Capital Design Guidelines


2.1 Picturesque Landscapes

The earliest plans for the Capital were influenced by the picturesque landscape movement. This style capitalizes on the unique place and setting of the landscape by emphasizing the duality and tensions between the “wild” landscape and the orderly arrangement of architecture and urban form.

Picturesque designs espouse this “wild” aesthetic, typified by rugged terrain, variety, irregularity, asymmetry and textures. When the built form is contrasted against this curated wilderness, it creates dramatic scenes, as though lifted from a painting. The synergy between the landscape and the built environment creates dynamic views and experiences, and the dramatic changes in elevation throughout the region enable humbling and awe-inspiring landscape vistas. All projects must play a part in maintaining and enhancing the Capital’s verdant landscape and preserve its natural features to reinforce the Capital’s identity and legacy.

  • 2.1.1

    Regional Character

    Evoke the unique regional character of the Capital through landscape designs that preserve and emphasize the region’s underlying landscape, rugged topography and local materials. Avoid commonplace or exotic landscape designs that do not reflect the character of the Capital.

  • 2.1.2


    Use vegetation to contrast and complement the architecture and to balance the built and natural environments with a juxtaposition of “wild” and “designed” forms.

  • 2.1.3

    Picturesque Landscapes

    Arrange and curate parks and greenspaces to preserve and enhance the rugged natural beauty of the Capital. Employ pleasing variety, irregularity and asymmetry, even where a manicured design may be appropriate in an urban context.

  • 2.1.4

    Vegetation Cover

    Prioritize layered vegetation communities with a mix of symbiotic plants (e.g. ground cover, understory and canopy species) and contribute to a variety of habitat typologies (e.g. aquatic, riparian, meadow and forest).

  • 2.1.5

    Hardy Planting

    Select plant materials suited to the region’s climatic conditions and provide year-round interest. Prioritize resilient native plant species, well adapted to climate change.

  • 2.1.6

    Perennial Displays

    Prioritize enduring perennial planting displays. Select vigorous and low-maintenance plant species that provide interesting sequences of visual effects throughout the changing seasons.

  • 2.1.7

    Ephemeral Plants

    Use flowering annual and ephemeral plantings strategically to complement perennial vegetation and beautify public spaces, while respecting the regional character.

  • 2.1.8


    Reserve turfgrass for areas where it provides recreational benefits, such as urban parks and leisure areas. Avoid the widespread use of turfgrass as a ground cover.

  • 2.1.9

    Invasive Species

    Eradicate and control the spread of invasive species. Select non-native plantings with care where their qualities permit better adaptation or suitability to site conditions.

  • 2.1.10

    Protection and Compensation

    Protect existing vegetation from injury or removal. Where vegetation must be removed, integrate new plantings proportional to loss of canopy cover, vegetation and ecosystem function.

  • 2.1.11

    Plant Diversity

    Plant a diversity of species. Avoid monocultures of cultivated varieties with limited genetic diversity.

  • 2.1.12

    Succession Planting

    Plant tree species of diverse ages to ensure the continuous renewal of tree cover. Employ successive understory and groundcover vegetation to contribute to four-season interest and biodiversity.

  • 2.1.13


    Provide the necessary elements for plantings to reach full maturity and thrive. Supply adequate space, soil, water, drainage and sun to provide the conditions for success.

  • 2.1.14


    Incorporate landscaping to achieve other objectives such as streetscaping, visual screening and stormwater management.

2.2 Public Spaces

A distinctive public realm includes meaningful parks and public spaces that reflect the dignity and symbolic importance of the Capital. These places include gathering spaces, parks, streets, squares and plazas that provide diverse opportunities to explore and experience the Capital.

Public spaces include both monumental, intentional gathering spaces, and intimate, fleeting and informal spaces that contribute to the day-to-day experience and enjoyment of residents and visitors alike. Designers should analyze user behaviour to understand patterns of use and the ways that physical space and social behaviour interact. The objective is to create spaces that provide diverse opportunities to linger, gather, converse and enjoy the Capital.

  • 2.2.1


    Design public spaces and outdoor areas around buildings to be purposeful public spaces, with richly detailed materials, patterns and forms. Avoid bland residual spaces without meaningful amenities or user experiences.

  • 2.2.2


    Create unique and memorable places, through distinctive designs that preserve and highlight iconic features and provide an engaging ambiance. Introduce whimsical, playful, or creative elements strategically to dramatic effect.

  • 2.2.3

    Focal Point

    Anchor public spaces with focal points (e.g. pavilions, fountains, public art or monuments) that create a point of interest within the space. Coordinate points of interest with views, alignments and adjacent site experiences.

  • 2.2.4

    Diverse Experiences

    Divide and arrange spaces through design and landscaping to offer a diversity of places and user amenities. Avoid expansive, unprogrammed areas without a distinct purpose.

