Friday, February 11, 2011

The future is friendly for Ottawa

As I said a few articles ago, when I first came to this city I spent hours in the Ottawa Room to learn about the city’s past and present.  One of my favourite things to do is to look at old pictures of cities.  I try to imagine myself living in those times.  I probably love history as much as I love the future.  As the saying goes, “If you don’t know where you’ve come from you won’t know where you’re going.”

I like Ottawa’s history- the theatres, the buildings, and the evolution from a lumber town to a political Capital.  It’s a beautiful rags to riches story.  It’s a story of the overlooked underdog becoming somebody.

Ottawa seemed like a happening and exciting place decades ago.  Big theatre openings attended by celebrities from south of the border, visits by the Royal Family, and legendary concerts by Elvis Presley and Jimi Hendrix.  With the help of entrepreneurs like Thomas Aheard Ottawa was on the cutting edge of electric technology.

Charting Ottawa’s Development

Human beings go through three broad phases of development- childhood, adolescence, and adulthood.   I believe it’s the same for cities.  

Last year I asked a question on Twitter.  “Lumber town, political capital...What will be the third phase of Ottawa’s development?”

I believe as a lumber town Ottawa was in childhood, currently as a political capital we are in adolescence, and that there is still adulthood awaiting our city.  In my last post I spoke about adolescence being a time where there is inner conflict about identity.  Ottawa seems to be in this phase now.  There seems to be constant debates that revolve around the fact that people have different ideas of what Ottawa is supposed to be.  Small town?  Big city?  Political capital?  Technology centre?  Cosmopolitan city?   

Mature cities like Toronto and Montreal don’t have these kinds of debates about what their city is.  Their identities are clear and they’ve moved on to branding the city in line with their identity.   

I don’t believe that “political capital” is the last phase of Ottawa’s development.  I believe that Ottawa as political capital is in a transition period on the way to its true identity.  Just as our city evolved from lumber town to political capital, it will evolve again.  The same amount of vision, leadership and investment it took to evolve from lumber town to political capital is the same amount vision, leadership and investment it will take for Ottawa to move on to adulthood.  What will Ottawa look like as an adult?

Ottawa, the International City

I recently heard someone refer to Toronto as an international city.  While Toronto has become a global player through finance, economic development, and signature events like its film festival, I believe Ottawa has the potential of being even more of an international city than Toronto in a cosmopolitan sense.

When I arrived in Ottawa I was like a kid in a candy store every time I drove around a roundabout or saw a double-decker bus even though there are few.  It made me feel like I was in another country.  Actually, I still get excited about roundabouts.  I go out of my way just to drive around them because I never had that experience in Toronto.  My wife laughed at me yesterday because I went out of my way to drive around the roundabout in Orléans. 

These feelings were echoed by someone I met from Sweden who was in town doing an internship at the Swedish embassy.  She mentioned that she felt at home in Ottawa because it was so much like Europe.  This is the experience that Ottawa has to offer.

I read about Laurier’s vision of Ottawa being a “Washington of the North”; a place of thought and national reflection.  The truth is we may never be a Washington DC nor do I think we should be.  We may never have the same power and clout, although there are some things they do well that we can learn from.

With Ottawa’s museums, boutiques, dining, market, arts, and bilingualism it really should be more of an international city.  In our marketing I see us pandering to Ontario and Québec for tourism when our city should be enjoyed by the international community.  Ottawa is not just “Canada’s Technology Capital”, but “Canada’s Cosmopolitan Capital”.  Ottawa’s cosmopolitan feel was the subject of an article by a Washington Post writer last year who always knew the city as “the city that fun forgot”.

At some point Ottawa will need to become international in its scope; not just in politics and technology, we have so much more to offer.  European cities like London and Paris provide us with a glimpse of what we can become.  They are international cities steeped in heritage and history that are also modern, vibrant cities.  Ottawa has a rich history that should be preserved, but it also has a bright future.  

What gives me the authority to make these kinds of observations?  Nothing really.  This is just the sense that I get after living in this city for a year and a half.

Looking forward

I look forward to seeing a new brand of leadership rise up in Ottawa, whether in the Federal Government, Municipal Government, or private sector.  I’d like to see leaders with the vision to guide Ottawa from adolescence to adulthood, from a hillbilly small town in the Ottawa Valley to the international, cosmopolitan city that it’s supposed to be.

I look forward to a new generation of Thomas Aheards; entrepreneurs and dreamers who will put Ottawa back on the cutting edge making us a leader and not a follower.

I look forward to seeing city-builders rise up in Ottawa; the Donald Trumps, JP Morgans, Paul Godfreys, Ted Rogers, and Moses Znaimers of our city.

Ottawa is going places, we just need to know who we are.

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