Monday, 30 June 2014

Urban Lessons from Ottawa to Calgary

The first part of my journey to Ireland and the green-fields beyond was a 6 day stretch in Ottawa for weddings, relatives and Canada Day festivities.

A few thoughts on my impression of Ottawa and what a city like Calgary can learn from it:

Parliament Hill preparations for Canada Day

One of the first feelings I have when arriving in Ottawa from Calgary is the change of pace. Calgary has progressively gotten busier, faster and louder. Ottawa doesn't share this rush. Everything from traffic, to construction projects, to the way that people move around in the city seems to be paced a notch or two below Calgary. Even though the two cities are of similar size, Calgary is noticeably more focused on change where Ottawa's change appears to happen gradually and almost imperceptibly.

That is not to say Ottawa is sleepy; it still after-all is the seat of the federal government, and centres a urban region of a dozen or so fringe cities equalling well over 1 million inhabitants. It is clear that the population and economic growth factors that are so often the principle factor influencing changes to the built form and urban environment are significantly less boom-and-bust than Calgary.

View of new downtown condo projects from the popular high-street, Elgin Street

Like many cities in Canada, the renewed focus and interest in living in the urban centre of Ottawa is very present. New condominiums, restaurants and shops are sprouting throughout the core and other increasingly popular urban strips such as Westboro.

Much more present than in Calgary is bicycle infrastructure and subsequently cyclists. There is clear support for cycling in Ottawa and it does not consist of just the beautiful Ottawa River pathways and Rideau Canal. Lanes, signals and spaces are designated throughout the city, on major arterial roadways and downtown roads. It is clear that the idea of cycling for transportation is considered on far wider swaths of the city than Calgary. Simple, cheap - and most importantly - present infrastructure is key to win public support for cycling initiatives. It is impossible to drive in Ottawa without seeing multiple pieces of cycling infrastructure. It legitimizes cycling in a way that Calgary is only just starting to with its own cycle-track network.

Segregated bicycle lanes on Laurier Ave in Downtown Ottawa. The simplicity and lack of frills is present throughout the cycle network; meaning more lanes and more kilometres of infrastructure; albeit less fancy than Calgary.

Patios are built for the summer along the Rideau Canal, immediately offering life and energy into the park setting. I passed this one on a rented bicycle at 9:00am, hence the lack of "life or energy" in this picture below.

Calgary should absolutely emulate this on every available space in summer months along the Bow River:

Summer patio setup on the banks of the Rideau Canal. The direct Calgary analogy would be temporary patios and beer gardens lining the Bow River Pathway from Kensington to Montgomery. A great idea to better utilize green space in sunny months that sit empty.
 As the capital, it is not surprising that Ottawa has clearly invested in parks and other institutions that are second-to-none in the country:
The Rideau Canal is one of the most beautiful waterways in Canada. A web of locks, parks and multi-use pathways stretch from the outskirts to Central Ottawa, a block from Parliament Hill.
 All of the focus on beauty and architecture gives Ottawa a much more romantic and personal side than the average Calgary experience. A lock-bridge has formed spontaneously over the Rideau Canal. The symbolism of connection that a bridge provides is combined with the symbolism of a lock's permanence. The key is traditionally thrown in the canal. Note the plethora of combination locks, suggesting that not all Ottawaians are convinced in the romantic side of the city:
A lock bridge forming over the Rideau Canal near University of Ottawa. A great way to add interest to an urban space.

Ottawa offers many vantage points to reaffirm it's commitment to being beautiful:

The view from behind the Parliament Buildings on Parliament Hill. The structure ahead is the National Gallery of Canada along Sussex Drive, also home to the trendy Byward Market area as well as numerous embassies and the Prime Minister's residence. 

Calgary and Ottawa offer a significant contrast for two cities relatively close together in size. Ottawa's offerings of architecture, bicycle infrastructure and park space is something that should be envied and emulated by any city that wants to attract people to it. It has a quiet confidence that hums along in the background, slowly changing the city and reaffirming it's own identity. As Calgary has grown so fast, it will need to come to terms with a new and ever-changing identity that has grown along with it.

Ottawa offers many ideas of how urban identity and our built environment are connected. I hope that Calgary can use some of the lessons Ottawa provides to strengthen it's own image, ideas and offerings as we continue to develop. There is much here that would be incredible to have in Calgary.

Also Ottawa has formal military marching bands all over the place, which never hurts a city's charm:

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