'A rich moment for you to kind of take stock': City guru Mary Rowe on Ottawa's future

Downtown Ottawa

Ottawa is at a “critical inflection point” in its development as major employers like the federal government and the tech industry take stock of their post-pandemic office environments, says the head of an organization devoted to improving Canadian cities.

The COVID-19 crisis is forcing municipal governments across the country to rethink everything from what future transit networks will look like, to how downtown office buildings could be converted to other uses, Canadian Urban Institute president and CEO Mary Rowe told OBJ on Friday.

“You should think about how you want to brand yourself, particularly with the public sector not necessarily coming back to work in offices at the level of intensity that it once did,” Rowe, the keynote speaker at the upcoming City-Building Summit 2022, said in an interview. 

“You’re going to have to make lemonade out of that lemon and not just spend all your time wringing your hands saying, ‘Why isn’t the government of Canada putting its workers back five days a week?’ It may never do that.”

"I think it’s really a critical inflection point for people who are engaged in watching how cities evolve."

The pandemic has upended the traditional work model upon which modern cities have been designed, the Toronto-based urban advocate said. She likened COVID-19 to the cholera epidemic of the 19th century that spurred London to overhaul its water treatment systems, paving the way for a historic wave of infrastructure improvements in cities around the world.

“These kinds of seminal events can have a dramatic effect in history, so why would we think the pandemic would be any different?” Rowe said. “The dilemma is that we’re right smack dab in the middle of the adjustment.

“How do we then reshape ourselves? I think it’s really a critical inflection point for people who are engaged in watching how cities evolve.”

Touching on topics she plans to address during her speech in Ottawa on Monday, Rowe pointed out that the federal government, the city’s largest employer, has said it plans to shed some of the office space it now occupies in the downtown core in response to changing work patterns.

While the hollowing out of office towers is disrupting an economy that has been dependent for decades on workers filling up those spaces five days a week, Rowe said city planners and builders now have to consider new ways of breathing life into downtown streets. 

'No magic bullet'

“That’s a tremendous opportunity to repurpose those buildings and also rethink how public services are delivered,” she said.

“So much of cities are about serendipity and interaction and exchange and a certain kind of unpredictability to that. Now we’re having to get reacclimated to that. How do we do that in ways that are adaptive to people’s changing preferences? It’s a work in progress. There’s no magic bullet, but obviously we’re not going to just turn around and go back to the way it was.”

Rowe said Ottawa’s civic leaders also need to come up with concrete plans to tackle housing insecurity and shore up mental-health support systems for the city’s most vulnerable residents.

“We really need to have a multisectoral, committed approach to this and not relegate that to the health sector,” she said. “This is all of our responsibility.”

Citing the capital’s treasure trove of cultural and recreational assets such as the Rideau Canal, Gatineau Park, the National Arts Centre and its scores of museums, Rowe said Ottawa offers a quality of life most other cities can only envy.

Still, she said more can be done to improve life for local residents. Rowe encouraged city planners to learn from other Canadian urban centres that are reinventing themselves in the face of adversity, pointing west to Calgary as an example.

She said Alberta’s largest city, which has about the same population as the National Capital Region, is now working on long-term plans to revitalize its downtown core in the wake of COVID-19 and the oil and gas downturn. 

Rowe noted that Calgary opened a new flagship branch of its public library just a few years ago – a project not unlike the one Ottawa is now embarking on – and is launching other city-building efforts that could serve as a model for the capital.  

“I think it’s a rich moment for you to kind of take stock,” Rowe said. “A city where there’s no work to be done is a dull city. That’s not what you’ve got there. You’ve got a lot of challenges and a lot of interesting work to be done.”

The City-Building Summit takes place Monday from 8 a.m.-2 p.m. at Lansdowne Park’s Horticulture Building. For more information, go to ottawabot.ca.

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