Ottawa is a lovely city. Living abroad, I’ve often had people ask me about my hometown, and that’s what I always tell them. I mean it, too. It’s physically beautiful, with an interesting variety of old buildings and lots of green space. It’s big enough to host several museums, historical sites, and festivals, but small enough to feel welcoming and accessible. It has hot summers and cold winters, beautiful spring days and fiery fall colours. It’s a nice place to visit and to live. Though life continues to take me to far-flung locations, it’s still my home, and the place where I eventually want to settle down.
Now life is taking me to the distant land of Japan. I’m going to be there for at least a year: the longest period yet for me to be away. And there’s no guarantee that when I leave I’ll be returning straight home; I may well decide to spend another year or more travelling in the region. So as I prepare to depart once more, I’ve put together a little photo diary of the city. I didn’t get pictures of all the places I wanted to, unfortunately, but I have enough to remind me of what my city is like and why I love it. It’s partly a way to help me remember it while I’m away, but it’s also a record of how the city is now in 2010. Ottawa is a changing city. Most notably, it’s rapidly expanding, with its borders getting ever further out, and new developments being built all the time. It will be interesting to see how many of these pictures still represent Ottawa in a few decades. For now, though, here is my hometown, told as a record of my favourite – and least favourite – Ottawa locations.
South Keys (Least Favourite):
This giant strip mall I’ve nicknamed “Brobdingnag”, because it feels like it was designed for much larger creatures than humans. The façades extend so far up that one has to step off the sidewalk and walk several metres away from the storefronts to read many of the signs, and the complex is so long that it actually fills up the space between two separate Transitway stops!
A nice place to go for a drive if you like looking at beautiful houses you’d never be able to afford.
The Museum of Civilization, a.k.a. Le Musée des Civilisations (Favourite):
Okay, technically it’s in Gatineau, but I think most people claim that Québec city as part of Ottawa, anyway. This is a pretty good museum of Canadian culture, with an interactive exhibition on the first nations, and another on the colonial history of the country. The special exhibits are sometimes good, and there’s even an IMAX theatre.
The Market (Favourite):
This is a lovely spot for strolling, shopping, or going out for lunch, and it’s right in the heart of downtown!
The U.S. Embassy (Least Favourite):
This imposing, guarded, and generally unfriendly structure makes no attempt to fit in with its surroundings. Overlooked by palatial structures like the Parliament Buildings and the National Gallery, it has neither charm nor beauty, but sits grumpily and superciliously on Sussex Drive between the ByWard Market and Major’s Hill Park.
The view from the Rideau St. Bridge (Favourite):
Every so often, I find myself walking somewhere, and I have to stop and say to myself “Wow. I live in a really beautiful city!” This is the place where that most often happens.
Parliament Hill (Favourite):
This building is grand-looking enough for our seat of our government, yet not too imposing. Its front lawn welcomes visitors who come to watch the changing of the guard, take in the light show, or participate in the Canada Day celebrations. It’s also a good vantage point for gazing out at the river, and the Peace Tower proclaims the correct time to people in all directions.
The Sparks Street Mall (Favourite):
During my last visit to Ottawa, I heard that this street was on the way down, which is sad. The open mall is a really nice place to eat lunch, shop, or just go for a stroll.
The National Arts Centre (Least Favourite):
Okay, I don’t want to make it sound like I hate the N.A.C. I’m just frustrated by it. I don’t go there that often, and I have nothing to say against its music scene. What I will say, though, is that of the plays I’ve attended there (and there have been several over the years) every one has been a disappointment. As a child I saw lots of good theatre in London, England, and more recently I’ve been to decent productions in cities like Toronto and Vienna. Maybe it’s not fair to expect Ottawa to rival those world-class cities, but there’s definitely room for improvement here. Whether it’s the physical building itself that’s the problem, or simply the quality of the productions, I’m not sure, but a city as culturally rich as Ottawa should be able to do better.
The Ottawa Public Library – Main Branch (Least Favourite):
Other cities I’ve lived in have beautiful central libraries. Vancouver’s has a coliseum theme, while Hong Kong’s is a bright and airy structure overlooking Victoria Park. In contrast, we have the Metcalfe Library, an ugly concrete structure out of the seventies. Such an important institution should add to Ottawa’s beauty, not mar it.
