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Ottawa is changing before our eyes: As we hit Canada's 150th, where is the capital going?

It began life 190 years ago as Bytown, founded to house labourers who had been recruited to build the Rideau Canal. For its first few decades, it was a crude, notoriously lawless frontier settlement.

Even after Queen Victoria chose it as capital of the united Province of Canada in 1857, the renamed city of Ottawa lacked basic municipal services such as paved streets, piped water and sewers.

Lumber, fire and politics shaped its destiny, but not always advantageously. When Allan Gotlieb arrived in 1957 to take up a job at External Affairs, the future Canadian ambassador to the United States was appalled. “An unkempt, decaying village,” he sputtered in his 2006 diplomatic memoir, The Washington Diaries. “To call it provincial would have been a compliment.”

Maclean’s columnist Allan Fotheringham famously dubbed it “the town that fun forgot” and “ennui on the Rideau.” People joked that the best thing about Ottawa was the highway to Montreal.

Times have changed.

As Canada marks its 150th anniversary of nationhood, Ottawa is a grownup capital city of nearly a million, on the cusp of changes that will transform it in ways scarcely imaginable to earlier residents. “We’re going through one of the most significant transformations in our history,” Mayor Jim Watson says.

The pending arrival of light rail transit is responsible for a good part of that. It is expected to change the way we get around, to help revive key downtown streets and to have a profound effect on city development.

Then there’s the unprecedented number of major redevelopments in the works: LeBreton Flats, the islands around Chaudière Falls, the former Canadian Forces Base Rockcliffe, the Oblate lands on Main Street, parts of Natural Resources Canada’s Booth Street complex, Tunney’s Pasture and the shopping centres at Lincoln Fields and Westgate, to name only the most prominent.

“You get a sense there’s energy here and there’s a sense of momentum,” says David Coletto, the youthful CEO of market research firm Abacus Data. A lot of things are changing all at once, he says. “It’s hard for us to imagine what it’s all going to look like when it’s all done.”

Someone told Watson recently that he’d picked a good time to be mayor of Ottawa. “It’s true. A lot of these things are finally coming together after years of debate and dithering.”

The result, in many cases, will be entirely new communities inside the Greenbelt, where people will be able to experience the urban planner’s dream trifecta: live, work and play.

Some, such as LeBreton Flats and the adjacent Zibi development, will remake our concept of Ottawa’s downtown. That new west downtown, says Toronto urban designer George Dark, will be “full of amazing things you just would never be able to collect if you started from scratch.” The Ottawa River, Chaudière Falls, the aqueduct that bisects LeBreton Flats and its historic bridges “will all be rediscovered again.”

“We’ve just gone through one of those major periods, where the urban landscape has transformed substantially,” says Ben Gianni, a former director of Carleton University’s Azrieli School of Architecture and Urbanism. “It’s allowed us to get to the point where we can make these next-level investments.”

Some big shifts have happened already. “When I arrived here (in the early 1980s) to go to university, I joked with friends that European cuisine was Swiss Chalet,” Watson says. “Now we have some of the best chefs in the country, and many more multicultural restaurants.”

Jamaican-born Carl Nicholson, executive director of the Catholic Centre for Immigrants, came to Ottawa in 1966. “If I saw another black person on the streets,” he recalls, “I would go over and ask him who he was.”

Half a century later, visible minorities account for nearly one in four city residents. “When I walk into a school,” Watson says. “you’ve got these kids from all over the world, speaking 70-some languages.”

Mayor Jim Watson spends some time with some third grade students from Marie-Curie Public Elementary School in Ottawa in November

Today’s Ottawa has a completely different rhythm than other Canadian cities, says Dark, who was a member of the design review panel for Lansdowne Park’s redevelopment.

People retire earlier here, often with good government pensions. “It means you have a lot of really smart people retired very early in life. I think that has a lot to do with the way Ottawa is. There’s a quality of life in the city which is quite admirable. It’s an easy place to live.”

The city is still evolving, Dark says, and what it will become 20 years from now is still a bit of a mystery. “Is it a place people would retire to, because of the amazing quality of life?”

When Dark first started to do work in Ottawa, people told him, “I know you come from Toronto. Just don’t expect any of that stuff is ever going to happen here.”

A lot of “that stuff” is happening now, and more is coming. Brace yourselves.

Illustration by Andrew King.

People power

About 800,000 people called Ottawa home in 2001, the year the city swallowed surrounding municipalities in a provincially mandated amalgamation. Since then, the population has risen to 975,000, and is projected to reach one million in 2019.

