Ignite & Transform Ottawa

There has been some healthy debate recently about the Ottawa’s future – mostly from an urban planning perspective. To actively engage the community in speaking up about this topic Ignite Style Communication 1 could be used. Let’s do it! More about that later but first some background on the Transform Ottawa debate.

Transforming Ottawa

Transforming ottawa

On January 4, 2016: Bruce Deachman wrote in the Ottawa Citizen about Alain Miguelez’s book Transforming Ottawa 2. It provided a nostalgic view of Ottawa’s previous planning efforts and how they contributed to a greater or lesser degree to the actual development of some defining attributes of our nations capital (e.g. green belts). Alain was innovative in getting the retrospective book published by using kickstarter crowdsourced funding. You can learn more about Alain’s planning retrospective book on the Lunch Out Loud Ottawa podcast episode 139 Alain Miguelez and the Stringers 3.

The Good


Bruce Lazenby of InvestOttawa has assembled a really impressive presentation deck, Why Ottawa? 4 about Ottawa’s sources of talent and all the ways Ottawa excels as a place to live, play and do business. I highly recommend watching the video or viewing the presentation deck because it is sure to increase your pride in the region and you will probably become even more aware and appreciative of Ottawa attractions you could enjoy.

Canadians, in addition to having a reputation of being polite, also tend not to recognize and promote our achievements and advantages like our american competitors do so well. This information is very important to recognize the progress we have made but it is not a plan to maintain and accelerate our progress to be a top competitor for business development.

As much as it feels good to have a lot of success to celebrate so far we can not afford to rest on our laurels. I am sure InvestOttawa has lots of suggestions on the next steps to even greater achievement (a page summarizing prioritized urban planning suggestions would be very helpful). How well are InvestOttawa initiatives being integrated into our current urban planning?

The Bad

Airportparkwaybridge 1

January 12, 2016: Andrew Cohen wrote in the Ottawa Citizen Why Ottawa is the worst G7 Capital City 5. He criticized Ottawa urban planning and implementation regarding:

  • vague plans and delays for widening of the Airport Parkway which affects visitors and local citizens

    Supposedly this work has been delayed several times but was in the budget to begin in 2016. It was deferred by city staff without informing the counselor for the area who called it a “well kept secret". This calls into question the governance and public accountability for these types of plans.

  • Light rail transport is not expanding to the airport anytime soon

    This seems an unreasonable complaint to me given that a breakthrough has been made after years of indecision and the LRT is being aggressively being expanded and accelerated within fiscal restraints.

  • a footbridge over the Airport Parkway took years longer and cost much more than planned to build

    In fact the footbridge had to be rebuilt and several city staff lost their jobs over mismanagement of the project (Airport Parkway pedestrian bridge opens after several delays 6) but it is completed now (hopefully with some lessons learned).

  • the much debated Lansdowne Park development is a mediocre improvement that doesn’t make a statement like the famous Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain

    Not every development can be a world class statement. A stadium is not the same as a museum. After much debate it finally got built to revive professional sports teams in Ottawa and is a big improvement that is filling other important community needs.

  • no new central library.

    Not yet but one is being planned and there are promising signs of collaboration.

  • Sparks Street Mall and Rideau Street are to be avoided.

  • there are not enough reasonable restaurants but shopping has gotten a bit better.

    These seem to me to be private sector business challenges that should be free market driven. Governments can’t and shouldn’t try to do everything.

  • missing big ideas remaking cities – renewed waterfronts, recovered green space, edgy architecture, environmental innovation, seamless public transit – happen somewhere else.

    Not true. After being neglected the canal is now at least being discussed for rejuvenation. A big transit project is underway and some edgy architecture exists at the convention centre with hopefully more to follow at:

    • the NAC,

    • the new Library,

    • new science museum

    • national portrait gallery

    • and Lebreton flats locations.

    That seems pretty ambitious to me.

Andrew uses the examples above to accuse Ottawa of:

  • lamentable lack of ambition

  • absence of imagination,

which he said is reflected in:

  • shoddy planning,

  • administrative lassitude and

  • somnolent politicians

Clearly those accusations are fighting words intending to prod people into these steps:

1. responding and

2. taking action with bigger ambitions, higher expectations, and more stringent standards.

As we shall see later in this post step 1. Part 1. Pundits – mission accomplished for step 1. Part 2. Community – To Be Determined.