  • 2.2.5

    Twenty-Four Hours

    Incorporate ways to experience places at all hours of the day and night. Use lighting, active street frontages, clear sight lines and other design tools to make spaces that extend when they can be enjoyed into the evening and nighttime.

  • 2.2.6

    Human Comfort

    Use landscape design and planting to create inviting public spaces that provide shade, wind protection and comfortable human environments.

  • 2.2.7

    Passive Spaces

    Create passive, contemplative spaces to linger and enjoy through amenities such as rest areas and observation points.

  • 2.2.8

    Complementary Amenities

    Design special amenities and services (e.g. play features, kiosks, or commercial services) to complement the setting and blend into the context through material choice, siting and proportion.

  • 2.2.9

    Programming and Events

    Design sites to accommodate programming and events without impacting the day-to-day use and enjoyment of parks and public spaces. Event spaces must be fit-for-purpose and designed to withstand the intensity and frequency of intended programming.

  • 2.2.10

    Design Detailing

    Carefully select and detail site elements (e.g. furnishings, pavements, walls) to be suited to and inspired by their context. Avoid using ubiquitous products (e.g. modular walls, chain-link fencing) that are not tailored to the locale or the Capital’s image.

  • 2.2.11


    Select noble, elegant and authentic landscape materials that will age gracefully and can withstand the seasonal conditions of the region.

  • 2.2.12


    Define public spaces with beautiful and durable paving materials that provide interesting patterns and motifs and reflect their importance and role within the public realm.

2.3 Landscape Furnishing and Features

Landscape furnishings and built features are often signature elements that impart a sense of character and provide important public amenities and functionality. Park benches, bollards, streetlamps, waste bins and bike racks all play an important role in addressing public needs and shaping the public spaces of the Capital.

The design and selection of landscape furnishings and features must be carefully undertaken to ensure that these elements contribute to the character and identity of the Capital and do not create unnecessary visual clutter. Designers should have a holistic view of the needs of a site to be able to integrate these features into a cohesive design without intrusive unconsidered elements. The objective is to provide durable, timeless, carefully designed functional elements that will make the Capital safe, livable and functional.

  • 2.3.1

    User Needs

    Select and design site furnishings and features to serve a wide variety of user needs and abilities.

  • 2.3.2

    Standardized Features

    Where standardized families of furnishings exist, use them consistently to preserve the local character. If no family exists, select and design furnishings to suit the context.

  • 2.3.3

    Custom Elements

    Add custom site features or specialty elements where required, to complement standardized families and enhance the character and setting of the space.

  • 2.3.4

    Form and Detail

    Provide furnishings and features (e.g. handrails, guard rails, fences) with beautiful forms and proportions that embody the dignity of the Capital. Avoid utilitarian features based on minimum technical requirements.

  • 2.3.5


    Select lighting fixtures based on their daytime aesthetics and nighttime ambiance. Avoid excessive lighting, up-lighting and spillover that create glare and limit nighttime visibility.

  • 2.3.6


    Create cohesive and integrated signage installations that address wayfinding, information and regulatory requirements. Avoid visual clutter and use design cues to reduce the need for signage.

  • 2.3.7

    Utilitarian Features

    Locate and integrate utilitarian features (e.g. grit-boxes, utility boxes) discreetly into the setting. Select colours and forms that do not draw attention to these elements. Consolidate, screen and avoid standalone configurations.

  • 2.3.8

    Colour Palette

    Prioritize dark natural tones such as black, greys, greens or browns that match and complement natural materials such as wood, stone and metal. Use bright colours strategically to highlight focal points or make intentional statements.

  • 2.3.9

    Visual Contrast

    Use high contrast light/dark materials, and appropriate design cues to create a safe and easily navigable public realm. Limit the use of yellow and fluorescent colours for hazard identification.

  • 2.3.10

    Temporary Installations

    Design temporary installations (e.g. artistic installations, event infrastructure, construction hoarding) to complement and respect adjacent sites and settings. Where appropriate, leverage their ephemeral and reversible nature to create visual interest and dramatic effect.

  • 2.3.11


    Select landscape amenities and features that are easy to maintain or replace and resistant to vandalism.

2.4 Waterways and Shorelines

The National Capital is situated at the confluence of the Ottawa, Rideau, and Gatineau rivers and is surrounded by many smaller lakes, rivers and creeks that contribute to its beauty and ecological diversity. The region also includes the Rideau Canal, a man-made structure that has been classified as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

The waterways provide ecological services, recreational opportunities and navigation functions, as well as important public space and placemaking opportunities. When designing and planning waterfront sites, designers must analyze the site and its ecological functions, along with patterns of human use to control the types of activities and their intensities. Waterfront lands must be carefully planned and designed to balance these competing demands. The objective is to preserve and enhance the Capital’s waterways and shorelines, creating public spaces that are animated and memorable.