At the request of the provincial government, city officials recently did a population projection for 2036. In 20 years, they said, Ottawa will have more than 1.2 million residents. If you include municipalities on the Quebec side, the population of the entire national capital region will reach 1.8 million — about the size of Vancouver when it hosted Expo 86 and Montreal during Expo 67.

The city has been growing at a faster rate than Ontario or Canada as a whole. That’s projected to continue. By 2036, one in 35 Canadians will call Ottawa home.

Continued growth is critical, says Gianni. “In the end, what transforms cities is population growth, first and foremost,” he says. “Clearly, the foundations are being laid for a large-scale transformation.”

That transformation will occur slowly, over the next 25 years or so, Gianni predicts.

“It’s people who are going to change it. It’s an influx of people, and largely young people. So we have to step back and figure out how that’s going to happen.”

The arrival of the Confederation Line LRT is approaching.

The Confederation Line, the 12.5-kilometre, 13-station first phase of Ottawa’s leap into light rail transit, will open in 2018. After that, work will begin almost immediately on the second stage, which will add as many as 36 kilometres of rail and 26 more stations to the network by 2023.

When it’s finished, 70 per cent of Ottawa residents will live within five kilometres of an LRT station. (The exceptions are those who live in suburbs such as Kanata, Stittsville and Barrhaven, or in the city’s sprawling rural areas.) Eventually, city officials hope to extend the LRT to Kanata. Decades from now, a rail link with Gatineau, using the existing Prince of Wales Bridge, is possible as well.

“That will fundamentally change the way we move around Ottawa,” Mayor Jim Watson says. “I anticipate significantly fewer cars when people realize they can hop on the train — every four minutes at rush hour — and be at their destination without fighting bumper-to-bumper traffic.”

From the day it opens in 2018, the Confederation Line is expected to be the most actively used light rail system in North America, with weekday ridership of as many as 250,000 people. Boston, the current leader, has weekday ridership of 232,000 on its LRT Green Line.

The city expects “quite a bump” in transit ridership after the LRT opens, says John Manconi, general manager of the municipal transportation department — at least 10 per cent within the first five years. By 2031, officials expect 143 million passenger trips a year on transit. The number now is about 96 million.

We are expecting to have a much more reliable transit system. Trains and connecting buses will show up frequently during rush hour. No more delays due to traffic in the core: The trains will pass beneath any surface gridlock.

The LRT is expected to shave off between five and 15 minutes on a daily commute to the city’s core. “If you can save someone 10 minutes a day, that’s an hour over the course of the week,” says Coun. Stephen Blais, who chairs the Ottawa Transit Commission. “That’s extra time with your kids, working, doing sports — whatever it is you like to do in your spare time.”

In urban Ottawa, everyone will be within a five-minute walk of a bus that will take them directly to an LRT stop. The LRT will run from 5 a.m. to 1 a.m. on weekdays, and stay open an extra hour on Thursday and Friday nights. When the trains do stop, they’ll be replaced by 24-hour bus service.

“People who never take the bus will take an LRT,” says George Dark. “It’s air-conditioned, it’s quiet, it’s incredibly fast. The end-to-end duration of your trip is 10, 15, 18 minutes.” Compared to bus transit, he says, “It’s like a microsecond.”

OC Transpo General Manager John Manconi.

The city is working toward a 50-50 split between car trips and more sustainable ways of getting around, such as transit, walking, biking and car pooling. One study suggested that light rail could take 10,000 cars off the road during rush hour by the end of 2023.

There are already encouraging signs, says Manconi. Condo residents are doing more ride sharing, and young adults are moving away from automobile ownership. “They’re doing the math,” Manconi says. “Car ownership’s about $9,000 a year all in. When you layer in other options, do you really need to own a car?”

The LRT won’t eliminate all cars, Manconi knows. In fact, the city expects the number of driving trips to increase by 21 per cent between 2011 and 2031 as the population grows. “But it’s going to give people that wide swath of options.”

The LRT Effect, Part 2: Living along the line

Light rail transit will have a “a big impact on the physical character of the city,” says Katherine Graham, a professor emerita at Carleton University and urban policy expert. She calls LRT systems magnets for intensification.

“You could make the argument that the development potential along the transit line is equal to, if not greater than, the potential along the 400 series of highways from 50 years ago,” says Josh Kardish, manager of land development for Regional Realty. “That’s obviously where the huge opportunities are.”

“A big city will grow around its transit system,” agrees Alain Miguelez, the city’s program manager for community planning.

At key stations, such as Bayview, where the Confederation and Trillium LRT lines intersect, the “density” will be off the chart, by Ottawa standards. Trinity Development Group proposes to build three high-rise, mixed-use buildings there, each 50 storeys or more. The biggest, at 59 storeys, would be Ottawa’s tallest building — approximately 130 metres taller than Parliament’s Peace Tower.

