‘It’s like living in a friggin’ museum’: Ottawa must be a ‘people first city,’ one thought leader argues

If you were a young professional with a job that can theoretically be done anywhere, would you choose Ottawa as your anywhere?

It’s a question that’s been on the mind of Ottawa thought leader Andrew Penny. In light of current remote work trends, particularly among knowledge workers, the city needs to create a downtown that serves as the heart of human experience, says the founder and president of market analysis and strategy firm Kingsford Consulting during an interview with OBJ.

“Everyone has always said, ‘Ottawa, a great place to raise a family,’ but the corollary has been it’s a lousy place to live if you’re 25 years old,” said Penny, who’s also a mentor to MBA students at the University of Ottawa’s Telfer School of Management and a former chair of the Ottawa Board of Trade’s economic development committee.

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Historically, the best way for Ottawa to achieve success has been to attract big business, he argues. 

“If you have a large company here, it will create employment here and people will buy hot dogs,” said Penny, who uses the popular street food as a proxy for the service industry.

“The difference now is that people will live wherever they want to live and then work for whomever they want to work,” said Penny of the need for more urban oomph. “I think what we have to do is, we have to think of Ottawa as a ‘people first’ city. We have to give people a reason to want to live here. We have to think strategically.

Andrew Penny, founder and president of Kingsford Consulting

“The question is: what do we need in the city to sustain growth, to make it vibrant, to make it interesting, to attract the next generation? I think all of our zoning, our planning and everything else needs to be centred around creating a great place for people to live (who and where they work for is secondary).”

Ottawa’s downtown needs more density and activity to attract the under-30 crowd, Penny believes. 

“What people of that age group thrive on is frenetic excitement, collision and engagement. If they’re spread out in suburban bedrooms across Canada’s largest geographical city, they’ll never meet, so we need to create density for that to happen.

“In places like downtown Paris or downtown New York, there’s stuff happening all the time and the reason stuff happens is because people live there.”

Downtown office buildings are not going to return to full-time occupancy, says Penny. “It just annoys me that we’re trying to twist the government’s arm to force people to go back to work five days a week so some guy can sell hot dogs. 

“The sad truth is, that ship has sailed. I mean, they’re not coming back. Those office workers are not coming back. We need to rethink and it’s not going to be an overnight thing.”

Penny supports the idea of converting empty office buildings into “vertical villages” that can serve as multipurpose spaces for business, shopping, dining, health services and living. He thinks the addition of smaller, less expensive studio apartments would also help to make living downtown more affordable for the under-30 crowd.

The Ottawa-Gatineau region remains a great place for outdoor adventure, Penny acknowledges. 

“If you want to spend all your time gaming in a basement, you can do it anywhere, but if you’d like to go whitewater rafting, kayaking, biking, running, climbing, skiing, swimming, we’ve got all of the outdoor stuff right here.”

As well, Ottawa’s small-town feel in a big-city setting offers a sense of community and inclusiveness, he adds. “The six degree of separation (social network theory) is more like two or three here.

“I think we’ve got a lot going for us, but what we lack is the edginess, the sizzle.”

Attracting young talent to Ottawa has been an issue for years, says Penny, who moved here from Montreal in 1990. He was employed by Telesat at the time. He and his wife raised their four kids in suburban Kanata. They were drawn to the then-walkable community of Beaverbrook, designed by the late Bill Teron. 

Creating neighbourhoods that promote walking, cycling and sustainable transport is one strategy to achieving urban sustainability and resilience, Penny believes.

Where the city drops the ball, he says, is in its preference for the status quo. 

“Nobody really wants to disturb anything,” he said, focusing on the Rideau Canal as an example. “We’ve got these beautiful vistas so that when foreign dignitaries visit they’ve got this lovely drive down the parkway to see the canal. It’s impressive. It’s (insert deep, authoritative voice here) the nation’s capital.

“Well, that’s great, if you’re a visitor or a tourist or a diplomat but, if you happen to live here, it’s like living in a friggin’ museum.”

The city’s waterway areas should be more fun and accessible to residents, says Penny, who believes the National Capital Commission is moving in the right direction by introducing seasonal riverfront bistros. 

Penny was one of several business leaders to help rescue The Rainbow Bistro from permanent closure in 2021 when the live music venue, located in the ByWard Market, nearly went down for the count during the pandemic. 

“We need stuff like the Rainbow. It’s not the NAC (National Arts Centre) but, sometimes, we need some grit in our lives. We need that in-your-face kind of blues music the same way we need strip bars, for men and women, and tattoo parlours. We need that because they’re part of life and, if you sanitize the city, it really becomes boring.”

The younger person’s perspective: What does Ottawa need?

Shannon Sweeney, an articling student at Soloway Wright LLP, is originally from Kingston but has been living and working in downtown Ottawa since June 2022. She also spent her summer here in 2021.

In her free time, the 26-year-old lawyer-to-be does much of her socializing in the Elgin Street area that stretches from Parliament Hill toward the Canadian Museum of Nature. It attracts a crowd close to her own age, she says.

Shannon Sweeney, Soloway Wright LLP. Photo by Caroline Phillips

“The Elgin Street area is good but it could benefit from more bars or something different, because a lot of it is just the ‘pub vibe’ type of thing,” said Sweeney. “Anywhere can be fun if you have the right crowd, but I feel like there could be more interesting places to go.”

One of her complaints about Ottawa’s downtown is that the bars and restaurants are too spread out. “I think downtown Ottawa would be better if there was more of a condensed area for that older mid- to late-twenties crowd.”

Ottawa is definitely at its best in the summer season, said Sweeney, who loves hitting the patios with her colleagues at Soloway Wright. She does a lot of her socializing through work, she says. “We go out and explore all these different places together and I meet new people while we’re out or meet people through the people at work.”

She finds Ottawa folks to be friendly and approachable. “Ottawa has that small-town vibe but in a bigger city,” said Sweeney. “When I moved here, the first thing I noticed was that everyone was so nice. You can go and talk to anyone.”

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