Ottawa hits a population of one million: Big ideas for a big city

Ottawa Citizen, JACQUIE MILLER Updated: March 23, 2019


Sometime before Canada Day, Ottawa’s population will hit one million.

That’s the best estimate of city planners, who are pumped by the prospect and preparing for the changes it will bring.

“After years of thinking about it, we are actually going to hit it this year,” says Stephen Willis, the city’s general manager of planning, infrastructure and economic development.

“It puts us in a different league of North American cities.”

“It puts us in a different league of North American cities.”

One million is a critical mass that makes it easier to develop things associated with big cities, especially mass transit, Willis says.

“You also get a base population that can support a lot more cultural activities, and sports and other things, because you have the population to attract the types of events that wouldn’t necessarily stop in a midsize city. They start pay more attention to us after a million.”

The city is consulting the public on a new official plan that will guide the city’s development for the next 25 years. And Ottawa’s multi-billion-dollar light-rail transit system, the biggest construction program in the city’s history, is being built.

But what else will help us create a great city as we sail past the million milestone? We asked smart, creative people in various walks of life for their ideas. Big ideas for a big city.

Jim Durrell: A bright idea

Who: Mayor of Ottawa from 1985 to 1991; recently retired as president of Capital Dodge Chrysler Jeep FIAT; director on various boards, including Ottawa Hydro and Carleton University

Jim Durrell says Ottawa needs to lighten up — literally.

He suggests the city should add more lights at night to create the sparkle found in great European cities like London and Paris.

It wouldn’t cost that much, especially compared to projects like the LRT, and would bring “livelihood and vibrancy to the city,” he says.

The lights downtown and around Parliament Hill at Christmas time are magical, Durrell says. “We spend so much of our year in quasi-darkness, and the only time of the year Ottawa really looks pretty (at night), there is nobody here except a couple of us, and it’s damn cold, and it’s wintertime.

“Our downtown is really quite beautiful. There’s not a time when I pass by Parliament Hill and look at it and don’t think, ‘how incredibly majestic.’

“And most of the time it’s pitch black, and it’s uninviting.”

The annual ceremony to turn on the Christmas lights on Parliament Hill included fireworks. Adding lights across the city could liven up Ottawa all year round, says Jim Durrell. 

Like many of those who were asked for ideas about the city, Durrell also said Ottawa should do more to take advantage of the waterways that help define the city: the Ottawa and Rideau Rivers and the Rideau Canal.

Not enough has been done to make them bustling public places by adding cafes, art galleries, cultural events, perhaps a boardwalk, says Durrell.

“Really open up our rivers and the canal to the public at large,” he says. “There should be all sorts of places for people to sit out, take advantage of and enjoy the water.

“We don’t seem to do that and I’m not certain why. It’s really quite surprising.”

Durrell’s third big idea is one he knows will be controversial and unlikely to happen. But he believes the Central Experimental Farm should have more public uses.

The Arboretum is pretty, and the museum where kids can see cows and sheep is terrific, says Durrell. But he wonders if fields used for plant research are the best use of land in the heart of the city.

The Farm could be an “exciting place where people could go, rather than just a big open expanse of space where they grow sunflowers.”

It won’t happen, though, he says, because the Experimental Farm is “like the Bible. You can’t say anything about the Experimental Farm because there is a very powerful small group of people who think it’s sacrosanct.”

Tracey Clark on the shore of the Ottawa River in front of the Ottawa New Edinburgh Club boathouse. JEAN LEVAC / POSTMEDIA NEWS

Tracey Clark: Shoring up our waterways

Who: CEO and President of Bridgehead coffee chain, board member of the environmental group Ottawa Riverkeeper

Clark echoes the need to “animate” the shores of Ottawa’s rivers and canal. “I would love it if we could cultivate our identity as a river city.”

She would like to see more swimmable spots along the rivers and places to launch boats, stand-up paddleboards, canoes and kayaks. In her dreams, for instance, the historic Ottawa New Edinburgh Club boat house and shoreline on the Ottawa River across from Rockcliffe Park would be transformed into a bustling public building and beach. “You could put your kayak in there … go for a drink, go swimming, get married!

“These rivers really define the city. Why not embrace it, and bring more people to the water?”

While Ottawa may be geographically sprawling, Clark says city development should not be. She is also a fan of encouraging population density and improved public transit as Ottawa grows. Both will lead to a better cultural life and a greener city, she says. “Bring on more density!”

And finally, Clark muses that a new political unit might be considered that encompasses both Ottawa and Gatineau. Ottawa now has an awkward relationship with Gatineau, she says, with two bus services ferrying people between the municipalities, the federal government sprinkling its offices on both sides of the river, and the National Capital Commission adding an extra layer of governance.

