Op-ed: What Ottawa can learn from Europe’s best cities

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In part two of a three-part series, OBJ columnist Bruce Firestone looks at what Vienna and Rotterdam are doing to win the increasingly competitive race for talent.

Now that Ottawa’s population has surpassed the one-million milestone, it seems like an appropriate time to see how we stack up against some of our big-city counterparts from around the world when it comes to living conditions.

I decided to use data from HR consulting firm Mercer, which evaluates local conditions in more than 450 cities worldwide each year based on dozens of factors.

After taking a closer look at the numbers, I’ve concluded that a city’s economic well-being, as well as its social harmony and environmental sustainability, appear to derive from a single source: workforce talent. After all, it’s not assets that produce income, jobs, economic growth or the funds needed for social programs and sustainability initiatives, it’s people – and Ottawa is now in a worldwide competition for the best and brightest.

So how attractive a destination for that world-class talent is Ottawa right now, based on Mercer’s research?

In 2018, Vienna topped its survey, followed by Zurich, Munich and Auckland, with Vancouver coming in at No. 5. Toronto ranked 16th, Ottawa 19th and Montreal 21st. 

While being ranked among the top 20 cities in the world is nothing to sneeze at, should Ottawa be aiming higher? What does Vienna have, for example, that Ottawa doesn’t?

Let’s take a closer look at the Austrian capital and fellow European city Rotterdam to see what they’re doing to set themselves apart in the race to build better urban communities. 

Vienna

When I talk to technology companies headquartered in Ottawa – or, for that matter, almost any other type of enterprise in the city – I hear this over and over: We can attract talent to Ottawa or retain the talent we have, but we can’t find anywhere affordable for them to live.

Sixty per cent of Viennese live in social housing. Vienna has almost 220,000 subsidized units; by contrast, Ottawa Community Housing operates 15,000. 

Tall towers filled with office space and few shops or other services and no residential units must become a thing of the past. And those units need to be affordable for the average household.

Rotterdam

A city can be viewed as a platform upon which creative people can experiment, as the Dutch city of Rotterdam has proven. 

Rotterdam fell on hard times after its near-total economic dependence on its port became an albatross rather than an engine of growth. Crime rates soared. 

What did the city’s leaders do to reverse such troubling trends? Simply put, they rolled out the red carpet to folks who wanted to try different ways to live and work. 

Here’s how Fast Company described Rotterdam in a 2016 article: “The city is becoming a sustainable design capital, home to dozens of experimental projects.” The city opened the world’s first floating dairy farm, which was followed a few years later by a giant floating highrise. Its port began filtering plastic waste from the harbour. Local entrepreneurs started experimenting with ideas such as turning food waste into fake leather.

When Rotterdam resident Helly Scholten makes dinner, the magazine wrote, “if she needs a tomato or squash or an onion, she heads upstairs – the top floor of her house is a 440-square-foot indoor vegetable garden.”

If you tried that in Ottawa, it’s likely you’d run afoul of a raft of zoning ordinances and bylaws, plus innumerable health, safety and fire rules and regulations. And what will your neighbours say? What will your friendly local realtor or appraiser think? The shock and awe they will rain down on you for falling outside property norms are only to be imagined. 

Ottawa could do worse than follow Rotterdam’s lead. Why not co-opt entire neighbourhoods where creative tech minds can find new solutions to off-grid energy issues, for example? Or encourage more mixed-use communities that are economically and environmentally sustainable, walkable and livable? 

This will do more to reduce traffic congestion and revive lifeless office and industrial districts than anything else. 

Bruce M. Firestone is a co-founder of the Ottawa Senators, a broker with Century 21 Explorer Realty and a real estate investment and business coach.

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