By Adam Slight
We started this blog almost two years ago in an effort to curb some of Ottawa’s stereotypes as a lifeless, bureaucratic city. Many others have been fighting this battle, taking the form of urban blogs, social media personalities, and event organizers, highlighting the vibrancy and fun that Ottawa has to offer.
This is a strategy of creating culturally savvy citizens through a show of civic participation. It is an attempt to improve Ottawa by creating more involvement and enthusiasm in the proverbial bureaucratic stiffs that supposedly inhabit the city.
But I don’t think it’s enough.
A recent study by CIBC has rated Ottawa’s economy at 7th of the top 10 cities in Canada, trailing behind Toronto, Calgary, Regina, Winnipeg, Saskatoon, and Edmonton, (but just ahead of Vancouver). While Ottawa is by no means floundering, it can’t be denied that there is plenty of room for Ottawa to grow.
Local news media commonly reports on Ottawa’s downtown BIAs such as the Byward Market and Sparks Street struggling to attract shoppers. Some would be quick to blame Ottawans themselves for being boring, for not leaving their homes or staying out late, or for not attending community festivals. The BIAs respond by putting on more ambitious festivals and stretching marketing budgets thin, in hopes that people will drive downtown for the day and maybe do some shopping while they’re at it.
The importance of having a thriving city centre is that a city’s core is where most of it’s local commerce emerges. This is where you’ll find the highest density of local merchants, and its where these merchants interact with and hire from each other. It’s the age-old story of shopping local to keep money flowing within the community instead of sending it out elsewhere (through chain stores).
But it won’t be flashy events, new downtown parking garages, or more enthusiastic citizens that will stimulate Ottawa. It takes real economic and urban changes.
We’ve argued many times that Ottawa’s suburban sprawl is causing serious strain on the city’s infrastructure. Ottawa has been building outwards for decades now, and the slump that we’re seeing downtown is the fallout of this trend. With 90% of Ottawa’s citizens living in suburban communities, the tax dollar is being stretched across a wider, population-sparse area (meaning there is less money to put into infrastructure for every square kilometre of the city), and the majority of consumer spending is being made in chain stores out in the fringes.
Have you ever wondered why they don’t plan to build light rail out to Barrhaven? Because it’s nearly 20 km away
from the nearest proposed East-West station! The cost would be astronomical! This is a good example of the economic strain that suburbs put on a city’s budget.
While many decry the downtown condo, for many reasons both valid and knee-jerk, there is a lot to be said about concentrating a city’s population downtown. Tax-dollar spending is more efficient, and local business can thrive off of walk-by traffic. The recent movement to transform downtown federal office buildings into condominiums has me very encouraged for this reason (and I think it is the key to success for the downtown BIAs).
With a denser downtown population, festival and event budgets could be spent on improving the event itself instead of marketing it, as people would simply discover the event walking out their front door. Event participation would no longer look so sparse with a more populous neighbourhoods, and lack of parking spaces would cease to be the primary (ridiculous) complaint about downtown BIAs, because less people would be visiting from Barrhaven.
This need for local stimulation applies not only to consumer spending but also corporate and federal spending as well. There is a trend with corporate and government bodies in Ottawa to outsource work to contractors and consultants from other cities and provinces. The common practice of francophone executives (which there are a lot of, despite Ottawa’s declining bilingualism) hiring a contractor from Montreal on the grounds of common language does economic damage to the community, not to mention drains it of its local character.
These bodies should make a stronger effort to examine options locally before looking elsewhere. This applies even at the federal level, as federal bodies residing in Ottawa remain a part of the community even though they represent Canada as a whole.
While the movement to put on a smile and praise Ottawa’s strengths is a noble one, we should not ignore where Ottawa’s money is going, and what can be done to keep it in the community.