The Ugly

Communism memorial

The National Capital Commission has a secret (uh oh not that again) process for evaluating proposals for a development (NCC gets 2 proposals for Lebreton Flats) 7. Unfortunately Lebreton flats development has a long history of mismanagement that spans 40 years 8. The latest proposals will be open for public input in a two day window on January 25,26. How does keeping this process largely secret (although the RFP was eventually published) and allowing only a narrow window for public input and debate serve the people of Ottawa? Of 6 proposals solicited only 4 proposals were provided and only 2 (similar) proposals were submitted. It is yet to be seen how innovative and progressive they are and whether they even will be accepted for implementation.

The controversial plan for a Memorial to the Victims of Communism 9 seemed to lack consultation and an open process (see a common theme here) which was a looming disaster 10 that would have had a major impact for many years on another key piece of property adjacent to the Supreme court. Thankfully the City of Ottawa to asked the feds to move Victims of Communism memorial 11 before the unpopular plan was implemented. It shows, however, what kind of mistakes – with long term damage – could potentially happen if a well thought out planning and consultation process isn’t established and followed.

Good if You Have Funding

January 13, 2016: Randall Denley, in a response to Andrew Cohen, wrote in the Ottawa Citizen, Ottawa is, in fact, not as terrible as you think 12.

His view is that Ottawa is changing rapidly and for the better, with more to come. Randall agrees that Ottawa could be better, and most people want it to be. The main challenges are:

  • what’s required and

  • who is going to pay for world class development and the additional costs of making it happen faster.

A good example is Ottawa’s long-anticipated new central library which just took a huge step forward. The fact the city may work with Library and Archives Canada on a shared building is great news that’s likely to result in a bigger, better library. It’s the kind of synergy with the federal government that this city needs.

Randall also thinks we need to be reasonable with our expectations:

  • the proposals to redevelop LeBreton Flats are disappointing in that both ideas feature an NHL hockey rink, but we do not yet know what else is involved and how the project will connect to its neighborhood. Cleaning up the empty mess of contaminated soil so close to the centre of the city would be a real gain, even if the project itself isn’t all that we would hope for.

  • Lansdowne Park, which Cohen describes as mediocre, has transformed actual mediocrity into a people magnet full of activity, restaurants and shops. Yes, it’s too bad that a pet food store is front and centre, but the urban park at last makes something of Lansdowne’s great site.

  • The city’s convention centre is an infinite improvement over the dump that it replaced. The view of the Hill that it captures is priceless.

Randall also makes a good point about the not previously mentioned music festivals (and other celebrations and cultural events) that define the seasons in Ottawa in our “soulless” city. These are not government creations, but the result of hard work by people who live here and love this city. That’s actually the common denominator in the progress Ottawa is making.

Getting back to the issue of affordability Randall’s best point is that it’s not reasonable to expect city taxpayers to bear the burden of roads, transit, and other urban development that would be the envy of the world and provide prestige to Ontario and Canada. There clearly need to be some fiscal arrangements between all levels of government to take on the most ambitious projects and not all of them should be centralized in Ottawa.

Why Ottawa is NOT the Worst G7 Capital

January 15, in the Ottawa Business Journal, Bruce Lazenby wrote a rebuttal, Ottawa-is-an-excellent-G7-capital 13 in response to Andrew Cohen’s article.

As always Bruce makes some excellent factual points from independent sources about how we actually compare with other G7 capitals (it is too good to edit so the following is mostly Bruce’s words verbatim):

  • In 2015, Ottawa was named the most business-friendly, mid-sized city in North AND South America by the Financial Times.

  • Ottawa is good place to do business. Our dynamic tech sector is on fire with Ottawa software companies (HalogenKinaxis and Shopify) raising more money in the public markets than every other city in Canada combined over the last five years.  Branham Group’s latest list of the top 250 technology companies in Canada concluded that Ottawa was home to more headquartered companies than Vancouver, Montreal, Calgary and more than three times Waterloo.

  • Our tech companies are closing in on record employment but with more diverse sectors and more diverse geography across the city. They are attracting young, exciting and dynamic new talent to our city.

  • The Airports Council International says Ottawa has the best airport in Canada and third in the world; the other G7 capitals are nowhere to be found in their rankings.

  • Our Convention Centre was crowned number two in the world by the International Association of Convention Centres; again the other G7 capitals were noticeably absent.

