We're officially a big city. Let's start acting like one

What does it actually mean to be a city of one million? A little more risk-taking, a tad more swagger and an insistence on excellence, Joanne Chianello writes.

We need to take risks and insist on excellence — we need to swagger

Ottawa has officially been declared a city of one million people. We've got all the trappings of a metropolis — now let's develop the attitude to match. (The Canadian Press)

Today, Ottawa officially becomes a big city, a metropolis even — a national capital of one million people.

Not precisely today, of course. This is our best guess, based on statistics. When Mayor Jim Watson makes the pronouncement of our seven-figure population milestone in front of City Hall Friday afternoon, he won't be able to name our one-millionth resident.

But he is right to mark this as a turning point, if only symbolically.

For too long now, we've debated whether we're a small big city or a big small one. Too often, innovative ideas from elsewhere have been met with the response: "That'll never work in Ottawa." And for goodness sakes, we are not the city that fun forgot.

But what does it actually mean to be a city of one million?

Well, for starters, it doesn't make us all that big, not in the global scheme of things. Heck, it only makes us the sixth-largest city in Canada, and way down the list of North America's largest urban centres. California alone boasts three cities larger than Ottawa.

Population boom

These things are relative, though.

In the past 20 years, Ottawa's population has jumped by one-third. Just by dint of that rapid growth, we can now support a new mass transit system — assuming it eventually works — a new central library, more restaurants, local farmers markets across the city, renewed inner-city neighbourhoods and booming suburbs.

Ottawa's new LRT system has been beset by delays, and is now more than a year late. (City of Ottawa)

Our city is diverse — about one-quarter of Ottawa's residents were born outside Canada — a fact our festival scene reflects gloriously.

This month alone, you can drop by Preston Street's annual Italian festival or the Festival Franco-Ontarien at Major's Hill Park, and cheer on the paddlers competing in the Ottawa Dragon Boat Festival.

The Summer Solstice Indigenous Festival and International Competition Pow Wow remind us who was here first.

The Summer Solstice Indigenous Festival reminds us who was here first. (Supplied)

But diversity doesn't just mean variety in our roots. It's also about contemporary cultural range. So, catch some short plays at The Fringe, party at Centretown's GlowFair, rock out at Escapade or find your groove at the Ottawa Jazz Festival.

More of us means we can support more professional sports teams, too, although population alone is no guarantee of a franchise's success, as evidenced by the dismal attendance at Ottawa Senators games last season.

A city of one million can help support professional sports franchises like the Ottawa Senators. (Jana Chytilova/Freestyle Photography/Getty Images)

Living in a livable city

Surpassing this population milestone needn't necessarily alter the essence of our city — the approachable livability we long to preserve.

Our proximity to nature, our bike path network, our transit system, the national museums and monuments — all these make Ottawa an ideal place to live for so many. And while housing prices have been on the rise, they haven't quite hit the socially disruptive levels seen in Toronto or Vancouver.

Our proximity to nature is one of the things that makes Ottawa so livable. Nicki Bridgland, founder and CEO of the Rideau Sports Centre, is a partner in a local ski trail project. (Hallie Cotnam/CBC)

None of this is to suggest we should be content with the status quo. Indeed, if we don't keep pushing for improvements, our envied livability will fall rapidly away.

As we continue to grow, we need a mass transit system that can reliably whisk us around this geographically giant city of ours. We need more affordable housing. We lack a large central park in the core, and that's a big gap if we want more people to live there in more compact personal spaces. Our bike network is failing riders and urgently needs fixing.

Tall buildings are here to stay, but we need to do it right and do it honestly. (Courtesy GGLO Design)

Tall buildings? Yes, they're here to stay, and more are coming. We need to get over that. But we also need to demand that neck-craning development is done right, and done honestly. It's not OK for a community to help develop a plan for 30-storey buildings, only to see that plan arbitrarily changed to allow 50-plus storey towers.

And it's certainly not acceptable for a hotel owner to fasten a publicly loathed addition onto a beloved heritage building that will mar some of the most iconic views in the capital and, for that matter, the country.

The argument that the Lansdowne Park redevelopment is better than the parking lot it replaced represents a low bar for a big city. (Trevor Pritchard/CBC)

Developers aren't doing the city a favour by building here. They make money. We're allowed, therefore, to make certain demands.

We must strive for the best version of whatever project we're undertaking, not concede to settle. The old argument that the Lansdowne Park redevelopment is better than the asphalt parking lot it replaced is far too low a bar.

As a city, what we need, in the words of former mayor Larry O'Brien, is a bit of swagger.

Imagination, risk

And the willingness to try something new. The spirit to take a chance.

Sure, we secretly prize the security of being a government town, but that can make us a bit risk-averse. We need to get over that, too.

Back when Canada celebrated its centenary, the famous Morrison-Lamothe bakery didn't just build a nine-metre styrofoam birthday cake for Parliament Hill; it also served real cake to the tens of thousands of people who came to the Canada Day festivities, and all with just a month's notice.

Fifty years later, tens of thousands waited in security lines on Parliament Hill. Among the other disappointments that day, there was no cake.

People waited in line during the rainy Canada 150 celebrations. Wouldn't it have been nice if they were served a little cake? (Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press)

Why not? In 1967, a single bakery was able to feed 40,000 people, but in 2017 we didn't have the imagination to showcase our culinary talent by commissioning the city's dozens of excellent bakeries to provide treats for the hungry throngs.

We just need a bit of imagination, and we are capable of it.

One of the happiest surprises of the 150th celebrations was La Machine, whose massive mechanical creatures — a fire-breathing dragon-horse and a giant spider — stalked the streets of downtown Ottawa. More than 750,000 people came out to see the $4.5-million spectacle.

La Machine was a huge hit during the Canada 150 celebrations, and represents the kind of imaginative risk-taking Ottawa needs. (Fred Chartrand/Canadian Press)

Just the bureaucratic effort needed to close city streets for the spectacle made it seem so un-Ottawa. But that's exactly the sort of what-the-heck, let's-do-it-anyway attitude we need to bring to all sorts of collective projects, from the frivolous to the fundamental.

If it had failed, we would have all complained. But if we're too afraid to fail, then we will do nothing of significance. 

That's what it will take for a million of us to feel like we don't just happen to live in the same place, but that we've chosen to share the same spirit.

A little more risk-taking, a tad more swagger and an insistence on excellence.

No, we're not on the cusp of becoming the next New York or Paris. But we are a big city and it's time we owned it, in our own way.


Joanne Chianello

City affairs analyst

Joanne Chianello is an award-winning journalist and CBC Ottawa's city affairs analyst. You can email her at or tweet her at @jchianello.


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