Op-ed: Could Ottawa’s ‘night mayor’ spark a desire to design a city for people?

night mayor

Ottawa has a reputation for being a sleepy town, a town “that fun forgot.” Residents know, however, that there are great things to see and do, places to visit and excitement to be had. 

On May 3, the city approved the role of “night mayor” to help get the word out. So, what is essential to making a vibrant place? 

A city staff report outlining the nightlife economy action plan and describing the role of a commissioner, or what some call a “night mayor,” wants to focus on leisure, live entertainment and cultural activities between 6 p.m. and 6 a.m. This “night mayor” will need to think about how to make people want to come to restaurants, parks or music venues on a regular basis beyond awesome one-off events. They will need to figure out the core things that make a year-round vibrant city.  

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We know that to provide restaurants and cafes with a sustained clientele, the city needs regular crowds of people walking around. Restaurants need patios where people can sit and enjoy the city without being jammed next to idling traffic or making it impossible for people to walk by. Those patios should be free to operate in any season, letting the restaurant operators decide how to attract clients in winter. For example, Montreal celebrates its winter city status with a focus on food, theatre and events geared to all ages.  

To make music and theatre venues thrive, people need to be able to get a bite to eat or a drink before or after the show and feel safe getting home. 

All this speaks to a need for a good moderate density of housing of all kinds, integrated within a vibrant community. If people who work in coffee shops, restaurants or theatres can’t afford to live here, we’ve created a theme park, a sentiment attributed to a blog by Gareth Kleiber.  

As Ottawa’s downtown started to come back from pandemic emptiness, local merchants, coffee shops and restaurants bemoaned the lack of regular commuters. The birth of SoPa (South of Parliament) was a marketing move to drive more customers to local restaurants and, while partially successful, a lack of walkable places and reliable transit still forces people to drive to these spaces. 

If we want SoPa to be a success, we need more people to live downtown; to create a walkable city that encourages people to wander through the streets, seeking out places to sit and experience the views, the art, the dynamic vibrancy that makes great cities great. The French have a term for this: a flaneur, someone who lounges, strolls or saunters through the city. 

There is a chicken/egg dilemma in this: we need people to want to walk around and experience the city. We need to create a city that encourages this, that has the things to look at and experience. We need to have faith that investing in the public realm will provide the seed to grow our economy.

We need design leadership to make this happen. Could our “night mayor” be the spark that ignites a desire to design a city for people? 

Take the ByWard Market. A 2021 unfunded public realm plan to reinvigorate the second-most visited tourist destination in the city sits on a shelf. The Market, a place filled with potential for year-round events and activities, cafes, restaurants and music venue possibilities, has precipitously declined in the last decade. The farmers market is all but gone and stores struggle to survive. In 2009, U.S. President Barack Obama visited to much fanfare but, in 2023, President Joe Biden was apparently warned to stay away. 

Decades of underfunding of housing and social services, along with a lack of public washrooms and a dominance of cars and parking, have made the Market what it is today. Renewal now hinges on a plan that ignores public input calling for pedestrian spaces, bike lanes and fewer cars.

Can the “night mayor” tackle this? We need a massive investment in housing, social programs and health care to address chronic homelessness, combined with sustained infrastructure funding for the Market. We need to lead a public design process to create a welcoming, accessible place for people. A design competition for public assets can invigorate a thriving local cultural scene. More police and free parking don’t make the place safe or make people want to be there. 

A vibrant cultural scene needs artists. It needs restaurants that hire waitstaff, cooks and dishwashers. Those workers need a place to live that isn’t dependent on an unreliable transit system, hours-long commutes or a car (and its related parking and infrastructure). 

In Gatineau, there is a co-operative housing development for artists. Could the “night mayor” lead development of not-for-profit cooperative housing in Ottawa? 

We live in a beautiful city. We need to think bigger when it comes to our events and festivals. 

We re-opened Wellington Street but failed to create places for tourist buses that also provide safety to other road users. Can our “night mayor” lead a design vision for our city, creating the place we aspire to be? 

Press releases on the “night mayor” role talk about tapping into the (2019) $1.5 billion spent between 6 p.m. and 6 a.m. What are tourists going to do in Ottawa in these wee hours? What about families who want to do things during the day? 

We need to provide the infrastructure people need. If it’s 4 a.m. and you’ve just left a music venue, are walking home and need to pee, where will you go? Can our “night mayor” inspire the city to build safe, clean and accessible public washrooms? 

The LRT doesn’t run between 1 a.m. and 5 a.m. (2 a.m. and 5 a.m. on Fridays and Saturdays); only six buses run all night. Paratranspo users have to book rides at least 24 hours in advance. Can the “night mayor” tackle transit equity and make sure it’s possible to get home safely, any hour of the day or night? 

As Mayor Mark Sutcliffe said, Ottawa no longer deserves the nickname “the city that fun forgot” but our “night mayor” has a lot of work ahead of them if we want to achieve #OurBestOttawa. If we want the fun, vibrant, dynamic social and cultural scene of places like New York, London or Amsterdam, all places with a “night mayor,” we need to create a city that is filled with places to go and things to do; homes that are affordable for the people who work to entertain and feed us; safe places to walk and wander; and affordable reliable transit to take us home. 

Toon Dreessen is president of Architects DCA, past president of the Ontario Association of Architects, and spokesperson for Reform Procurement Ottawa.

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