Officially established in 1945, Windsor Park was a relative latecomer on the Ottawa park scene. Yes, we enjoyed swimming at the Brighton Beach Aquatic Club by 1919. And yes, Old Ottawa South's first official park, Brewer Park, opened in August 1930. However, for the part of the community living on the east side of Bank Street, there was no official park or playground space until after the Second World War.
First, a quick look back in time. Public parks as we know them only began appearing by the late 1800s. Parks were a direct response to the social problems caused by the Industrial Revolution, and to the Romantic Movement's belief in the healing power, both physical and mental, of nature. Park building was further boosted by the City Beautiful Movement that promoted designing cities with trees, boulevards, parks and stately buildings. As well, the public playground movement, an import from the U.S., also influenced park building. In Canada, the National Council of Women played a major role from 1893 onward in establishing supervised playgrounds.
By the early 1900s, park promoters were divided into two camps: those who wanted parks devoted to recreation or sports, versus those who wanted them designed for aesthetic enjoyment. By the time Windsor Park was created, this division had been resolved in favour of providing recreational space.
Ottawa's park system was also strongly shaped by the activities of the Ottawa Improvement Commission, now called the National Capital Commission, which maintained federal properties, parklands and buildings in the region. But back to Windsor Park.
Long before this park was a gleam in a City Councillor's eye, it was swampy bush, lying in the Rideau River floodplain, in the township of Nepean. The early settlers, arriving around 1814, set up small farming operations there. Mooing cows and clucking chickens were heard on Belmont Avenue, which began as a country lane. Spring floods were often severe enough to make the Toronto newspapers.
By 1910, three years after annexation to the City of Ottawa, most of the area between Riverdale Avenue and the Rideau River was occupied by market gardens. The uncultivated areas were still bush. One early commentator noted that “people thought you were crazy to want to live way out here in the country, where cows grazed on the pasture land …” The park's present-day boundaries are quite clear by this date: Belmont Avenue to the north, Riverdale Avenue to the west and the Rideau River to the east.
Old Ottawa South resident Pat Kealey remembers a child's life in the future park area as pretty idyllic in the 1930s. She and her friends played in the bush (where today's tennis courts are located) and “lived” on the river. As well, they built hideouts, tree houses and rafts from the leftover house construction materials often lying about. Another long-time resident, Alex Saunders, recalls playing Tarzan in the trees, using ropes to swing through the bush.
The bush would only be tamed after the Second World War when, in 1944, Alderman L.L. Coulter successfully lobbied City Council to establish Windsor Park. The roughly triangular area was officially designated as Windsor Park in 1945.
Development was slow, funds were scarce. What would be one of the first enhancements in 1947? A hockey rink, of course! As the park evolved into the 1960s, the wading pool, playground, tennis courts, softball diamond and basketball court, as well as washrooms, fieldhouse and more playground equipment would be installed. As well, supervised activities such as summer crafts and learn-to-swim programs would be offered for many years. Little League softball, Bantam League hockey, and later soccer leagues would be supported. As well, walkers still enjoy the path along the river, which in 1959 was incorporated into the Rideau River Trail.
Sports certainly were a major focus of park activities, but so were community events. The first winter carnival was held in 1948, followed down the years by spring fairs, drama presentations, concerts, fall art festivals, puppet shows, a pet show (the park “looked like a miniature zoo”) - even a sandcastle contest.
Old Ottawa South's strong tradition of volunteerism has ensured that these events continue to be held. Many volunteers have been officially recognized - for example, the hockey rink volunteers have won awards for their dedicated maintenance and supervision. The Windsor Park Pups group continues to hold spring clean-ups in the park. Other volunteers plant trees, and serve on committees to oversee the renewal of the park and its plantings.
Without our neighbourhood activists, we would not have had a properly graded and seeded playground in the late 1950s, or new preschool, age-appropriate equipment installed in the late 1980s and again in the late 1990s. When the old City Yard (at the end of Windsor Avenue) came up for sale, local activists lobbied until the City agreed to convert the asphalt into parkland, bringing the park area to a total of 9.7 acres.
One of the park's largest projects, the Windsor flood control dyke and pumping station, also owes its existence to the persistence of community activism. Concerned citizens initiated action that finally led to successful negotiations between landowners, the City and the Rideau Valley Conservation Authority in 1984 to build the dyke. Walkers can thank the coalition for having the foresight to extend the path along the top of the dyke under Billings Bridge to the other side of Bank Street as part of the Rideau River Trail.
Concerned citizens also worked with the City in 2005 to create a Vegetation Management Plan that will ensure that the park's environmental management will be safeguarded into the future.
For over 65 years, Windsor Park has been one of our major centres of community life, a place of personal and community memories. We owe thanks to the City officials who had the vision to create public parks, as well as to our dedicated volunteers and activists who do so much to help maintain it, staff community events, and lobby for its interests when necessary.
A detailed, richly illustrated history of Windsor Park in the context of Canadian public park development is available at Edwinna von Baeyer's website.
Originally published in the November 2010 OSCAR.