That vision thing

Editor’s note: Today is municipal election day across Ontario. In Ottawa, you can enter your address in this polling station finder to find out where you vote; the polls are open from 10 a.m until 8 p.m. You’ll need to bring a piece of ID with you that has your street address on it; the list of acceptable ID types is here.

From 8.00 until 9.00 this morning, Spacing Ottawa columnist Vicky Smallman will be teaming with Walter Robinson and host Alistair Steele to provide election day commentary on CBC Radio,  91.5 on your FM dial. Vicky and Walter will also be appearing on CBC TV from 9 to 10 in the evening, hosted by Lucy Van Oldenbarneveld.

It’s all over but the voting.

It’s all over but the voting.

As I write this piece, I’m watching a documentary on the urban planning success that is Portland. Now there is a city with some vision – about the links between urban planning, sustainable growth, quality of life, and smart transportation. I think we need to give our councillors, our city staff, our mayor – whoever they are – permission to bring a little Portland thinking to Ottawa. They don’t do it because they think we won’t buy it. I’ve heard it time and time again when raising ideas:

Hub and spoke? “People don’t like to transfer”.

Crosswalks with pedestrian signals? “People won’t stop”.

Segregated bike lanes? “Business won’t go for it”.

And so on.

Meanwhile, we get mediocre development, a haphazard transit plan, a disregarded official plan, aging infrastructure, inadequate parks and recreation, overstretched social services, a divided council and an overworked city staff.

And so on.

An election should be a time to get folks fired up about new ideas, a time to inject a little vision into our moribund municipal scene.

When I started writing this column, I was searching for a little substance from the mayoral candidates. I wanted a sense of their vision for Ottawa. For the most part, I’m still waiting. Sure, there have been platform announcements, but as for an overarching theme or some kind of narrative to tie them all together… not so much.

In the last week or two, Larry O’Brien’s support has plummeted, Jim Watson’s has remained steady and Clive Doucet’s is rising. Larry says he’s all about city-building, but his version of city-building involves outdated and irresponsible notions like suburban satellite communities, ring roads and – wait for it – motorcycle commuter lanes. Jim Watson has portrayed himself as a prudent manager, with modest ideas. The riskiest stuff he has put out involves reducing the size of council and introducing borough councils. Clive has tried to inject some ideas into the campaign, offering a different approach to transit than the apparently not-so-popular tunnel, and that drives his approach to city-building.

One has to wonder whether the movement toward Clive in the latter stages of the campaign has to do with people wanting something a little different. Is it enough to catch up to Jim Watson’s months of tireless canvassing and campaigning? And although he’s been hammered in the polls, is Larry’s faithful base enough to let him slip through the middle?

We’ll know soon enough.

It takes more than a mayor to bring vision to Ottawa, anyway. We need council members that are as committed to building a sustainable, livable city as they are to representing the interests of their ward. I haven’t seen enough of some of the challengers to tell whether there’s a chance we might get that – I hope to be surprised tomorrow.

To those who are elected, a challenge: think outside the ward. Think outside Ottawa, even. Take a look at some of the best practices in some of the globe’s greatest cities. Imagine what Ottawa could be like if we… well, if we let ourselves imagine.

Now, go vote Ottawa!

Photo by Justin Van Leeuwen


  1. For comedy value Larry O’Brien’s “motorcycle lanes” has been the best idea of the campaign for me. Way cool Larrry!

    It’s like something a little boy would dream up, maybe along with putting laser turrets on City Hall or building a special secret HQ for superheros so they could help the police solve crimes.

  2. In the major comics universes, those two ideas would not be suggested as a joke. This being our reality, though…

    The challenge is worth making. Hopefully, it will be taken in earnest and we’ll get results worthy of our ambitions.

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