Ottawa looks more like Europe

My first backpacking trip to Europe, back in the dark ages – 1970’s – discovered that everything you want to see is always covered in scaffolding if its a building; or out for restoration if it is a famous artwork.

It took some time to realize that because stuff in Europe is older, it needs repair more often.

Like, continuously.

Living in 1960’s Canada  Ottawa  Nepean, most things were new. New schools. New underpasses. New roads. New houses. New freeways. Old things were mostly thrown away. 1940’s and 50’s houses along Greenbank Road were demolished to make way for subdivisions by Minto and Campeau.

City planners condemned older city homes to commercial conversion or slow demolition if they escaped bulldozer urban renewal. Residential streets became commuter roads, because that was the cheapest way to service the ‘burbs.

Even the things that looked old were often not that old, for example, the “gothic” Parliament Buildings.

So now I am older. And so is everything around me.


Buildings that went up in my living memory are now requiring huge rebuilding or refurbishment. Like Place Bell, where the reno seems never ending.  If it is around as long as the Pantheon, we will see scaffolding again. And again. The Metcalfe St east side sidewalk will only ever be seen again by archaeologists of a future civilization.

The previously mentioned Transitway overpasses, just recently built according to my memory, are past their expiry date and being demolished. Will the replacements last longer?

Some of this is cheap design, since our political system rewards New and Shiny, and doesn’t penalize Cheap and Shoddy or Short lived. What if politician’s and civil servant pensions varied with the quality and longevity of their projects? Or engineering consultants had a long tail responsibility…  [there are mechanisms to do this used successfully around the world, but ideologically they aren’t terribly popular in Canada, at least amongst my neighbours]

Some of this short-lived-ism is because of our mania for not tying ongoing maintenance to capital costs. For example, the roads dept gets many roads and streets free (developers are required to supply them as a condition of building something), they often get increased road allowances without buying the land, and they don’t depreciate them properly and openly, so they are allowed to deteriorate. In hopes that some other level of government, like a passing sucker (hello Wynn, and T2) can be convinced to pony up the money to cover deferred maintenance.

And we need the denser old city development to cover the cost of replacing the too-short-lived suburban greenfield infrastructure that is lasting 30-50 years instead of a century or two. Consider the Merivale strip … or Nepean as a whole … it had to be subsidized to be built, and is unlikely to ever pay its way. There is too much infrastructure per acre and not enough stuff to tax.

Most suburbs are like the kid in the basement that won’t move out.

My neighbourhood still has brick arch sewers from the 1800’s and the city didn’t replace them when replumbing our area because they couldn’t duplicate their quality and longevity with today’s pipes. I am proud my sewers are 130 years old. Solid as a brick sh- house.

Or, sometimes we even deliberately engage in short term building. Like a certain iconic Wellington Street building, undergoing much work, which was similarly done 20 years ago. It seems our starchitect spec’d 3 metals to meet … setting up a galvanic reaction … that corrodes the joint … necessitating expensive repair … with the same 3 incompatible materials … because it’s heritage now and can’t be changed … so we can do it all over again.

Or the city piously telling water customers we will face large bill increases to replace crumbling concrete sewers and drains. Much of the corrosion comes from salt. Salt, put down on our roads, because it is the cheapest (short term) measure for the roads dept, which isn’t responsible for the “external cost” of destroying the sewers. What if the sewer damage cost and rebuilding cost was put on the roads dept? Mighten they then decide to consider the costs of their actions? There are LOTS of things to do to avoid salt damage to sewers, but no incentive to actually do them.

Acquaintances better learned than I pointed out the difference between the transitway trench, which is constantly flaking off pieces, so much that the new LRT reno is covering more of the rock cut with concrete … Compare that to the OTrain Trillium trench, which doesn’t get sprayed with salt all winter and shows the original drill marks on it from 1962.

When council decides on a road transit system back in the 70’s did they consider only the initial capital cost of construction and skip the bit about salting the road and the consequences of that on the bridges and stations? Would it have been cheaper, over 20,40, or 60 years, to have gone to unsalted rail first?

Would a long term solution gotten the then-mayor re-elected?

Why will the Confederation Line platforms have salt-free maintenance, but the Trillium Line stations get caked in the stuff? Who is responsible for each line gives you the answer.

Military procurement is the only area I am aware of that gets huge headlines and scrutiny, a sort of financial shock and awe when trying to count the zeros in those big numbers. In part, this is because their buys include operating, training, and repair costs over half a century or more.

I wish we had more of those numbers for our urban infrastructure, and some mechanism forcing the cities to account for lifetime costs. Maybe then, we wouldn’t be so eager to accept free roads and streets from developers out in the greenfield edges of suburbia.

Or build grand new things anywhere with no revenue plan to pay for their maintenance and replacement.

Alas, our municipal  generally accepted accounting  procedures would make Bernie Madoff proud.

Nor, if we did accounting better, would we be fretting about closing schools in one area while suffering overcrowding in another. While we offer incentives/subsidies to elderly singles or couples to continue occupying 4 bedroom homes while there is an affordable housing shortage.

Or protecting old neighbourhoods suitable for an earlier age, built for a much smaller city, from ever changing to reflect current needs of anyone except the very affluent who can buy, demolish, and build anew on lots whose value is held artificially low by zoning rules.

Rant over. Now, where’s my beer?


6 thoughts on “Ottawa looks more like Europe

  1. Thinking and planning for the greater good is to hard for the suit people and they get nothing in return but plotting on how to get money from unsuspecting citizens over and over however is easier and also makes it possible to line their pockets with gold more often. Marcel Courchesne for Prime Minister of Canada.

  2. Salt Damage Buffs may want check this out:,4680903&hl=en
    That parking garage was less than 15 (FIFTEEN!!) years old when
    it had to be closed for extensive (expensive) repairs.

    The Transitway Trench ™ along Scott Street, opened 1984,
    needed $1.4 million in rock & concrete repair in 1994.
    After only 10 (TEN!!) years of “service.”

    In 1994, seeing this expense for the Transitway, I asked
    the CP Rail maintenance guy how often they had had to
    clean up rock falls in what we now call the O-Train trench,
    built circa 1964.

    His reply:

    Salt – The gift God gave to (the repair) man.

  3. Ever thought of writing an op-ed for the local press? They might like this cleverly written and factual article… And politicians might actually see it and briefly chock on the dessert, or ‘miss-type’ doing an e-mail.

  4. Three scary words that should make every homeowner (and taxpayer) shudder in fright: “Built to code”. Three more: “Built to spec”. The lowest bidder on any project should be run out of town.

  5. Very nice rant. Keep them coming.

    Part of the problem is that so much of our infrastructure now is rushed through planning in order to take advantage of money offered from other levels of government. For example take a look at the list of projects just announced by the city. Most of them aren’t even required such as a $1.5M crew rest area at Bayview when the public washrooms are only (!) supposed to cost $1M. How much gold is going into that! (Sorry, my mini-rant is over.)

    If the city is rushing through a list of projects to quickly take advantage of money offered by the federal government they are barely able to select the projects let alone price out the lifetime costs.

    I would love to see not only the projects costs out with maintenance included but have the city budgets set aside money for the estimated replacement costs. Every building or piece of infrastructure is going to need to be replaced at some time. It would be better if the city had the money saved up for that replacement (or major refurbishment work) rather than borrow it or trying to find it in the budget. Money not spent on interest is money that can be spent on services or used to reduce taxes. It’d be going back to only doing what you can afford and we’d be saving up for the projects that we know are coming up.

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