But the density will be a lot lower around stations in neighbourhoods farther from the core, says Lee Ann Snedden, the city’s director of planning services.

“We’re trying to design in ways that will be respectful of the existing lower-rise communities but also target that intensification around the transit stations.”

The city has drawn up six transit-focused development plans (around Lees, Hurdman, Tremblay, St. Laurent, Cyrville and Blair stations) and is working on more.

“You’re going to see, over 20 or 30 years, an enormous amount of change in those areas,” Coun. Stephen Blais says. “You’ll have more dense, compact, probably taller planning within a certain circumference of those stations.”

The LRT Effect, Part 3: Reclaiming downtown Ottawa

The LRT will also make it possible to reclaim some of Ottawa’s key downtown streets. Today, as many as 1,500 buses a day use Slater and Albert streets. That will drop to 400 a day on Slater and to zero on some sections of Albert. On Rideau Street, the torrent of buses will dwindle from 1,200 a day to 550. On showpiece Wellington Street, only 150 buses a day will pass Parliament Hill, down from 600.

“Right now, Slater and Albert are, in essence, the transitway for the downtown,” Watson says. “It’s a pretty bleak tunnel.” Once the LRT opens in June of 2018, “I think you’ll see a reinvigoration and revitalization of the downtown core,” he says. “It will bring back the calm and greater quality of life for people who live, work or shop on those streets.”

The city will begin work on a plan in 2017 to restore life to Slater and Albert, and do the same for the Mackenzie King Bridge and Rideau Street, which will become much more pedestrian oriented.

Queen Street will be the new “front door to downtown,” city officials say, with bountiful sidewalks that can comfortably accommodate the hundreds of LRT passengers who will emerge from the depths every few minutes during rush hour.

Already, the owners of Queen Street landmarks such as the World Exchange Plaza and the Sun Life Building are talking to the city about major reinvestments, including changes to their façades and entrances to better capture the transit users passing by.

Light rail should also give a boost to the Sparks Street Mall, virtually eliminating parking concerns for potential customers. “From the street level, it will be a much more enjoyable and pleasant city to be in,” says Carleton’s Ben Gianni.

Where we’ll live: Ottawa growing inside-out

In the decades ahead, what kind of city will Ottawa be? Will it grow in its suburbs or its inner city?

City planners say there’s room for as much as two-thirds of Ottawa’s new housing stock in the next 20 years in communities outside the Greenbelt. But with development around LRT stations and a spate of new community building projects inside the Greenbelt, “There’s going to be an awful lot of opportunity for growth within that central area,” says Lee Ann Snedden, the city’s chief of development review services.

“The real action will be within the Greenbelt, rather than in the suburbs,” agrees George Dark, the urban designer. “Boomers want to live in the city instead of big suburban houses and their kids, the baby boom echo, they’re urbanists,” he says. “The post-war doctrine of building suburbs … that’s coming apart really quickly.”

The city has increased its intensification targets over the past five years, and has routinely surpassed them. “So the market demand is there,” Alain Miguelez says.

In part because the population is aging, Miguelez expects city residents to make different housing choices in future, opting increasingly for condos or rental apartments. “We’re not going to see the rate of growth we’ve seen in the past with those large, single detached homes,” he says.

For those who still want single-family homes, the resale market may become the main source of supply. “There are thousands of single-family homes being put on the market by people who are making the choice to downsize and move to condominiums,” Miguelez says.

City officials are also seeing a resurgence of homes built to be rental accommodations. “That was sort of invisible five or 10 years ago,” Miguelez says, “and now it’s back on again.” Ottawa already has Canada’s second-highest percentage of tenant households, after Montreal.

Regional Realty’s Josh Kardish has noticed the trend toward rental construction. “You hear of a lot of developers who’ve built condos in the past who are now bringing forward rental towers.”

But he questions whether suburban boomers are really eager to move downtown. “Boomers really have a love for the communities that they live in,” he says. “A lot of them are looking to stay.”

To get them to seriously consider moving away, Kardish says, “They seem to want that complete community right away. They want everything right there.”

There are only a few places like that in central Ottawa now — Westboro, the Glebe, the ByWard Market — but many more are in the pipeline. New communities will appear in places such as LeBreton Flats and the former Rockcliffe air base. And, as we build them, people will come.


LeBreton and Rockcliffe are part of a wave of major redevelopments, many on federal land, that will change the city’s face over the next two or three decades. “It’s an exciting time for Ottawa,” says Lee Ann Snedden, the city’s chief of development review services. “There’s so many things happening.”