  • Ottawa also shines when it comes to sustainability. Corporate Knights magazine rated Ottawa the most sustainable city in Canada and third in all of North America. None of the other G7 cities, save for Washington DC, even cracked the top twenty.

  • Looking forward, we will be opening a world-class Innovation Centre this year and the redevelopment of Lebreton Flats is well on its way, with other promising developments on the horizon as Mr Cohen acknowledges.


  • Canada has the most educated workforce in the world and Ottawa has the most educated workforce in Canada.

  • The Martin Prosperity Institute rated Ottawa-Gatineau first in their search for the world’s top Creative Class. We beat out 61 other cities.

  • According to Mercer, we ranked third in North America for quality of living and Today’s Parent says we are the second best place in the country to raise a family.

  • Compared to our G7 counterparts, commuting to work is a pleasure. Driving in Paris or Rome can be a full-time job in itself. You can get across our great city by car in just twenty minutes.  Hop on a train in London or Tokyo and be prepared for a nose to nose two-hour ride.  Contrast that to Ottawa, where an express bus can get you from the quiet suburbs to a bustling core in nearly forty minutes and this is before the LRT is finished.

  • when it comes to the cost of living, Ottawa is not only the least expensive G7 capital by leaps and bounds but it’s also the most affordable major city in Canada.


  • Culture is everywhere in the capital. Start by touring one of our 44 museums or art galleries, or take in a festival that celebrates music, theatre, sports or different ethnic backgrounds. Ottawa hosts over ninety events a year, so you’ll be sure to find one you like.

  • Our bike paths are an incredible way to see the city. Clocking in at 600 km, we are on par with Paris and Berlin. Tokyo has less than nine kilometers. Our green assets don’t stop there.  

  • The area is home to seven ski resorts and over 430 km of cross-country ski trails.

  • If the water calls your name, the Ottawa River is home to seven sailing clubs and is one of the top white-water rafting spots in the world.  

  • For the daring, rent a built-to-race eight-cylinder Mustang  and take a spin on Canada’s longest private race track topping out at well over 200 km/hr. I did and I’ll never forget it.

  • Mr. Cohen clearly doesn’t get invited to the foodie hangouts where some of the newest thirty something tech millionaires in Ottawa are hanging out, sharing tips of their successes with new startups and some of the 120,000 post-secondary students that are excited about their role in the city’s future.

And finally 2017 is around the corner and Ottawa is taking the lead in celebrating our country’s 150th birthday.


Add everything up and I believe you have the makings of a world-class city. Ottawa may lack a history of culture and municipal development that span over thousands of years, compared to its G7 counterparts; Yet, the nation’s capital has its own distinct assets and we are just scratching the surface of our potential. Don’t forget that the new Ottawa is barely fifteen years old (since amalgamation).  Prior to this, our municipalities were more competitive than collaborative, so I think we are doing pretty well for a teenager.

Mr. Cohen and I seem to be looking at Ottawa through completely different lenses. Neither he nor I were born here, however, we both chose to live here. And we both want the same outcome: to make Ottawa the best place to work, play and grow.

At Invest Ottawa, we have the bold vision he’s asking for, so I invite him to roll up his sleeves and work with us to achieve it.  In my experience, city building is way more fun and rewarding than city bashing.

In Defence of Cohen

FuckOttawa 14 loves that Cohen is playing an agent of chaos and the passion on display as he addresses everything he dislikes in our city. Not unexpectedly they are enjoying the debate his inflammatory choice of words has sparked. They thank those who have rushed to the city’s defence (World-class whine: Why Ottawa’s haters are wrong, Macleans), as well as to those who have pounced on the opportunity to tear it down further (Why is our nation’s capital so drab?, Toronto Star).

January 16 Andrew Cohen himself responded to all the feedback with Haters gonna hate, but little reason for optimism about Ottawa 15.

Although there has been a lot of criticism on Twitter he says the response in his email mailbox has been overwhelmingly favourable from people with lots of complaints of their own. Readers think:

  • the Sparks Street Mall is desolate in a cold capital.

  • They find the Byward Market dirty and dangerous.

  • They want a new concert hall.

  • They are annoyed by the “water feature” at disappointing Lansdowne Park

  • “It is a sad state of affairs when the nicest building in Ottawa of the last ten years is Dymon Storage on Carling Avenue.”

In the Citizen, a cheerful Randall Denley argues that things are looking up. He cites a prospective collaboration between the new central library and Library and Archives Canada, and a coming decision on the future of LeBreton Flats.

