Build Up Ottawa
To attract talent and rebuild after the pandemic, creating a city where quality of life is among the best in the world is key — and we’re already high on many metrics.
BY JENNIFER CAMPBELL
WHAT IF A city were built on the premise of being a place to “play, live and work” instead of a place to “live, work and play?” Andrew Penny, Founder and President of Kingsford Consulting, posed the question at the very end of the Ottawa Board of Trade’s City Building Summit, whose slogan was Build Up Ottawa. It spoke to one of the day’s major themes — quality of life — in the discussions that centred around driving economic growth in the city after the pandemic’s work-from- home imperatives completely changed the face of the city’s landscape, shuttering some businesses and threatening others. The trucker convoy that put Ottawa on the global news cycle for weeks for all the wrong reasons didn’t help matters.
“People are more interested in where they’re going to live than where they’re going to work,” said Sueling Ching, president and CEO of the Ottawa Board of Trade. “There’s a school of thought about inclusive city-building, creating community and investing in health, education and affordable housing. What we’re doing on those files will provide confidence to potential investors, businesses and community members.”
At the summit, Sheilagh Doherty, program manager in the high economic-impact programs at the City of Ottawa, presented preliminary findings of the city’s economic development strategy.
“The focus is really on maintaining Ottawa as an attractive destination for talent and innovation, as well as fostering a supportive environment for our knowledge-based industries, tourism and creative industries,” Doherty said.
The strategy considered several factors, including bilingualism, geography (Ottawa is geographically large), diversity, equity and inclusion, and environmental sustainability.
Doherty acknowledged that the pandemic has permanently altered the downtown core, but said she sees it as “an opportunity for economic partners to work together to reimagine and revitalize downtown, [as a way to] increase economic growth and resiliency, but also enhance [Ottawa’s] livability, safety, cultural vibrancy and tourism.”
She said many ideas came from consultations with stakeholders on this initiative, which will include real estate and land diversification, support for office-to- residential conversions and support for festivals and events in the core as well as consideration for the needs of the ByWard Market and Sparks Street Mall. She also mentioned the city’s “night life action plan.” (See more on downtown revitalization on page 52.)
Catherine Callary, vice president of destination development at Ottawa Tourism, said the pandemic taught Ottawans what it’s like to have no tourism.
“But the cool thing was to see residents rallying behind tourism experiences, ” Callary says. “We were seeing this incredible resurgence of residents who were exploring their own backyards because they couldn’t explore other backyards and they got a sense of the amazing tourism landscape we have in Ottawa.”
That led her group to the realization that what’s good for residents is good for tourism. And that, she said, led to the development of Ottawa Tourism’s destination stewardship plan, which has 130 recommendations and actions that involve the whole community — including the private sector — to help create an Ottawa that is attractive to visitors, investors, businesses and residents. “Tourism is about quality of life, too,” she said.
Sonia Shorey, Invest Ottawa’s Vice-President of strategy, marketing and communications, said her organization is always looking for places where Ottawa can become a world leader.
“I believe in communities and grassroots coming together to create that commitment,” she said. “We have a technology powerhouse, entrepreneurial spirit and Main Street businesses that are the heart of our communities. We [can] pull that together in really big ideas and big ways — I really do believe we can take on the world.”
She said Area X.O can help companies innovate in several areas, including transportation, but also ag-tech.
“We have 100-acre smart farm with the support of the city that’s leading the way in terms of ag-tech innovations that are allowing producers to use less water, fewer resources, and to have less negative environmental impact while increasing their yield and their profitability,” said Shorey.
The desire to have a city — to quote Cindy VanBuskirk, Program Manager, High Economic Impact Projects at City of Ottawa — “that offers shared priorities, shared values and a belief that everyone in our community should have equal access to economic opportunity” involves not just business-related improvements, but also a way to tackle homelessness, affordable housing and health in general. After all, the pandemic taught us that health can affect economic prosperity.
A panel on creating quality of life addressed those issues, with Jason Burggraaf, executive director of the Greater Ottawa Homebuilder’s Association, stating that one economic analysis says Ottawa should have built 24,000 homes between 2006 and 2021. It’s clear Ottawa doesn’t have enough housing, he said, mentioning his 92-year-old neighbour who would like to downsize from her single-family home, but can’t afford to do so. As a result, he said, it’s crucially important that Ottawa make good on its pledge to build 15,000 new homes per year.
Speaking on behalf of the Alliance to End Homelessness, executive director Kaite Burkholder Harris explained that homelessness is a complex issue, and told the group that there are 1,100 families living in hotels in Ottawa, costing $3,300 a month per family.
Burkholder Harris talked about economist Sam Bowman, who wrote an article titled “The Housing Theory of Everything,” in which he posits that slow economic growth, poor health, financial instability, income inequality and even slowing birth rates all stem in some way from a lack of affordable housing.
“In other words, there are no silver bullets to solving our big collective challenges, but affordable housing is about as close as we’re going to get,” she said.
Again speaking to the quality of life question, Jennifer Armstrong, program manager for transportation policy and networks with the City of Ottawa, said a 1965 plan for the city emphasized transportation via cars but today, the focus is on moving people, including by transit, bike or on foot.
Ottawa’s medical officer of health, Vera Etches, said she would reinforce many of the morning’s statements, but added that to achieve quality of life and economic growth for all, health is an important factor. She said it’s pretty hard to be healthy without a home, and noted that social connection is also critical to health, as we discovered in the pandemic.