Urban design: NCC to turn on the lights in bid to illuminate downtown landmarks

The Canadian Museum of Nature at night. Photo courtesy the National Capital Commission.

By Natalie Harmsen

The National Capital Commission has given the green light to a range of projects that will brighten Ottawa’s downtown core at night and attempt to put the city in the same league as Paris and other dramatically illuminated European capitals.

The NCC’s board of directors recently approved the final version of the “capital illumination plan.”

The plan will provide a 10-year framework for Ottawa to become a “city of lights,” by enhancing its night-scape through the aesthetic illumination of buildings, bridges and other landmarks. The plan, including public consultations, cost $227,000 to put together, the NCC says. The budget for implementing it will be “dealt with on a case by case basis.” The central aim, the commission says, is to improve the “visitor experience” of Canada’s capital.

But there are concerns about the potential ecological impact as expressed by groups  such as Safe Wings Ottawa, which aims to reduce bird mortality from window collisions. Safe Wings co-ordinator Anouk Hoedeman said she’s glad to see light pollution — excessive brightness in the night sky — is acknowledged as an issue in the plan, but added she wishes it was emphasized.

“When we talk about illuminating buildings, there’s a lot of things that are brought up in the plan that sort of go against trying to reduce light pollution,” she said.

Hoedeman says designated dark zones, which will be set in place to protect wildlife, are good measures.

“Light pollution is already quite an issue downtown, and it seems to be becoming more of a problem, because everyone is putting in energy efficient LED lights these days,” she said. “That’s why we believe Parliament Hill should not be illuminated because it’s a very important wildlife habitat.”

The Hill is situated on the south bank of the Ottawa River, which is home to more than 300 bird species, many of them migratory such as swallows and Chimney Swifts. The Lac-Deschênes-Ottawa River region is a designated Important Bird Area because it is a high-traffic waterfowl congregation site.

The dark zone for waterways in Centretown includes the Ottawa River and Rideau Canal, the NCC says. In these zones, there will be subtle, low-impact lighting that limits blue and ultraviolet wavelengths. Light beams will also point away from the water to avoid reflections.

“The environmental component of this plan is very high priority for us,” said Christopher Hoyt, a senior architect at the NCC. “Our first principle on this project is to adopt responsible environmental management practices, and to us that means night sky impact and reduction of energy use. We have a team mantra: light better, not more.”

Hoyt says the plan also intends to raise awareness about the impact of urban illumination on birds, and to reduce bird collisions with buildings and other structures.

The plan includes recommendations to turn off unnecessary indoor lighting in office buildings, particularly during bird migrations, the identification of dark zones, and “recommended illumination curfews for important buildings, such as those on Parliament Hill, so that lowering of intensity and lighting reductions begin around midnight.”

“The illumination plan is voluntary, so it’s a bit of a guideline,” Hodeman said. “Instead of reducing the overall amount of light, the LED lights are much more focused. I know about light pollution as it relates to birds and other wildlife, and that’s a concern.”

Strategic new lighting will start to showcase the city’s most iconic features, including the Parliament Buildings and the Rideau Canal, while de-emphasizing busy roadways among other things, which Hoyt says are often over-lit.

Confederation Boulevard — the ceremonial route through downtown Ottawa and Gatineau straddling the Ottawa River — the Canadian Museum of Nature and the Canadian Museum of History are among the landmarks to be highlighted under the plan.

Priority illuminations for the NCC in the next five years include lighting up Richmond Landing — a history-rich stretch of LeBreton Flats shoreline — Rideau Hall, Nepean Point (where the National Gallery and Champlain’s statue overlook the river), Confederation Park and the Sussex Courtyards, a series of enclosed spaces on the west side of the ByWard Market.

David Jeanes, president and chair of Heritage Ottawa, says he believes the plan will bring new life to historical monuments in the central part of the city.

“The lighting is namely to draw your attention to what’s already there,” he said.

Stakeholders consulted for the plan included the municipal governments of both Ottawa and Gatineau, Safe Wings Ottawa, Centretown-based eco-consultancy EnviroCentre Ottawa, and local Business Improvement Areas such as the Sparks Street Mall.

The NCC also held four public consultations to gather citizen input. These included an information session at the NCC’s urbanism lab and a stakeholder workshop to identify specific sites for illumination.

Last year, guided night walks were held for the public to exchange ideas and gather reactions.

Between June 22 and July 9, 197 people also participated in an online survey to provide feedback for the plan.

Hoyt said he’s excited to see how the lighting will improve the urban nightscape.

“In North America, we were kind of behind some of the European countries in the way we think about our nighttime environment, and so we’re looking to cities like Stockholm and others — Lyon, France — that really have focused on this since the early ’90s.”

“The nighttime environment here in the capital hasn’t had a lot of attention in the last decade probably, maybe longer. I know the NCC has been talking about doing a plan like this for at least 20 years,” he said.

Natalie Harmsen is a journalism student at Carleton University. A version of this story has appeared in Centretown News.

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