“Could there not be political will at some point that would allow Ottawa and Gatineau-Hull to become a national capital district, like its own province, very similar to what the District of Columbia is in the United States?”

That might promote more balanced development on both sides of the river, and make governance more efficient, she suggested.

Restaurateur Stephen Beckta. JULIE OLIVER / POSTMEDIA

Stephen Beckta: Some help for the kids

Who: Restaurateur, owner of Beckta, Play and Gezellig; chair of the Boys and Girls Club of Ottawa

Beckta says an “exploding and dynamic restaurant community” is developing in Ottawa as it grows. “We have a great groove going on.” The city has so many good restaurants that he can’t even get to his favourite spots once every year, says Beckta.

But his big idea has nothing to do with cuisine. Beckta says Ottawa needs to do more to mentor and care for children and youth, especially in high-risk neighbourhoods.

While many individual donors have been generous in their support of charities like the Boys and Girls Club of Ottawa and its seven clubhouses, Beckta says more tax dollars need to be employed.

For example, only nine per cent of the Boys and Girls Club budget comes from the three levels of government. “Many other agencies in Ottawa also face similar challenges with their budgets.”  

Just as the city can’t let physical infrastructure deteriorate as it grows, it must nurture “social infrastructure,” Beckta says, suggesting that a portion of tax increases go to social service agencies that are struggling with rising costs.

“With a milestone like one million people on the horizon, and an economy that is firing on most cylinders, my sincere hope is that we can choose to have a high tide that raises all boats, not just most of them, and help nurture Ottawa’s leaders – and communities – of tomorrow.” 

Too many ugly, monolithic buildings are being built, says artist Andrew King, shown here with one of his paintings.BRUNO SCHLUMBERGER / OTTAWA CITIZEN

Andrew King: A little style would help

Who: Artist, Ottawa resident for 25 years

King has a few suggestions — OK, he calls them rants — to make his beloved city better.

As Ottawa expands at an “alarmingly fast pace,” Kings says new condos and suburbs are springing up willy-nilly. “There needs to be some kind of an esthetic committee to make sure ugly buildings do not get approved and built,” he says. “This is Canada’s National Capital and our new architecture should reflect that position with grandeur.”

An example: condos at LeBreton Flats which in his opinion “look like college dormitories rather than what should be beautiful, timeless additions to the cityscape.

“We have a clean slate area to create great things, and yet time and time again I see horrid looking, cheap monoliths going up instead. Where are the world-class buildings and architecture that other national capitals possess?”

As for big-city traffic, King has says the federal government, still the city’s major employer, could do more to help residents who battle the daily commute downtown. The government should move more offices into outlying areas of the city where new homes are being built, he suggests.

Kanata’s high-tech industry followed that model, building offices in the west end near new suburbs. “Why can’t the government do the same and give up these gorgeous downtown buildings and turn them into housing and accompanying retail spaces?”

And then there are Ottawa’s winters, which won’t change no matter what the population. Ottawans need an escape, King says. He suggests creating a four-season biodome with lush tropical plants, sunlight and water features to “relax and rejuvenate our mental state while enduring our winter.

“Not everyone wants to skate and ski in -40 windchill temperatures. Our only escape from the incessant cold and snow in the past was to go to shopping malls, which have all sadly removed their plants and water features to cut costs, turning them into the cold, sterile spaces we were trying to escape from.”

His final idea to improve our city? “I am mystified why Ottawa has such a lack of advanced green lights, which creates a gladiator battle of frustration at city intersections that does not have to be.”

Alain Miguelez, manager of policy planning for the city’s Planning, Infrastructure and Economic Development Department. JEAN LEVAC / POSTMEDIA NEWS

Alain Miguelez: On thinking young

Who: Manager of Policy Planning with the Planning, Infrastructure and Economic Development Department of the city of Ottawa; author of a book on the Gréber Plan, the 1950 blueprint that defined how the city developed

Miguelez says Ottawa needs to nurture the things that make us unique.

“If you look around the world, cities of our size and a little bigger, that people know and remember, all of them have managed to develop a very strong identity. Amsterdam is our size. Everybody knows Amsterdam. Helsinki, Dublin, Copenhagen — all about our size or a little larger. Everybody knows them, everybody flocks to them and notices them. It’s that type of identity on the global stage that I think we’re looking for.”

Ottawa has advantages that will make that easier, he notes. “We have the luck of being the nation’s capital. We have monuments and tourist attractions and cultural offerings that let us punch above our weight in terms of cities that attract people, and that people find beautiful.

