I am going to come right out and say it – Ottawa is a beautiful city. Home to most of Canada’s national museums, the Parliament buildings, the Rideau Canal, and almost a century and a half of history since Confederation in 1867, it was a great place to visit.
Being from Western Canada, Ottawa has always seemed very far away. Indeed, Google Maps pegs the distance from downtown Winnipeg to Ottawa at a whopping 2177 km if driving exclusively through Canada. By comparison, Vancouver is only 116 km further and typically takes less time to drive. That said, Ottawa has always felt as if it was next door. Ottawa, as the seat of Canadian federal politics, has a way of seeming as if it was only a hop, skip and a jump away.
Due to this vast geographical impasse, the first time I set foot in our nation’s capital was in 2008 while attending a conference. It was a bit surreal to see the Parliament buildings, or some of the most famous Group of Seven works hanging in the National Gallery of Canada. It felt like a sort of pilgrimage that I think every Canadian should complete at one point in their lives. I had a similar feeling when visiting London, England, where, standing in the shadow of Big Ben, next to the tomb of Queen Victoria, or face-to-face with Van Gogh’s Chair – suddenly, history was alive and vibrating with a kind of energy that even the best textbook, video, or history teacher could never deliver.
Ottawa, quite simply, offers a broad range of experiences for tourists regardless of the season. I found the people there to be very friendly, and almost exceedingly bilingual. I enjoyed being able to speak in both French and English with comparable ease, and everyone seemed to be making an effort to engage with the founding languages of Upper and Lower Canada. The transit system was easy to use, and there are plenty of freely accessible public spaces and parks. The Byward Market is a fantastic shopping/entertainment district within walking distance of Parliament, and is also home to boutique hotels and delightful B&B’s.
I chose this photo of Ottawa’s Sparks Street because I remember hearing about and watching big happenings on Sparks Street on national television through the 1990s. Sparks Street appeared to be this magical place, replete with all the wonders of late twentieth century life. It was lined with TV screens, buzzing with electricity, and always appeared to be full of people shopping, going about their day, and enjoying the various food and beverage outlets that lined the first floors of most buildings. It seemed to have a very European appeal, a kind of public space that is rare in Canadian cities.
A brief bit about Sparks Street’s history: The corridor, which runs parallel to Wellington Street, was once host to a streetcar line that was part of the Ottawa Electric Railway. As was the case in Winnipeg, streetcars were slowly phased out in the 1950s as transportation phenomena changed dramatically with the massive adoption of the automobile. It was pedestrianized in the 1960s, and has undergone several transformations since. In the 1990s, the “mall” was overhauled and given a fresh look, but an exceedingly 90s one at that. You can always read more on Wikipedia or read the City of Ottawa’s vision for the district if you’re really feeling adventurous.
I have to say, when I stood on Sparks Street’s sprawling mass of interlocking brick, I didn’t feel that same magic that I did elsewhere in Ottawa. Like many 1990s-era renovation projects in Winnipeg and Calgary (think of Portage Place or Eau Claire Market), the latest redux of Sparks Street had left it feeling a bit cold and distant, no longer a central social space for the capital region’s many workers. I also remarked how many businesses restaurants and cafes were closed in the middle of the day or would close immediately at 6 PM – something all too familiar in Winnipeg and Calgary’s business districts. All I could feel on the admittedly bleak November day was the bite of the wind and overhanging feeling of nostalgia as if the buildings were lamenting the days when they were put to better use.
If I could offer Ottawa’s planning department one piece of advice, it would be this: Reduce the available walking space in a constructive and deliberate manner. This concept is a familiar one to club scene aficionados. If the dance floor is too big, it will always seem empty and uninviting. If the dance floor is just small enough, it will always appear to be full, thereby reducing the activation energy for entry of the less dance-oriented clientele. In this context, leaving such a wide open (and very long) pedestrian space without adequate social “meeting places” kills the potential and leaves a vast ocean of pre-formed concrete between one pedestrian and the next. Without grounding influences like kiosks, fountains, public art, and so on, it always ends up feeling a bit like walking over a moonscape.