Future of Downtown: Dispelling the boring myth

Future of Downtown: Dispelling the boring myth

The way people move and work in the core is changing. In our Spring/Summer 2023 issue, we explore the possibilities by talking to industry leaders and engaged residents about how to build a great downtown.

In this essay, filmmaker Amen Jafri considers the moniker “the city that fun forgot” — and dreams up a unique dynamic urban culture for Ottawa.

The year was 2012 and I was fed up with Ottawa. A Toronto transplant, I’d followed a path worn by countless before me: After graduating from university I joined the public service and met my future spouse. I was tethered to the city, but unhappy about it. I struggled to feel engaged with anything interesting to do after work or on the weekends. I was doing what any good mid-aughts young millennial did: scouring community listings, Facebook, meetup.com and Kijiji. But either the events I attended were sparsely attended, or struck me as provincial in their ambition.

Occasionally there would be a gem, like Nuit Blanche: an event that ran for a few years starting in 2012, with eccentric street performances and interactive exhibits. Everyone knew Ottawa was a family town, so daytime fare like Winterlude catered mostly to young children, not twenty-somethings out on pub crawls. Even though I lived in the ByWard Market, which guaranteed a decent amount of nightlife, the city effectively died every winter.

Rather than continue to whine, I decided to make a 33-minute documentary about Ottawa’s boring reputation. I knew I wasn’t the only one frustrated. The City That Fun Forgot? ended up exploring three different themes: risk aversion; Ottawans as tenants, i.e. mostly transplants and therefore not fully identifying or connecting to it; and urban planning. The film concluded with solutions for revitalizing the city.

Ottawa has entrepreneurial creative enclaves. It has unique traits not found in Toronto or Montreal; with a change in attitude, these can fuel confidence and pride as Ottawans. Rewatching the film 10 years later, I’m reminded of that old adage, plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose. If we don’t lean into what we do well, or learn from past mistakes, then the future of this city — particularly its downtown core — will continue to look the same. Or, worse, fall into decay.

There are things we do well. From Timekode to Nature Nocturne to the Digi60 Filmmakers’ Festival and more, there’s a thriving and playful community scene that has emerged this past decade. The quality of those events continues to grow, even if they were paused by the pandemic. Online, it’s fairly easy to find out about upcoming events. And it was powerful to see Ottawans unite and rally to support each other, regardless of where in the city they lived, against the traumatic onslaught of convoy outsiders.

Nature Nocturne at the Museum of Nature. Photo by Martin Lipman

However, the city continues to lack ambition and vibrancy. Our business districts are increasingly filled with grey high rises and cannabis stores. Unless you know where to look, Ottawa can look like a ghost town after hours. Aside from skiing and skating, there’s not much to do in the winters around here — it’s hard to get around and no one wants to navigate those cold, windswept streets.

Speaking of getting around, one thing has put a damper on our ambitions to get out more: the LRT, a project that literally went off the rails. I was recently forced to buy a car after having a baby and moving out to the suburbs of Gatineau. I’m continually shocked at how much cheaper and more reliable it is to park downtown than depend on transit.

But let’s not focus on the negative. If we think positively, then surely we can turn this city around. So as I humbly trod toward middle age and gaze into my crystal ball for Ottawa in 2033, here’s what I foresee:

A world-class transit system, finally reducing our overreliance on cars. Our LRT is fully built out, no longer breaks down in the winter, and is free. As it turned out, all we needed to fix our problems was to ask ChatGPT.

All-night raves on Sparks Street because urban density finally exists downtown. And as a happy consequence, a parallel after-6-p.m. underground economy, to replace any empty storefronts, like a contemporary speakeasy of sorts.

In an unexpected twist, Ottawa embraces its boring reputation full throttle, branding it to the world, which in turn makes us cool. Influencers make viral listicles for TikTok on the top “normcore” activities in the nation’s capital.

Sardonicism aside, I’ve always believed in Ottawa’s potential. It reminds me of an awkward, gawky teenager, always pitted against its elder siblings Toronto and Montreal. Sure, the puberty strains have been tough this past decade. I’m hopeful we’re ready to evolve into the mature, sophisticated city we’re destined to become.