Capital Context: Ottawa — Future Capital
By Joe Berridge
Ottawa in the Spring is as fine a capital city as one could wish for. Clean and fresh, blue skies and acres of tulips providing a setting for the Parliament Buildings and other national landmarks that still bring a shock of delight each time I come to the city.
I’ve been working recently with the planning team of the City of Ottawa to explore how best to develop its other, non-capital city role, that of a mid-sized Canadian city with all the challenges and opportunities they face. Interesting things are happening in Canada’s urban world. Ottawa, with a population of over a million, is the fifth/sixth biggest city in Canada. Toronto is the fastest growing and now pulling away to global city status. Montreal has found a new energy after decades of relative decline. Vancouver is… well Vancouver, and it doesn’t have to do much more than that. Calgary and Edmonton’s fortunes are tied tightly to the status of the oil and gas industries, although both are diversifying their economies aggressively.
Ottawa is the slow and steady city. It isn’t growing very fast compared to its rivals, it is very much the outlier in terms of attracting immigration, with a markedly lower percentage of its population born outside the country. The inherent stability of the federal employment sector has resulted in Ottawa having the highest average incomes of any Canadian city. And that employment base, according to recent analysis, is the least vulnerable to erosion by automation.
Ottawa, with a population of over a million, is the fifth/sixth biggest city in Canada.
So should Ottawa worry? Should it have urban ambitions beyond being a fine capital and a delightful place to live, secure in the stability of the federal presence? Well probably not worry, but perhaps some aspirations to become a bigger, bolder city.
Why bigger? It’s tough being a million city. Higher-order transit, like LRT’s, have only just enough ridership; sports franchises hang on the edge of viability; air travel destinations are limited; the labour pool for existing and new businesses is constrained. And the density, intensity, variety, and texture of urban life engendered by higher numbers of people living and working close together is limited. So Ambition #1. Ottawa should aim to be a 2 million city as soon as it can.
Ambition #2 is closely related. Ottawa should more vigorously attract immigration. Two reasons why. First, because all the evidence shows that it is immigrants who start businesses, who are the innovators, particularly in the tech sector. Ottawa’s comparative lack of immigration is an opportunity. All the public institutions—universities, colleges, hospitals, agencies—should actively promote Ottawa as an immigrant settlement location to recruit the talent they need. And the second reason—the available foodie options will dramatically increase. One of the things I document in ‘Perfect City’ is the critical role of interesting food in engendering urban economic activity.
Ambition# 3 is connectivity. Ottawa is in a somewhat isolated location, to the north of the ‘St Lawrence corridor’ from Quebec City to Windsor. The unavoidable reality is that the global economy is now dominated by a very short list of big cities. Canada is lucky that Toronto is one of the top dozen and that Montreal ranks well. Ottawa’s urban—as opposed to federal—economy will increasingly be defined by its links to those centres. Isn’t it time for a high quality inter-city rail service? Can Ottawa International Airport find a role in relieving increasing congestion at Toronto Pearson? And more fundamentally, as spiraling housing costs in those cities make the attraction of young talent increasingly impossible, how best can Ottawa present a plausible alternative for big city businesses?
And the final ambition? I’m going to show my outsider ignorance, but every time I come to Ottawa I am struck by the magnificence of the river valley—and by its emptiness. Is there a big, bold project of the kind I see increasingly in other cities—that can celebrate its extraordinary geography more actively. London’s location-busting aerial tramway over the Thames; Seattle’s mind-blowing art park ramp to the water’s edge; New York’s economy-
changing science university complex in the East River.
Not sure what it is—that’s for Ottawan’s to decide. But that’s how federal city can become perfect city.
Joe Berridge is a partner at Urban Strategies and author of the recently released ‘Perfect City’.