The city wants redevelopment to produce new, complete communities — places where you can stroll to a coffee shop for a latte, nip into a grocery store to pick up that night’s dinner and walk to the office. “That’s the ideal opportunity that we’re trying to create.”

LeBreton Flats and Zibi: Though separate projects, they are joined at the hip.

Of the two, Windmill’s über-green Zibi — which will occupy 15 hectares of islands and Ottawa River shoreline around Chaudière Falls — is far more advanced. Windmill started offering some of the $1.2-billion mixed-use project’s eventual 2,800 residential units for sale in 2015. The first residents should arrive in 2017, though it will take another decade or more to complete everything.

An artist's rendering of Albert Island, part of the "Zibi" development that will take place in Ottawa.

Meanwhile, negotiations are expected to continue throughout 2017 between the National Capital Commission and RendezVous LeBreton group of partners to develop 21-hectares of LeBreton Flats that have been vacant for more than half a century.

Many hurdles remain, but the project includes a new downtown arena, a dual-rink Sensplex and Abilities Centre for able-bodied and disabled users, a restored heritage aqueduct, 4,400 residential units and office and stores.

Rendering for LeBreton Flats $3.5 billion development proposal by RendezVous Group, dubbed IllumiNATION LeBreton

The goal, says NCC chief executive Mark Kristmanson, is nothing less than to change the face of Ottawa. “It just has so much potential to create a fantastic new neighbourhood.”

The full development of LeBreton will take two decades or more. If it proceeds, it will effectively enlarge what we think of as the city’s core — and along with Zibi, provide a new destination for residents and visitors.

“When Aunt Zelda comes to visit from out of town, these are some of the places where people are going to take visitors,” says Snedden. Zibi’s commitment to sustainability, she says, will become internationally known. “People are going to come here just to be able to research and understand how they were able to put that together.”

The Zibi project, which proponents have likened to Vancouver’s Granville Island, will afford vistas of the Chaudière Falls, long hidden from public view. “That’s going to be a go-to place in years to come,” says John Moser, acting general manager of the city’s Planning, Infrastructure and Economic Development Department.

A new arena on LeBreton Flats will draw residents and tourists to major events. “I think it’s really going to create some vibrancy for the city,” Snedden says.

The proposed LeBreton and Zibi developments will add a huge amount of new housing in a market where the absorption rate for new condo units is about 500 a year, Gianni says.

“When you look at the number of high rises being proposed, you can’t help but feel you’re looking out into a future galaxy somewhere,” Gianni says. “It’s a 25-to-30-year timeline, so whether it actually gets built out in quite that way remains to be seen.”

Wateridge Village aims to provide a village within the city where residents can live, work and play all in the same space.

The goal, says NCC chief executive Mark Kristmanson, is nothing less than to change the face of Ottawa. “It just has so much potential to create a fantastic new neighbourhood.”

The full development of LeBreton will take two decades or more. If it proceeds, it will effectively enlarge what we think of as the city’s core — and along with Zibi, provide a new destination for residents and visitors.

“When Aunt Zelda comes to visit from out of town, these are some of the places where people are going to take visitors,” says Snedden. Zibi’s commitment to sustainability, she says, will become internationally known. “People are going to come here just to be able to research and understand how they were able to put that together.”

The Zibi project, which proponents have likened to Vancouver’s Granville Island, will afford vistas of the Chaudière Falls, long hidden from public view. “That’s going to be a go-to place in years to come,” says John Moser, acting general manager of the city’s Planning, Infrastructure and Economic Development Department.

A new arena on LeBreton Flats will draw residents and tourists to major events. “I think it’s really going to create some vibrancy for the city,” Snedden says.

The proposed LeBreton and Zibi developments will add a huge amount of new housing in a market where the absorption rate for new condo units is about 500 a year, Gianni says.

“When you look at the number of high rises being proposed, you can’t help but feel you’re looking out into a future galaxy somewhere,” Gianni says. “It’s a 25-to-30-year timeline, so whether it actually gets built out in quite that way remains to be seen.”

Ottawa In Transition - Many changes will occur across the city of Ottawa over the next 20 years as many large projects are completed.

Greystone Village: Built on lands owned by the Oblate Brothers, a Catholic missionary congregation that lived there for 150 years, the 10.5-hectare Greystone Village will transform Old Ottawa East, almost doubling its population.

The new community will ultimately include 1,400 single, townhouse and condo units, mixed retail, green space and an events plaza. The Regional Realty project will also preserve the heritage Edifice Deschâtelets, which dates from 1885.

A wide swath of trees and bike and walking paths will stretch along the Rideau River, and a grande allée will link Main Street to the front portico of the grey stone Deschâtelets. It will take a decade or more to complete.