Andrew has his doubts especially with Ottawa’s glacial decision-making, he sees little reason for optimism.

Andrew’s friend Paul Wells argues that Ottawa’s detractors pine for an Ottawa that looks like Paris or Rome. Andrew explains that he would be happy with an Ottawa that feels like Canada, as a kicking city of 1 million with an idea of itself. Ottawa need not look like leading world capitals, but it could act like them – creating museums in edgy buildings, recovering its riverfront, encouraging public art, innovating in mass transit, being original.

Andrew hopes that our new federal government brings a new a spirit of opportunity to what he sees as our pleasant but reliably sleepy capital.

More Debate

A government of canada sign in front of a library and archives building

An old Library and Archives Building location

On January 22 both Mohammed Adam and Mark Sutcliffe joined in.

Mohammed Adam Ottawa’s future is tantalizing with library options 16.

Mohammed sees the potential of the new library being a joint Ottawa and federal government project. He sees it as being a balancing act between recognizing that quality costs money while keeping municipal taxes low. For him imagination is something great cities have in abundance in their planning, and we should at least be able to do what the Halifaxes of this world are doing, if not better. 

Mark Sutcliffe wrote, We’re not Paris, but Ottawa’s a good place to live 17

Mark echoes what Bruce Lazenby and others have said that we need to focus on our present and future quality of life as a relatively young country that doesn’t have as much history to celebrate.

"The greatest monument in Ottawa will never be a memorial or an edifice but the freedom, safety and happiness of its people. And if we have time to engage in a debate about how we’re measuring up to London and Paris in some arbitrary ranking, rather than be forced to confront some of the urgent problems many other communities face, then we must be doing something right."

Transform Ottawa with a Joint Urban Plan

So Alain Miguelez wrote a book on Ottawa’s urban planning history and some debates have occurred in the newspapers on the current status of Ottawa and what we need to go forward.

These articles beg the following questions.

  • What are the current plans?

  • How could they be improved or accelerated?

  • What are confirmed projects with budgets and schedules? Rationale?

  • What are ideas just being considered?

  • What ideas have been rejected? Rationale?

  • What is the process for the community to know about, contribute to, and show support for, the development of a current urban plan for Ottawa and the specific projects within it?

  • Are there ways we can be more innovative to accelerate plans for development in the region?


    • open forms of crowdsourcing of ideas and funding,

    • ignite style speaking sessions to crowdsource ideas,
    Ignite narrow banner

    • competitions like the X Prize Foundation18 to stimulate research and development (there is a long history of successful government stimulation of R&D which is eloquently described and advocated by Steven B. Johnson in his book: Future Perfect 19),

    • what about less physically visible but high impact infrastructure like high speed Internet communications facilities,

    Smart cities use technology to improve their services efficiency and their inhabitants lives20,21,22,23

    "Acceptance into the (IEEE Smart Cities) initiative requires an articulate, pragmatic plan for how the city can become smarter in how it is run, with the goal of improving its citizens’ quality of life. We expect this to be accomplished, in part, by improving infrastructure and access to various civic services.” 24

    Smart tourism is the increasing reliance of tourism destinations, their industries and their tourists on emerging forms of ICT that allow for massive amounts of data to be transformed into value propositions. 25

    • how about investing in entrepreneurs, education, culture, arts, health, security for now and the future

    • What ideas do you have that you would like contribute? etc.


What kind of results could be achieved if we ignite enthusiasm for crowdsourced participation in Ottawa urban planning?

Ottawa Citizens, Ontario residents, and Canadians who are well informed about Ottawa’s plans and are constructively vocal and active about influencing them for the better could help achieve better results faster. The faster we can build consensus on the priorities (Focus!) and support them, the faster a better future can arrive.

What is holding us back?

Action Plan:

2017 is Canada’s 150th birthday which makes it a great near term milestone for taking action and measuring progress.

If you want to do more than just observe the debate let’s discuss how we can get involved and contribute.

  • Let’s lobby with a grass roots discussion on what is the plan and priorities the people of Ottawa, Ontario, and Canada really want and to establish an open process showing how they can constructively contribute.

  • Let’s Ignite Ottawa by speaking up to create a joint vision for Ottawa’s future.

If you too would like to discuss and speak up on the future plans for the Ottawa region contact: glen@igniteottawa.ca


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