  • 2.4.1

    Living Shoreline

    Prioritize the vitality and preservation of living shorelines through environmental best practices (e.g. riparian buffer strips, continuous shoreline vegetation, bio-engineering approaches to shoreline stabilization).

  • 2.4.2


    Create and improve riparian and aquatic habitats by providing structure, shading and a diversity of shoreline conditions. Ensure connectivity with adjacent terrestrial habitats necessary for many semi-aquatic species.

  • 2.4.3

    Flood Resilience

    Create flood-friendly and resilient parklands, public spaces and infrastructures within the flood plain. Locate buildings, utilities and vulnerable infrastructure above major flood elevations.

  • 2.4.4

    Water Quality

    Where changes to watercourses (e.g. rerouting, erosion control measures, flood mitigation) are required, employ ecologically friendly techniques that improve water quality, increase biodiversity and enhance ecological functions.

  • 2.4.5

    Urban Waterways

    Integrate features to manage and enhance water quality of urban waterways, while serving transportation and recreational needs and preserving their built-heritage value.

  • 2.4.6


    Mitigate the effects of barriers (e.g. locks, dams, weirs, grates) on the movement and migration of aquatic species via bypasses, fish ladders and other movement-facilitating design features.

  • 2.4.7


    Connect watercourses and design safe, convenient put-in and take-out locations with clearly indicated wayfinding and portage routes around dams, rapids and waterfalls.

  • 2.4.8

    Access Points

    Provide punctuated locations to access the water’s edge, with resilient surfaces and embankment designs to mitigate erosion and vegetation disturbances from human traffic and use.

  • 2.4.9

    Public Installations

    Design shoreline infrastructure (e.g. docks, lookouts, belvederes, terraces) as public amenities. Ensure adequate size, configuration and detailing to create beautiful public spaces that also serve functional purposes (e.g. mooring, commercial leases)

  • 2.4.10

    Waterfront Amenities

    Cluster and integrate buildings and recreational amenities to create public waterfront spaces. Orient amenities to anchor public spaces, engage the waterfront, and simplify servicing and access requirements.

  • 2.4.11

    Shoreline Impact

    Design installations and structures to have a light touch and minimize impacts to shoreline vegetation and embankments (e.g. elevated, cantilevered or suspended structures).

  • 2.4.12


    Locate parking for water-based sites away from the shoreline and employ landscaping and vegetation buffers to mitigate environmental and visual impacts.

2.5 Earthworks and Site Engineering

Sustainable development, including responsible earthwork and stormwater management practices, contributes to the ecological health and natural heritage of the Capital. A naturalized approach to landscape design and site engineering builds on the picturesque landscape that is emblematic of the Capital while contributing to the resilience and adaptability of ecological features and processes.

Designers must consider the effects of building and maintenance practices on the long-term condition and viability of the lands. Designing with nature rather than trying to control it can minimize long-term capital and maintenance costs. The objective is to create designs that are not only beautiful, but also restorative, and that enable living processes contributing to environmental quality and ecological services.

  • 2.5.1

    Green Infrastructure

    Prioritize green living infrastructure over grey manufactured infrastructure to create living systems with both engineering and environmental benefits.

  • 2.5.2

    Impermeable Surfaces

    Minimize impermeable surfaces to avoid heat island effects and mitigate the risks of flooding and water course contamination from stormwater overflow.

  • 2.5.3

    Ground Water

    Allow ground water infiltration via permeable surfaces and localized retention and soak-away zones that contribute to ground water recharge and filtration.

  • 2.5.4

    Storm Water Retention

    Take advantage of topography, drainage patterns, landscaping and plantings to capture and treat stormwater on site. Minimize direct drainage to overflows and storm outlets via design features (e.g. swales, pools, check dams).

  • 2.5.5


    Intercept and pre-filter runoff prior to discharging into watercourses through techniques such as bio-swales, filtration strips, holding ponds and grit separators.

  • 2.5.6


    Prioritize daylighting watercourses to contribute to environmental conditions and landscape character. Avoid channelizing or piping watercourses.

  • 2.5.7

    Design Integration

    Showcase stormwater management features to be visible and contribute to the site’s character via beautiful and creative landscape design integration.

  • 2.5.8

    Slopes and Embankments

    Prioritize vegetated slopes and naturally undulating terrain. Avoid steep engineered embankments and retaining walls.

  • 2.5.9


    Employ site grading to preserve or create interesting spaces and landforms that add to the visual interest and functionality of the site. Avoid flattening sites to accommodate new uses.

  • 2.5.10

    Micro Topography

    Create minor variations and undulations to direct rainwater and create varied micro-climatic and environmental conditions that contribute to biodiversity and planting conditions.

  • 2.5.11

    Soil Health

    Protect and preserve existing undisturbed topsoil and subsoil. Enhance degraded and disturbed soils and avoid compacting, contaminating or degrading soil conditions.