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Capital Canadians

‘I have seen the city transform’

Julian Armour

Julian Armour says the city could easily beautify some of its uglier streetscapes.

I read with great interest the Ottawa chapter in Andrew Cohen’s new book. It is a reminder of how little has actually been written about our city in recent years.

It has always been fashionable to knock Ottawa. We’ve been hearing the same lines year after year after decade. Ottawa is boring. The people are boring and have no interest in anything outside of Ottawa. It’s fat-cat city. The restaurants are terrible. The architecture is pathetic. The city has no vision...

In my opinion, when we can look objectively at Ottawa and fairly assess what is good about the city, we will be in a position to improve those elements that are less than good.

Anyone who knows me knows I really like Ottawa.

It is easy to be critical of many aspects of this city, and I agree with some of the criticism levelled by Mr. Cohen.

But I’m disappointed by the massive omission of many of Ottawa’s great features.

Ottawa has most of the advantages and few of the disadvantages of major North American cities. It has history, culture, museums and universities. It is filled with interesting people from across Canada and around the world. It is safe, clean and, for the most part, beautiful. It has one of the most highly educated populations on the planet. It offers many opportunities to stay in great physical shape, with bike paths, sports facilities and hiking trails in easy reach. People who live here tend to be open-minded and non-judgmental. Ottawans tend to be people you can’t pigeonhole: they like new experiences.

Is Ottawa really so dull? In the almost 30 years that I have known Ottawa, I have seen the city transform. Now we are faced with tough decisions and choices on virtually any evening. With the explosion of festivals, the revitalization of the National Arts Centre, the building of Centrepointe and the theatre at the casino in Gatineau, all added to the mix of yearround cultural activities, there is world-class culture and entertainment for every taste.

It is fashionable to sneer at Ottawa’s restaurants, but we are blessed with a wide array of just about every conceivable cuisine. My only major gripe is that they don’t stay open late enough.

Are people from Ottawa boring and self-absorbed? The people I know in Ottawa come from every part of Canada and have a genuine interest in the entire country. I have had the pleasure of spending time in all major cities across Canada and many smaller cities and towns. As much as I love the other cities, Ottawans have everyone beat when it comes to their appreciation and concern for the rest of the country.

Is Ottawa’s architecture so terrible? Much of it is, but what city is not plagued with terrible architecture in modern times? Brutalist architecture is not unique to Ottawa.

Ottawa architecture has certainly been hindered by the fact that the major tenant is the federal government, which has strict limits on the rent it will pay.

That said, we have much to be proud of. Our museums represent excellent modern architecture. The Bank of Canada building is stunning. While mediocrity abounds in residential development (as it does everywhere else in the world), developers like Charlesfort need to be applauded. Hopefully, we are in a new era, and interesting architecture will be viewed as a greater priority in years to come.

We do have much to improve in Ottawa, but what city doesn’t? Mr. Cohen is right about some of our streets. Bronson Avenue may be the ugliest street in North America, and Rideau Street is shamefully dilapidated. For a relatively trivial amount of money, the city could drastically improve and beautify these streets.

Ottawa has not been kind to its heritage buildings and neighbourhoods. I live in hope that we will not see another heritage building destroyed and that important older neighbourhoods will not be compromised to allow any kind of out-of-scale development.

King Edward Avenue is another scandal. It is fair game for Mr. Cohen to ridicule a city that allows massive 18-wheelers loaded with freight — including toxic chemicals — to dominate its core. We need to build two more bridges, one in the east and one in the west.

The lack of rapid rail transit is also baffling. It is well documented that Ottawa residents are strong supporters of public transit, so why don’t they demand proper public transportation and a subway through the downtown? Do we really like driving on the Queensway at five kilometres an hour, twice a day?

The real question is, why don’t we think we are as deserving as other cities?

Rare in Ottawa is the person who is willing to champion a big project or a dramatic improvement, whereas there is no shortage of people who are willing to take shots from the sidelines. Perhaps this is changing and we will soon see a new central library, a municipal art gallery and many of the other projects that are long overdue.

Ottawa has changed tremendously over 30 years. Let’s celebrate what is great about the city and speak frankly about what needs to be improved.

Ottawa is so close to being one of the most livable cities in the world. Let’s not shoot down people’s great ideas without a careful examination of their validity. This city deserves it. We deserve it.

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