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More Monuments About Canada and Polar Bears:

A Capital City’s 21st Century Landscape




            Since breaking ground in 2020, the redevelopment of Ottawa’s LeBreton Flats area sparked a reawakening and “tourism bananza" to the downtown area.[1] Among other neighbourhood amenities, anchors such as new libraries, museums, and sporting arenas revitalized the formerly contaminated industrious land. The development aimed to embody an identity for Canadian values through “creat(ing) a diverse series of experiences” and “enriching the social and cultural fabric of Canada’s capital.”[2] Built as part of the initial phase of construction a central pedestrian network, the Canadensis Walk connects the entirety of the new development. Canadensisis borne from Latin words meaning ‘indigenous to’ and ‘of Canada.’ Through discussions and consultations with various national First Nations communities, the question of showcasing a truthful and self-reflective Canadian identity became apparent. As the development saw the social embodiment of core Canadian values, little was attended to the visualization of the iconic natural world that citizens so closely associate with. Through ongoing effects of climate change the preceding decades saw a rapid deterioration of key environmental conditions and species extinctions. The decision was made to integrate a series of monuments into the overall fabric of the ongoing development that register a field of formal acknowledgements to lost Canadian natural phenomenon. The Promenade of Lost Monuments displays artifacts of flora, fauna are memorialized in experiential spaces reflective of their native habitats - the most recent addition being the site for the recently extinct polar bear. How might a critical and reflective cultural landscape integrate into a contemporary development?


Left: “Lumber District, Ottawa” Map, 1885.

Right: LeBreton Flats, residential community and rail yard, c. 1940.

            LeBreton Flats is sited west of Parliament Hill along the edge of the Ottawa River. The former neighbourhood area supported the 19th century forestry industry’s lumber yards, saw mills and paper mills. After government-forced relocation the neighbourhood was demolished in the 1960’s in favour for new federal building development. However, following disputes of land use and the presence of lingering soil contaminants the area sat vacant for over 40 years. The construction of the Canadian War Museum in 2005 instigated the beginnings of discussions toward a larger masterplan for LeBreton Flats. In December of 2015, the National Capital Commission accepted RFPs of schemes for redeveloping the area. 2020 saw the initial phase of construction occur. Canadensis Walk spans through the site, connecting the core anchor buildings through to the existing city fabric. 


            The Promenade of Lost Monuments was proposed as a direct superimposition onto the existing masterplan. A grid of individual monuments are interspersed into the site in a flippant fashion, unreflective and oppositional of the overarching design. The Promenade of Lost Monuments stems off of the core pathway of the development, expanding and extending the pedway landscape into the nooks and crannies between buildings and open spaces. Each monument creates their own specific environment. From the ground there is no visible logic to the layout of the monuments, their arbitrary placement seems clumsy and unorganized. Bernard Tschumi’s project in Paris, Parc de La Villette, embodied larger ideas of cinematic and systems onto an irregular shaped plot of park land. A network of sculptural nodes connect a wide expanse of landscape through formal and aesthetic continuities. However, Elizabeth K. Meyer explains that “La Villette’s systems say nothing about the site’s specifics: they are a neutral, universal idea, a diagram looking for a site.”[1] The new LeBreton monuments follow suit to this idea. The monuments embody losses of larger Canadian identities which are not only specific to Ottawa. Therefore, their overall organization does not need to blend into the development present at LeBreton, but instead formally oppose it. The inconvenient nature of their organization is implicit to the larger concept at hand. One is forced with a confrontation with the physical presence of the memorialized subject in unexpected locations. The monuments, fragmented along the Promenade, aim to evoke historical discovery and learning of past lost Canadiana identity.


            D.W. Meinig describes landscape as an artifact, a by-product of human activity. Here, “nature is fundamental only in a simple literal sense: nature provides a stage.”[2] It is not crucial to even attempt a reclamation of the site’s formerly contaminated soil. Sited next to a damed river, any future landscape act monuments become a constructed remembrance of former beings, on an entirely constructed site of which one can no longer know due to humanity’s role in changing global environments.


            The most recent addition to the Promenadeis the ‘Effigy of the Ursus maritimus,’ a monument of the extinction of the polar bear species. A single, full-scale, polar bear figurine stands at the surface of a climate controlled pool of water. Through winter months, the water will freeze over, allowing access from visitors to witness the polar bear up close. During summer, the ice thaws leaving the polar bear separated from the reaches of visitors to LeBreton Flats. As the climate continues to change and the summers will get longer, the icing-over cycles of the water pool will get successionally shorter, until the ice can no longer completely freeze over. This specific monument reflects a specific arctic environmental phenomenon. Just as the arctic sea ice is completely receding, the ability to reach the now extinct polar bear will shrink to nothing.


            LeBreton Flats is a site fraught with complexities of historical industrial infrastructures of railways and lumber mills, flanked by contemporary thoroughfares and residential communities. The future development will see a complete overtaking of the ground plane, from which new culturally significant buildings and spaces will become apparent. The historic identity of being Canadian, as conflicted as it is, must acknowledge the backs of the environments which were exploited in order to reach the current level of civility and progress. The Promenade of Lost Monuments acts as a fragmented register of these past memories. The constructed landscape of the development is layered over with an additive register of the past lingering into the future. The hope here is that through experiencing these monuments humanity might reflect on the environmental damages daily actions create, altering the global perception and endeavours to changing for the positive.


[1] “LeBreton proposal No. 2: The DCDLS Group.” Ottawa Sun. 26 Jan. 2016. Web.

[2] “LeBreton Flats: Formal negotiations to begin with RendezVous LeBreton Group.” National Capital Commission. Web.

[3] Elizabeth K. Meyer, “The Public Park as Avante Garde (Landscape) Architecture: A comparative Interpretation of Two Parisian Parks, Parc de la Villette (1983-1990) and Parc des Buttes Chaumont (1864-1867),”Landscape Journal Vol. 10-1. Spring 1991.

[4] D.W. Meinig, The Interpretation of Ordinary Landscapes: Geographical Essays.(Oxford University Press: 1979) 36.

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