The Ottawa Canal (Favourite):
Unfortunately I didn’t get a picture of this in the winter, when you can visit it for beaver tails and skating! Even in the summer, though, it’s a nice place to go for a walk.
The Museum of Nature (Favourite):
This old stone building looks rather wonderfully like a castle. The inside is just as wonderful, full of exhibits about our fascinating natural world. Apparently its location is directly opposite the Parliament Buildings, and I was once told a story about one prime minister wanting to knock down all the intervening buildings and create a direct line of site between the two structures. It’s an impractical plan, of course, but I really wish it wasn’t, because I think it would look quite nice.
The Glebe (Favourite):
A nice, quiet, suburban area with a lot of character. The houses are nice, but not overly-large, and there are lots of interesting stores on Bank Street.
Shoppers Drug Mart – Glebe (Least Favourite):
Ever since the summer I worked as an inventory counter, I’ve had a loathing of this chain, which seems determined to make its presence felt in every corner of the city. Of all the massive stores I’ve been to (stores which, contrary to what the name implies, sell not just drugs but also cosmetics, stationary, books, cameras, and milk), this one is my least favourite. Dominating (as all Shoppers Drug Marts do) the block on which it sits, it forms a kind of corporate blight on an otherwise charming neighbourhood.
The Real Canadian Superstore – Westboro (Least Favourite):
Another store I had the pleasure of counting when I was an inventory clerk, this hypermarket looks like it could keep an army in shelter, food, clothing, prescription drugs, gardening supplies, and greeting cards for a year. Which I’m sure we’ll all appreciate when the nuclear winter sets in, but until then, I don’t see why we need this monstrosity taking up an entire block of Westboro Village.
Island Park Drive (Favourite):
Another nice street full of interesting and unaffordable houses.
Westboro Village (Favourite):
Take a walk around this area and you can see how it could really have been a village once upon a time. Now it contains a few interesting stores, notably one of Ottawa’s Ten Thousand Villages.
The Parkway (Favourite):
This strip of greenery and roadway runs along the north edge of the city, where it meets the Ottawa river. It’s a lovely place to go walking, driving, or cycling. It also symbolises one of the things I like most about the city: the amount of green space it incorporates.
Merivale Rd. (Least Favourite):
This is “Brobdingnag II”; I hate it just as much as South Keys, and for all the same reasons. I once heard a caller to the CBC express the problem very well: the whole street was very obviously designed for cars, not people. If you want to drive everywhere, then it functions as a kind of giant shopping mall. It’s not at all friendly to pedestrians, though. Each of the big-box stores that lines the street is the size of a regular city block. The sidewalk runs right alongside the busy divided road, and is separated from each store by a parking lot that’s easily as big as the store itself. The result is that walking from one store to the one across from it is a five-minute journey, and it would probably take an hour to go from one end of the “mall” to the other.
Kanata, Barhaven, etc. (Least Favourite):
The biggest limit to Ottawa’s beauty is, unfortunately, this: extent. While the downtown core and many of the surrounding neighbourhoods remain lovely, the city is rapidly expanding outwards, and none of that charm can be found in its newer settlements. Although I don’t often venture beyond the old city limits, what I've seen of the suburbs has been uniformly depressing: seas of identical houses and colonies of big-box stores. Bus service is minimal, and distances are so great as to discourage walking, so people have to drive everywhere. They seem, from what I’ve seen, to be free of local institutions, or any kind of local character. Of course, maybe I’m misjudging these regions. My few trips to them have mostly been in the context of my job as inventory clerk, and so naturally featured a lot of big-box stores. Still, they depress me, and I worry about the future of the city if it continues to expand this way.
Five things I would do if I had unlimited money and influence:
1. Turn Lebreton Flats into a parking lot and turn the downtown core into a busses-only zone. This would force people to take public transportation, and also get a lot of cars off our downtown roads.
2. Tear down the Metcalfe library and replace it with something that doesn’t look like a giant cinderblock. Preferably something with a roof garden.
3. Tear down the N.A.C. and replace it with something that could actually put on a decent production of The Nutcracker.
4. Pave over Bank Street and turn it into a walking street, similar to the Sparks Street Mall. (Does anyone actually like driving on Bank Street?)
5. Enact some zoning laws to make sure some thought got put into the new suburbs.
And one more thing…:
- Build an aquarium. Because I love aquaria and I think every big city should have one. Hey, I know, they could make that the new use for the Conference Centre!