Friday, February 11, 2011

“When I grow up I want to be like Toronto” Part 2

In my last past I spoke about the intangibles that Toronto has that Ottawa can learn from- vision, identity, and morale.  I explained that it’s the lack of these intangibles, the little foxes that spoil the vine, which can hinder city-building efforts.

There are also practical, tangible things that Toronto does well that we can learn from- Development/design, branding, economics, and city-building.


Looking at designs for new developments in Toronto, like Tridel’s Hullmark Centre, sometimes makes me salivate and leaves me envious.  Residents of any city deserve to have buildings and developments that they can proudly show off to visitors from out of town.  Ottawa’s new convention centre is definitely one of those buildings, but these kinds of masterpieces are rare in this city.

When I went back to Toronto for Christmas my wife and I noticed buildings by developers who also develop properties in Ottawa.  We noticed that the calibre of their work in Toronto was higher than that of their work in Ottawa.  I don’t know about you, but that bothers me.  There’s a competitiveness in me that says that we deserve the same calibre of design as any other city.

I would go as far as to say that there are condos in downtown Ottawa that you would probably never see in downtown Toronto.  There are materials used in downtown developments in Ottawa that you would hardly see in downtown Toronto.  There is a higher standard of design.  We have to start wanting more for ourselves as a city.  We deserve it as much as any other city does.

Embracing mediocrity

I hope this is not offensive, but Ottawa seems to be comfortable in the mediocre.  Our main downtown mall, the Rideau Centre, has sections of its exterior boarded up with big slabs of wood along the main street, and it’s been in that state since I’ve arrived.

There needs to be a healthy sense of pride where we say, “This is not acceptable” because it wouldn’t be at the Eaton Centres in Toronto and Montréal (although all three malls are under the same ownership).  Yonge Street and Rue St. Catherine are too important to those cities.  They know their identity, self-worth, and value.  We have to care about the physical appearance of our city as well.

Design and development help to build a city’s brand and reputation; it creates an experience for the people that walk by them.  It communicates something about the city.

For the most part, design and development speak poorly of Ottawa with the exception of a few examples.  Except for the parliamentary precinct, Ottawa's architecture doesn’t create much of an experience for me.  We can't continue to glory in the beauty of our older buildings alone; we have to find our identity today.


You know a city is branded well when the city’s name stands alone.  You can say its name without having to explain what country it’s in.  If someone were abroad and said they were from New York, London, Montréal, Toronto, Vancouver, Barcelona, or Paris they wouldn’t have to specify where it is.  People don’t say, “I’m from New York, it’s a city in the eastern United States.”  This is what happens when you become a big city and international centre.  If I was from Newmarket and I was abroad I would have some explaining to do.  “I’m from Newmarket.  It’s a city in Ontario, Canada”.  The name doesn’t stand alone yet.  The same goes for smaller cities like Windsor, Victoria, or St. Johns.  

Where does Ottawa stand?  

It seems as though we're still in the company of the smaller cities in Canada, or just slightly ahead, partly because we act like a small town.  I could be wrong, but I don’t think the name Ottawa is a stand-alone name yet; perhaps it is in government and corporate circles.  In fact there are probably peopl in other countries that couldn’t tell you what the Capital of Canada is; they’d probably say Toronto.

Many cities are branded by the experience they provide.  Paris is the “City of Love”, Philadelphia is the “City of Brotherly Love”, New York is “the Big Apple”, and Las Vegas is the “City that never sleeps”.

What is the experience that Ottawa provides?  So far it seems to be the “City that fun forgot” and “Canada’s Technology Capital”.  Does that sound like a place you want to visit?

Ottawa doesn’t have the best reputation in many parts of Canada.  Ottawa appears to be the place where grown men and women in suits come to argue.  It's seen as the source of many people's problems.  It definitely isn’t known as an exciting and fun city.

The role of the Capital

I really wonder what the 21st century role of the Capital city in Canada is supposed to be.  What do Canadians want out of their Capital?  Do they want museums and monuments?  Do they want exciting places to gather?  The idea of the Capital doesn't seem to have the same honour in Canada as it does in the U.S. and China.  Do we need to redefine the role of the Capital in Canada?

When I told people I was moving to Ottawa the response I got the most was “But there’s nothing to do there.”  That reflects your brand and with that reputation it would be hard to attract tourists, students and new residents.  As a result, in the black community Ottawa has been branded “Ottawack”.  

Branding comes as a result of identity.  You have to know who you are before you can brand.  Unfortunately, if you don’t brand yourself, people will brand you first.


Economics is the new order or currency of the day, especially during the global economic downturn, as seen by Canada's respect on the global stage.

The previous currency was military strength and governmental stability.  England isn't a global leader because of its military like during the world wars; it's influential because London is a major international centre for finance, business, and transportation.  The G8 capital cities were once the talk of the world, but in 2011 we are hearing more about Mumbai, Singapore, and Beijing than Rome, Washington DC, Tokyo, and Berlin. 

Ottawa prides itself on being a G8 capital city, but as the G20, which includes more of the economic powers in the international community, rises to prominence, that designation will begin to mean less.  

We can’t deny that Toronto is positioning itself to participate in this new order.  They have done economic development well and are increasingly becoming a global player.  They have a unified Board of Trade, great online economic development and investment portals, and successful international events.  We can’t let pride hinder us from learning from their successes.  


Every great city seems to have forerunners and visionaries that guide their city into its destiny.  New York City wouldn't be what it is today without JP Morgan, Donald Trump, and to a lesser extent, Mike Bloomberg.  Toronto wouldn't be what it is today without Ted Rogers, Moses Znaimer, and Paul Godfrey; city-builders who basically put the city on their backs and ran with it.  Growing up in Toronto I saw how these men dedicated their time and money to city-building.

I sometimes ask myself, “Where are the Ted Rogers, Moses Znaimers, and Paul Godfreys of Ottawa?”  I can’t find them, but we need them.  We need those men and woman who live, eat, sleep and breathe their city.  If there’s anything I would take from Toronto in a heartbeat it’s their attitude towards city-building.

One entrepreneurial, city-builder sold out for their city can accomplish more economically than a group of small business owners and more than a city council.  Look at what Mike Lazaridis and Jim Balsillie of RIM are doing for Waterloo, employing tens of thousands, donating millions to universities, founding international institutes for physics and policy, and basically putting the city on the map.

I believe Ottawa has what it takes to become more of an economic centre, but first we have to begin seeing ourselves as an international city and global player, not just a small hillbilly town in the Ottawa Valley.  We’re a leader in the region, are supposed to be a leader in the country, and have what it takes to be a leader internationally. 

In my next post I'll talk about what I believe Ottawa does well and where I think it's headed.

Kevin Bourne

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