“We have to be able to capitalize on that and start to think, as we move to the 2 to 3 million population bracket by the end of the century, what we need to do to put the city on the map, to keep it on the map, to develop our own unique flavour.”

Cultivating a strong identity doesn’t mean a constant stream of grand new schemes, says Miguelez, but rather nurturing the things that make us authentic and adding “texture” or re-interpreting them. He offers the stunning renovation of the National Arts Centre, an institution at the heart of the city that was given a dramatic and more urban face, as an example.

Miguelez has little time for the idea that Ottawa is boring. That image will be wiped out as we grow, becoming even more urban and diverse, he predicts. “At some point the old grey-haired fogies that are pushing that line are going to look like they are out of date.

“I think people can come here and make up their own minds. … Create the conditions for things to blossom and it will happen. We’ve been doing that quietly for a good 10 or 15 years. Look at the restaurant scene, look at the music scene, look at the maker scene here. All things that right now are associated with normal life in Ottawa that you wouldn’t think of living without. Once these things gather momentum, it just becomes something people expect as part of the quality of life in the city.”

An important part of making that happen, he says, is thinking young.

“We have to be a good city for people to be young in. Once you come here for study, or just to check it out, you have to be the kind of city that a 22-year-old backpacker would arrive here, check it out and say ‘Whoa, I’m going to stick around for the summer.’ ”

Bhat Boy, in front of his artwork commissioned by the city for the OC Transpo headquarters, says Ottawa needs to dream bigger. JEAN LEVAC / POSTMEDIA NEWS

Bhat Boy: Dare to dream

Who: Artist who often paints Ottawa scenes

When he looks at our future as a big city, Bhat Boy identifies one key thing Ottawa needs: more courage to dream and take risks.

The city has always been overshadowed by the shiny bling of Toronto and Montreal, Bhat Boy says.

“We always think of ourselves as being less than Montreal and Toronto, and perhaps that’s because Montreal and Toronto always tell us we are less. There is always someone in Montreal that is happy to tell you ‘Oh, I am so sorry you are from Ottawa!’

“I think we are frightened of having imagination and we lack confidence in Ottawa. We are really scared to try things other people haven’t done.”

Even a minor risk that fails scares us, he says. He cites as an example the pedestrian bridge over the Airport Parkway that features a strikingly innovative design but was criticized because of construction delays. “And we were like ‘oh, we tried something new and it failed! Look where it got us.’ ”

It would help to have a leader with a bold vision, he says. “Jim Watson is a perfectly nice bureaucrat, but he’s no Napoleon.”

Kevin Loring is the first Artistic Director of Indigenous Theatre at the NAC. JULIE OLIVER / POSTMEDIA

Kevin Loring and Lori Marchand: A focus on our heritage

Who: Loring is the artistic director of the NAC’s Indigenous Theatre, and Marchand is managing director.

The presence of Indigenous peoples in Ottawa goes back millennia, say Loring and Marchand. “Yet, as you walk around the many landmarks here, unless you were familiar with the history you wouldn’t know that the Algonquin were here prior to European contact, or that this remains their un-ceded, un-surrendered lands,” they said in a joint statement. 

In other large cities like Vancouver, the local Indigenous heritage is visibly celebrated with public artworks, murals and plaques describing the historical significance of certain locations, they said. “It would be wonderful if our city celebrated and acknowledged its Indigenous heritage in a similar fashion.”

Stephen Willis, the city’s general manager of planning, infrastructure and urban development. DARREN BROWN / OTTAWA CITIZEN

Stephen Willis: Natural beauty

Who: General manager of planning, Infrastructure and economic development for the city of Ottawa

Tipping over the million population mark makes mass transit viable, says Willis.

“When LRT is up and running, people will have a viable choice that is effective. And that’s what bigger cities have. You look at London, you look at New York. You reach a tipping point where it actually is worth people’s time to take transit, because it’s a far more effective way to (travel). It’s cost effective and it’s time effective.”

Willis ticks off a few other key things needed to propel the city forward as it grows. Supporting the growth of the airport, for instance. “In a globalized world, that airport becomes an incredible competitive advantage because it allows anybody to be here and do their work, from around the world.”

Nurturing the city’s four universities and colleges is also key, he says. Top-rate post-secondary institutions not only attract students who may become future residents and entrepreneurs, but they are attractive to companies needing a highly-educated workforce.

The city also needs to promote our beautiful natural assets, whether it’s the waterways, the nearby Gatineau Hills or the Chaudière Falls on the Ottawa River, recently opened to public viewing after a century, says Willis.

Great cities also have strong neighbourhood identities, says Willis. Think of New York, and how well-known the city’s neighbourhoods are to people around the world, whether it’s Greenwich Village or Times Square.

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