Health Canada Sir Frederick G. Banting building at 200 Eglantine Driveway Tunney's Pasture in Ottawa.

Tunney’s Pasture: After local opposition derailed a plan to turn almost half of the 49-hectare federal government employment campus over to The Ottawa Hospital for its new Civic campus, the master plan for Tunney’s — approved by the National Capital Commission in 2014 — appears to be back on track.

The 25-year plan provides a vision for the future development of the site, which — like LeBreton and Zibi — is conveniently located along the city’s Confederation light rail transit line.

It envisions a complete community, with as many as 3,700 residential units, employment for more than 20,000 workers (there are about 10,000 employed there today), retail components and a block devoted to a major community park.

City officials have had “very preliminary discussions” with the property owner, Public Services and Procurement Canada, about the project, says Don Herweyer, the city’s manager of development review. “I think it will be a year or two before they start coming in with applications.”

Map showing the property to be redeveloped by the Cnada Lands Company. The Booth Street campus is located between Orangeville, Rochester and Norman Streets.

Booth Street lands: Canada Lands Company acquired 2.5 hectares of the Booth Street campus from Natural Resources Canada in 2015.

No plans have yet been developed for the property, bounded by Booth, Orangeville, Norman and Rochester streets, but public consultations are planned early in 2017 to gather community feedback.

During a panel discussion at the 2016 Ottawa Real Estate Forum, Ottawa architect Roderick Lahey called the Booth Street property “a real jewel in the heart of the city. It’s such an important site — right where we all work and live.

There’s the potential to do something much more there than just knocking the buildings down and building more high rises.”

Because there are heritage buildings on the property, some have suggested that it could be redeveloped into a lively mixed-use area similar to Toronto’s Distillery District. “There’s some attractive building stock there that would make that project stand apart from some others,” Herweyer says.

The shopping centres: Several of Ottawa’s aging shopping centres are slated for redevelopment over the next decade or two. Because of its position at an LRT station, city officials say Lincoln Fields, a struggling 44-year-old mall on Carling Avenue at the Sir John A. Macdonald Parkway, has been pushed to the head of the line.

The mall’s owner, RioCan, told the Citizen this past summer the shopping centre will likely be torn down to make way for a major redevelopment that could include as many as 4,000 rental housing units.

RioCan also plans to redevelop the 61-year-old Westgate Shopping Centre, Ottawa’s first shopping mall, in three phases over the next 20 years. It will be replaced by five high-rise towers containing more than 1,100 new residential units. RioCan is planning similar transformations at Elmdale Acres Shopping Centre and SilverCity Gloucester.

Renderings of proposed changes to Westgate Mall by RioCan Real Estate Investment Trust.

Strengthening the arteries: The city has rezoned many properties along arterial roads to allow buildings up to nine storeys tall. The message: the city wants development to take place along arterials, not in the heart of nearby communities.

“We are trying to make those corridors graduate into true urban avenues, where they become focal points for the neighbourhood, not dividers,” says Alain Miguelez. “You can really have your daily needs served on the avenue. That’s the model.”

Streets such as Beechwood Avenue and Main Street are already becoming destinations for new mixed-use buildings. Miguelez says other streets with similar potential include Rideau Street between King Edward Avenue and the Cummings Bridge; King Edward itself; Bronson Avenue north of the Queensway; Gladstone Avenue between Bank and Preston streets; and Montreal Road.

“There’s enough development potential there to really keep those avenues going for a very long time, in terms of redevelopment,” he says.

Because of its central location, the Vanier portion of Montreal Road is ripe for Richmond Road-style redevelopment, John Moser says. To encourage that, the city will redo part of the street in 2017. “The timing is going to be there soon.”

The city has approved many other redevelopment applications that haven’t proceeded yet, Snedden says. “There’s a lot that are shovel-ready, that are in the queue, that are ready to go once the market shifts.”

“We’ve laid the foundation,” Moser says. “We’ve laid the infrastructure, we’re building the system, we’ve zoned it. It’s just, ‘Come on down.'”

Not your father’s burbs

Here’s a fearless prediction: The majority of Ottawa’s growth will be in the suburbs for at least the next two decades.

According to city planners, there’s enough suburban land within the existing urban boundary to meet demand until 2038. But they won’t be your dad’s suburbs.

The suburbs of the past were replete with single-family homes, each with its own spacious yard. But that hasn’t been true for a while. “It’s not the 1980s or the 1990s anymore,” says Fel Petti, the city’s manager of infrastructure standards review.

Affordability issues, coupled with the city’s desire not to expand its current urban boundary, are driving higher residential densities in the suburbs. In the past 15 years, average densities – a measure of units per hectare – have increased by 70 per cent.

