Friday, March 4, 2011

The capital belongs to the people

Recent events with the National Capital Commission have me thinking about the idea of a capital.  What is its role?  Who should determine what it looks like?

In Greco-Roman society where democracy was born, the capital was a gathering place for the people, aside from being the place from which the Emperor ruled.  When democracy was born it was different than what we see today; in those days there was no representative government.  When it was time to vote on legislation the people, specifically men, would gather in the public square of the city-state and vote in laws.  As cities expanded it became harder for people to travel to the public square to vote on legislation so representative government was born.

As a result of the evolution of democracy, citizens aren’t as engaged as they were in Greco-Roman society.  Representative government is needed with the size of our cities, provinces and countries, but the fact still remains that the capital and its seat of government should be a gathering place for the people.  Let me say it differently- the capital belongs to the people, not the Federal Government.  

When I hear that the NCC’s mandate is to preserve the historical character of the capital, the truth is this mandate was not given by the people but by the Federal Government.  When you think about who has set the vision for what the capital is supposed to be, the vision did not come from the people but from the Federal Government via Gréber and Laurier.  Now don’t get me wrong, I used to work for the Federal Government so I don’t hate the institution, but I’m not comfortable with how the capital in managed.

There were questions raised by Marie Lemay, CEO of the NCC, in a new interview with the Ottawa Citizen.  “We’ve been talking about a vibrant capital and how you can make it liveable and exciting, and is a digital screen part of that strategy?  Is this a sign of the times?  And is it something we have to move to?  Is a digital screen compatible with the character of this particular location?  Is it a good thing but maybe not in that location?”  She goes on to say that she doesn’t know if they will even recommend the Art Wall proposal to the board.  The answers to these questions concerning our capital should not come from people in a board room alone; the people should be allowed to have a strong say.  But the truth is if professionals like Jim Durrell can’t be trusted to answer these questions, why would the average Ottawan or Canadian be trusted?

You may not agree, but in today’s society the NCC should take their cues from the people when it comes to the vision and identity of the capital.  Organizations all over the world are moving away from the top-down approach to development to a participatory, resident-led approach, whether it’s in international development or waterfront development.  Leaders then become facilitators of disussion.  In other words they are returning to the true sense of democracy.  Leaders are starting to realize that if you allow the people to set the vision, or at least partner in developing the vision, you are more like to ensure buy-in and success.

Thousands of dollars can be saved in trying to sell the capital to Canadians by giving them a say in the vision and identity.  Frustration by local residents could be avoided by allowing us to participate in creating a vision and identity for the capital that we call home.

Though it’s a small issue, in the case of the Art Wall, an invisible board or team of executives shouldn’t determine the outcome in isolation.  This is about more than just an LED screen; it’s about the direction and identity of the capital.  What the events in the Middle East show us is that people want a say in how they and their homeland are governed.  Let the people weigh in, whether for or against, and the NCC can facilitate the discussion; it’s our gathering place.  The capital belongs to the people.

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