I just got back from a two-week holiday in Paris and Barcelona. Most of you have probably been to Paris. And many to Barcelona and other of Europe’s great cities. It was my first time, despite urban planning issues being one of my, shall we say, pasttimes.
Of course, we have some interesting cities in Canada. Montreal’s beauty and its friendliness to pedestrians make it perhaps our best, if not most economically vigorous, example. Toronto has energy, sometimes frenetic, and is perhaps the best place in the world to be gay or lesbian. Vancouver’s got a magnificent setting between ocean and mountains, but the city itself is largely ugly, and over-tangled in regulations that prevent it from actually becoming much fun. Still, every Canadian queer should spend at least one summer in Vancouver.
And then there’s Ottawa. Ah, yes. Friendly people. Lots of limestone buildings in the downtown core, and brick houses. Terrific swimming in the rivers and nearby lakes (my favourite thing about the city). A few museums. A couple of decent galleries and theatres. Hmm.
Of course, if you never get out, it doesn’t seem so bad. But really, it’s a disgrace for a G8 capital. Unless you get a job working for the feds, why would anyone stay here after graduating from university? Well, they don’t. Our paper informally surveyed gay university students in 2005 and most of them said they were getting out after graduating — pointing to Montreal and Toronto as better choices for living. A city that doesn’t keep its young becomes, well, it becomes fuddy-duddy. And that’s exactly what Ottawa is becoming.
It doesn’t have to be this way. We could require developers to create new buildings that enhance the streetscape rather than detract from it (this is not a suggestion that we stick to low-rise development in the core; we absolutely need a major density increase to create a liveable space that encourages pedestrians and sustains small merchants while creating a sense of belonging and community). Our core should be pretty, or at least visually interesting, and have elevation — a new-world version of Paris or Barcelona but on a smaller scale.
We could create a subway and streetcar system that is so comprehensive that it doesn’t make sense to use the automobile, or to live too far out from the core. As we build up the transit options, we could put a hefty per-trip charge on car use in the core just like they do in European cities now. Result: more liveable and denser cities along with environmental sustainability.
We could understand that our young, and visiting tourists, just wanna have fun. We’re clamping down on allowing more bars in Ottawa’s core when we should instead be telling residents that this how it is in a city. When I was in Barcelona, I went to a bar one Thursday at midnight. At 3am I moved on to a second bar. At 6am, that bar let out, at which time many customers went to an after-hours club that took them through til noon the next day. Now, that’s civilization (bars, by the way, boast very fun backrooms for sex, if you’re thinking about a visit). Paris is much the same. Why can’t we phase in something like that in Ottawa? Maybe it would attract tourist revenues. Maybe it would keep our young around after graduation. Maybe it would stem the tide of gay men of all ages going to Montreal on weekends because they’re so tired of the limited options here.
We could spread around a lot more street sculpture, make those ugly neighbourhood parks into something we’re proud of, install self-cleaning public toilets in tourist areas, retrofit pretty benches into our public spaces so people could take a break, and, oh, so much more.
Instead, our local establishment gets angry when people speak the truth about Ottawa’s mediocrity. Gay Ottawa native and style guru Tyler Brulé was correct in noting in a 2005 essay that this city is a “national disgrace” because of its poor planning, ugly architecture and allowing the needs of auto users to come first.
More recently, rightwing journalist Andrew Cohen criticizes the city in his new book, The Unfinished Canadian: The People We Are. I disagree with his inclination toward the old and stuffy (he likes Sussex Drive and the Neo-Gothic buildings of the last century but dislikes the brilliant new pedestrian bridge and contemporary architecture).
But he has a point when he writes, however bitterly, “Ottawans don’t demand a sense of their city from City Hall. Ottawa is happy with the ordinary. It is genteel and orderly, terrified of spontaneity. It has not had a big idea in years. No wonder it has no municipal concert hall and no rapid transit system. Like misery, mediocrity loves company. Ottawa is happy to oblige, in one way after another.”
Perhaps it’s only the queer community that can save this city. It’s desperately in need of our energy, optimism, pizzazz and, yes, designer genes. But even we are holding it in. Come on, let it out. We can make this a city that our kind flocks to. Starting with creating a Rainbow Village.