Those higher densities helped keep the suburban dream affordable for many and supported public transit. But they also created problems — spatial conflicts between utilities, trees, sidewalks, parking and snow storage, for example.

The city is testing a pilot project called Building Better and Smarter Suburbs. It focuses on such things as efficient use of land and infrastructure, street layout and proximity to services and shops. And Coun. Jan Harder, who chairs the city’s planning committee, believes it will become the new model. “We know that it works,” she says.

Coun. Jan Harder of Barrhaven.

In some ways, it’s a return to the hub model of the past, when people lived in neighbourhoods that were connected to schools, libraries and soccer fields. “That was a smart way to bring the community together and give them space to breathe,” Harder says.

The suburbs of the future will be denser, but more liveable. “We want to get out of the cookie-cutter approach we’ve seen in too many suburbs,” Watson says. Suburban dwellers want to live in full-service neighbourhoods, says Alain Miguelez, the city’s manager of zoning, intensification and neighbourhoods, rather than what he calls “boilerplate suburbs.”

Suburbs are going through something akin to a mid-life crisis, Petti says. “There’s still a desire and appetite for the suburban way of life. But we’re in the process of trying to recast what that suburban way of life is.”

The arrival of light rail transit will make suburbanites less car-dependent. Instead of two or three cars, they may need only one. The suburbs built in coming decades will be well-connected and easier to navigate on foot or by bike.

“Automobiles are still very much part of the mix,” says Miguelez. “But that doesn’t mean that we perpetuate a model where things are separated and distant, and you need a car for everything and there are highways bisecting your neighbourhood every 500 metres.”

More suburban communities will likely become employment hubs, similar to Kanata. In Barrhaven, says Harder, “We are on the cusp of that happening.”

Citigate 416, a 170-acre business park at Highway 416 and Strandherd Drive, is now serviced and open for business. Up to 7,000 people could eventually work there.

Heavily congested traffic on Innes Road going east to Orleans in Ottawa Monday June 27, 2016.

Orléans remains the quintessential bedroom community, but the area’s MP, Andrew Leslie, is pushing for a major federal presence in Ottawa’s east end.

Not only will more suburban employment relieve commuter pressure on roads, it could let many residents reclaim as much as two hours a day that they currently spend travelling to and from their jobs downtown.

That will make the suburbs healthier places – people could bicycle to work – and enliven the evening dining and entertainment scene. At present, Harder says, “People don’t go out in the evening because their day starts so early. It’s like being a gerbil on one of those crazy wheels.”

Street life

If a city has a circulatory system, it is its network of roads, pathways and sidewalks. From the boulevards and avenues that constitute its arteries to the connecting veins of local streets, lanes and cycling paths, the network’s functionality does much to determine a city’s state of health.

A poorly designed transportation network can leave a city feeling pinched and enervated, needing regular afternoon naps to cope. But one that works well unleashes energy, drawing residents from their homes to partake in and enhance the life of the city.

The Ottawa of the not-to-distant future will gain a vital circulatory link when light rail transit arrives. That will fundamentally change the way we get around the city. But people will also still drive, walk and cycle. Within as little as four years, some of us may be tootling around in driverless cars.

Vivi Chi, manager of transportation planning.

One thing is clear, says Vivi Chi, the city’s manager of transportation planning: “We cannot continue to build and widen roads.” There are new roads in the city’s transportation plan, to be sure. But all are relatively short and concentrated in developing communities.

The province is widening parts of the Queensway over the next four years, but that’s a mixed blessing, Chi says. Highway widenings often create congestion on ramps and nearby arterial roads.

When city streets are rebuilt, they’ll look different than in the past, when their primary purpose was to accommodate vehicles. All new or reconstructed roads will be “complete streets,” designed to offer safety, comfort and mobility to all users, regardless of their age, ability or mode of transportation.

There’s no single template for a complete street. “It’s a toolbox,” says Coun. Keith Egli, who chairs the city’s transportation committee. “A complete street in Westboro is not going to look like a complete street in my ward.”

Egli and his wife once lived on Churchill Avenue. After their first child was born, they gazed out their window and said, “How will we ever teach him to ride a bike on that street?” So they moved to the suburbs.

Fast forward to 2014: Churchill became the first complete street in Ottawa, with separated cycling tracks on both sides of the street. “Now, it would be a dream,” says Egli. Complete streets, he says, “make our city and our communities much more liveable.”

The city has recently completed or is building complete streets on Main Street, O’Connor Street, Mackenzie Avenue and Rideau Street between Sussex and Dalhousie, among others. More are in the works — on Elgin Street, Byron Avenue, Richmond Road, south Bank Street and St. Laurent Boulevard. “It’s becoming part of our DNA,” Chi says.

