of conserved, respected, heritage structures that would show that Canada is serious about climate change. The Alexandra Bridge can be adapted to modern light rail transit needs and enhance cycling and pedestrian crossings. As the most immediately threatened crossing, the Alexandra Bridge deserves immediate action.
Yes, it may be a lot of work. But by channelling the same spirit of innovation that led to the original design and construction of this bridge, we can come up with creative, 21st century solutions. Can its immediate threatened condition be alleviated by removing cars from the bridge altogether? The immediate effect would be increased safety for pedestrians and cyclists, while that marginal traffic load is shifted to adjacent crossings.
A new crossing will likely cost hundreds of millions of dollars. It makes little sense to tear down a heritage structure just to replace it and bring more traffic downtown. Recognizing and conserving our heritage sends the message that our built environment matters. Investing in sustainable transportation that enhances our quality of life is critical to achieving the social infrastructure we aspire to.
Toon Dreessen, OAA, FRAIC, is president of Ottawa-based architecture practice Architects DCA. He is past-president of the Ontario Association of Architects.