Everyone loves to look down on Ottawa.
“The town that fun forgot,” columnist Allan Fotheringham liked to call it. Last year, the website SmarterTravel ranked Canada’s “quiet and dull” national capital one of the nine most boring cities in the world.
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But Ottawa’s reputation for bland is out of date. Mostly by accident, but also partly by design, quiet and dull has given way to vibrant and diverse.
It’s time to stand up and declare: Ottawa has arrived.
The city has always been more interesting than its critics contend, gifted with pleasant neighbourhoods and an abundance of green space. It’s also one of the few genuinely bilingual parts of Canada, where French-speaking and English-speaking Canadians co-exist more-or-less happily.
But for most of its history, this has been a one-industry town, with government the industry, giving the city a rep for being as bland as its bureaucrats.
In recent years, however, the city of a million people has shown a new vibrancy, thanks to three major trends. The first started a couple of decades ago with the migration of Gen Xers and then millennials from the suburbs where they grew up to the core, transforming once-staid neighbourhoods such as Hintonburg and Westboro into vibrant urban hubs.
“There is so much that has happened to Ottawa,” says Zara Ansar, 36. Raised in the eastern suburb of Orleans, she lives now in Little Italy, just west of the downtown core, and hosts a website (xovelo.com) dedicated to cycling and fashion.
“The Ottawa I grew up in was very small-town, not very diverse, until maybe the late nineties, when things started popping up,” she says. Now, “there’s always something happening.”
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That increasing diversity is another reason for the city’s transformation. A generation ago, Ottawa was as white as it was white-bread. Today, one quarter of the population belongs to a visible minority. Among other things, immigrants have helped transform the city’s culinary landscape from roast beef and Yorkshire pudding to trendy bistros and cuisines from countries as diverse as Malaysia and Ethiopia.
When Josh Bishop started working in Ottawa kitchens almost three decades ago, the restaurant scene was “lots of wings, lots of ribs, sizzling platters. Today, says the founder of Whalesbone, a groundbreaking seafood restaurant (there are now four of them, in one iteration or another), the food and bar scene is “as good as or better than anywhere in Canada.”
The only difference between Ottawa and Montreal or Ottawa and Toronto, he says, is “maybe it’s a little tougher to be bad in Ottawa,” although the 43-year-old father of two, who is now out of the restaurant business, says you can still be bad “if you know where to look.”
The cultural scene is far more diverse as well. On top of Bluesfest and the other major festivals, local activists organize ad hoc street celebrations, bike rallies and workshops, employing such alt-art venues as General Assembly, a performance space; Enriched Bread Artists, a visual-arts collective; the House of PainT hip-hop jam (which takes place under a bridge); and Apt613, a highly popular community website.
“When you have people who are diverse − diversely interested and diversely skilled – who choose to stay in the city, they’re going to create the city they want,” says Laine Johnson, executive director of Synapcity, a local non-profit that encourages people and organizations to work together to improve the city. “And that’s starting to happen.”
As well, politicians have finally started to get their act together. A generation ago, the three big questions facing the city were: (A) what to do with the rundown and underused Lansdowne Park area; (B) how to redevelop the barren LeBreton Flats on the western edge of downtown; and (C) whether Ottawa needed a light-rail system.
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Three decades later, Lansdowne Park has finally been redeveloped as a mix of shops and restaurants, along with a redeveloped stadium, and the city is getting a new central library as part of the ever-so-slow filling-in of LeBreton Flats. An arena for the Ottawa Senators is planned for the site, and the transformation of abandoned industrial lands at nearby Chaudiere Falls into a new commercial and residential hub called Zibi will finally connect the city with the Ottawa River, and with Gatineau, on the Quebec side of the national capital region.
And in November, a spanking new LRT is scheduled to start moving passengers, the biggest infrastructure project since the Rideau Canal, and one that goes underground as it passes through the downtown core, which should help spur the renewal of the rundown parts of Centretown.
Redevelopment is far from perfect. Paul Kariouk, an architect who also teaches at Carleton University, believes that politicians at the municipal level, especially, are too quick to sell off public lands to private developers − he is particularly unhappy that Lansdowne Park is mostly a shopping mall − with little sense of creating a truly special urban environment. “They put on blinders and they don’t learn from what’s already happened in other cities in Canada and around the world,” he says.
Nonetheless, openings and reopenings abound: The old train station across from the Chateau Laurier will soon house the Senate, and a rebuilt West Block will host the House of Commons as Centre Block undergoes a decade-long restoration.
The brutalist National Arts Centre has an elegant new glass skin; the Ottawa Art Gallery reopened in new digs earlier this year. Even the dilapidated Sparks Street pedestrian mall is starting to show signs of life, thanks to encroaching new condo towers.
Most important of all, Ottawa remains remarkably affordable, which is helping fuel the third demographic trend reshaping the city: the renascent tech sector. After the dot-com bust of 2000, many of the region’s technology firms closed or downsized. But a new wave of companies led by e-commerce giant Shopify, along with the survivors from the old days, now employs 70,000 workers, many of them young hipsters drawn to Ottawa in part because the average home in May sold for $386,000, half its Toronto equivalent.
Kenniy Olorunnimbe, who is 36, arrived from Lagos in 2013 to study at University of Ottawa. Today, he is a software programmer at Klipfolio, a young company of about 100 employees that helps businesses accumulate and visualize performance data.
The thing he loves most about Ottawa, he says, is that he owns a townhouse in Barrhaven, a southern suburb. “In Toronto, I could never afford that.”
“For quality of life, we can compete with any city in the world,” says Allan Wille, Klipfolio’s CEO, although he admits he tries to avoid showing off the city to potential new hires in February.
Ottawa is bound to become more interesting as its economy and population become more and more diverse.
“Anybody who is passionate about something and brave enough to take a chance and bring something different to the city will succeed,” predicts Amber Stratton, who co-owns several businesses, including yoga studios and vegetarian restaurants. “There’s so much opportunity.”
Which makes it, perhaps, the most typically Canadian city of them all.