Tension between motorists and cyclists also seems to be part of our DNA, which virtually guarantees there will be growing pains as more complete streets are built. Already, some have raised safety concerns and complained that the reduction in driving lanes is making it harder to get around.

To minimize conflict and ill will, the city will work with communities to determine the best form for a particular complete street. “You’re giving people an opportunity to help rebuild their community,” Egli says. “And they get very excited about that.”

At the same time, the city has been ramping up its investment in cycling infrastructure. It spent just $4 million on cycling between 2003 and 2006. That will grow to $53 million between 2014 and 2018, with more to come.

Though there’s no target date for completion, the city’s “ultimate cycling network” will feature continuous, high-capacity spine routes along major roadways for longer-distance travel, supported by smaller scale neighbourhood routes — all connected to city and NCC pathways. When complete, the full network will total 2,529 kilometres, compared to about 1,400 kilometres today.

The city will also make it easy for cyclists to use light rail transit. Every LRT station stairwell will have a cycle track. People will be able to bring their bikes onto the trains.

Pedestrians haven’t been forgotten, either. The city’s 2013 pedestrian plan lists more than 90 new sidewalk projects between 2014 and 2031.

It also calls for a new $21-million footbridge over the Rideau Canal, connecting Fifth Avenue with Clegg Street in Old Ottawa South. The city has secured federal funding for the project and is confident the province will ante up, as well. If so, work could begin as early as 2017.

Another city plan, called Downtown Moves, aims to make the downtown area more walkable. It identifies mid-block crossings to improve the flow of walkers to and from LRT stations; intersections where pedestrian volumes warrant safety improvements; and blocks that require wider sidewalks, benches and other pedestrian amenities.

If more people in future get around using transit, bicycles or on foot, that should open up a bit of space for motorists. But the single project that would make the biggest difference for drivers is the proposed downtown Ottawa truck tunnel, a cross-town route under Sandy Hill and Lowertown, linking Ottawa at Highway 417 to Gatineau.

If it proceeds, the four-lane, 3.4-kilometre tunnel would transform traffic flow though Ottawa’s downtown core. It would divert about 1,700 trucks and 25,000 cars a day that now use surface streets and bridges.

“That would make a big difference to the downtown,” Chi says. “This is the nation’s capital, and we have big transport trucks coming right down the middle. It’s embarrassing.”

A study in 2016 concluded the tunnel was feasible, but the estimated $2-billion cost is a major stumbling block.

The next step will be an environmental assessment, which will deal with the tunnel’s functional design and impacts, and will further refine the cost. That will be followed by what Chi says could be a P3 (public-private partnership) procurement process. Funding will determine when — or if — the tunnel proceeds, but it certainly won’t be until well after 2020.

Perhaps the biggest imponderable is what impact autonomous vehicles will have on the way we get around. In the words of Ford CEO Mark Fields, “This next decade is really going to be defined by the automation of the automobile.”

Whether that creates heaven or hell, as Zipcar co-founder Robin Chase said during a 2016 presentation in Ottawa, remains an open question.

Car sharing is the key, Chase believes. If that becomes the model, people will be able to get door-to-door service at the speed of a private car for the cost of an LRT ticket. There’ll be far fewer cars on the road and much less need for parking, liberating untold space for other uses.

That’s one possible scenario. If different policy choices are made, though, autonomous cars could endlessly circle the block while waiting to pick up passengers, clogging streets and making congestion much worse.

Technologically, at least, Ottawa is well-positioned for the advent of driverless vehicles. “We have the best state-of-the-art traffic signals in the world, bar none,” boasts John Manconi, general manager of the city’s transportation services department. “We can change traffic signal timing within eight seconds from a laptop, anywhere in the world.”

The city’s signal system will help integrate the technology required to make autonomous vehicles operate effectively, Manconi says. Moreover, Ottawa is blessed with companies with the expertise to develop that technology.

Nobody really knows what will happen. “It’s a little bit like the Wild West at this point, in terms of where it’s going to go and how it’s going to play out,” Egli says. The city is just starting to consider the implications, but one way or another, they’re likely to be enormous.

The federal lens

Imagine two dance partners. One — let’s call him the City of Ottawa — is bumptious and brash. The other, the National Capital Commission, tends to be cautious to a fault and a bit rigid. When they take to the dance floor, there a high probability of tangled limbs and mangled toes.

The unelected NCC is the capital region’s largest landowner, tasked with ensuring that the capital is an inspiring source of national pride for all Canadians. City politicians focus first and foremost on the needs and desires of city residents, to whom they are accountable every four years.

Sometimes, everything fits together well, like the coloured squares of a Rubik’s Cube. More often, though, their differing mandates, compounded at times by ego, provoke quarrels and conflict. A notable recent example was the showdown over the routing of the western extension of the LRT. It took a federal cabinet minister knocking heads to find an acceptable solution.

Lately, though, there have been signs of a rapprochement between the two old adversaries. Prodded by Heritage Minister Mélanie Joly, the NCC agreed last February to admit the mayors of Ottawa and Gatineau as non-voting members of its board of directors (though NCC chief executive Mark Kristmanson visibly bridles whenever Ottawa Mayor Jim Watson says something mildly critical.)

If the mayors’ involvement eases tensions and smooths out working relationships, some of the historic dysfunction of the city-NCC relationship could evaporate, to the benefit of all.

When it comes to Ottawa’s future, the NCC takes the long view. A draft version of its Plan for Canada’s Capital – the guiding vision for what should happen on federal land over the next 50 years — was released in July and is expected to go to the NCC’s board for approval in January.

The draft includes 17 “big ideas” for the capital, drawn from more than 1,200 submitted by Canadians. Discussions are already well advanced on some, such as the redevelopment of LeBreton Flats, the renewal of the prime minister’s official residence at 24 Sussex Drive and the creation of a nine-kilometre linear waterfront park along the Ottawa River.

Urban designer George Dark calls the NCC’s plans for the Ottawa River lands “the most fantastic project I can ever imagine.” But he has a concern.

“To me, it’s not being jumped on significantly enough. Ask the question, what’s the most you could possibly accomplish using that piece of land – not just tinkering, but the most? Really go bold on it, because it’s magnificent.”

Other big ideas, such as a national botanical garden and a major remake of Confederation Square to coincide with the centennial of the National War Memorial in 2039, are longer term and more aspirational, Kristmanson says.

One idea that has received relatively little attention is the development of a plan to creatively illuminate key buildings and features in the downtown area. The first lights will go on in 2017, but it will take about a decade to complete all elements of the plan.

“There’s something about the signature of a great city that it tends to be a nighttime look,” Kristmanson says. New York City is a prime example. But when people think of Ottawa, they generally don’t imagine it after dark, says Kristmanson. “And yet we have these beautiful assets — built ones, but also geographical features and the water.”

The illumination plan, he hopes, will rewire the way visitors and residents think about the capital, transforming it in their imaginations into a place ablaze with dazzling nighttime light.

The NCC invited bids from teams interested in developing an "holistic vision for nighttime illumination" of the core of the capital that would highlight the beauty of the area at night an emphasize sites of national significance.

Kristmanson calls the decade-long renovation of the Centre Block of Parliament, set to begin in 2018, a seminal project. “Many choices will have to be made in terms of design. Canadians want an expression that will carry us for another century.

“I’m hoping the official residence for the prime minister could be such a building, when we get to that,” he says.

As well, the federal government is keen to find a new use for the former American embassy, across from Parliament Hill, which has been vacant since 1998. The government is expected to make a decision in 2017, and many hope the former embassy will become the home of a national portrait gallery.

We can also look forward to the completion in 2017 of a major makeover of the 50-year-old National Arts Centre and the reopening next fall of a renovated and expanded Canada Museum of Science and Technology.

Where we’ll work

Is Ottawa forever destined to be a city dominated by its largest employer, the federal government? Not necessarily, experts say. If we play our cards right, technology companies could easily rise to the forefront.

Driven by a surging technology industry, private-sector employment outstripped public-sector employment in Ottawa in 1999, but fell back when high tech hit the skids. The collapse of Nortel, which employed 60,000 people worldwide at its peak — more than Google today — was a particularly devastating blow.

Now, tech is back in this area in a big way, but more diversified and sustainable than before. A growing number of startups are joining established big players such as Mitel, Ciena, Nokia and Ericsson, and large new players — including Apple, Amazon, Syntronic and Qlik — are entering the region for the first time.

Construction work on Ciena's Kanata offices.

The next five years will bring another technical revolution in networking — 5G — and massively larger broadband networks, which will spawn another wave of innovation and growth.

Ottawa is well-positioned to capitalize. There are already 1,700 technology companies in the region, employing nearly 68,000 people. Ottawa tech companies have raised more money on the public markets in the past five years than those in all other Canadian cities combined, and account for more than $7 billion in GDP, primarily through exports.

Ottawa also boasts the most educated workforce in Canada. It is home to the second-largest concentration of scientists and engineers in North America, behind only Silicon Valley in California. The region’s post-secondary schools have a combined student population of 138,000, one-in-five of whom are focused on science, technology, engineering or math.

“We have a legacy of a strong tech sector that’s re-awaken