In 2009, celebrity academic Richard Florida called Ottawa the most creative city in the country. The news surprised everyone, including many Ottawans. For decades, the capital of Canada has suffered a reputation as a stuffy government town.
Florida’s findings were published in a study called Ontario in the Creative Age. Granted, part of the reason Ottawa emerged at the top is because 40.9% of the population here is defined as “Creative Class”, people who think for a living. Many of these include public servants. I can hear the guffawing already – since when are government workers ever qualified as “creative”? More on that in a moment.
Florida has been written off in some academic and media circles as an opportunist and a trendy “flavour of the month” intellectual. While I don’t wholly agree with his overall approach, I do see something useful in his research. What the findings confirm is Ottawa’s creative potential. After eight years of living in this city, the metaphor that aptly captures Ottawa for me is an awkward teenager. It is constantly looking to its older siblings Toronto and Montreal for inspiration and clues as to what it should become. But ultimately Ottawa needs to look within to discover itself and to blossom. And when I say Ottawa, I mean local Ottawa – not the Capital of Canada. Local Ottawa comprises the parts of our city that don’t include Parliament Hill, the Rideau Canal and anything else you might find in a tourism brochure.
Where is creative potential found in Ottawa? It may come as a surprise, but there are plenty of people here who are among the ranks of the public service, trying to make a difference. Nick Charney is one example of a public servant who actively uses social media to engage his peers and the public on innovation in government. There are others who, perhaps frustrated with bureaucracy, will choose another outlet that’s distinct from their day job. I know public servants who moonlight as musicians, artists and writers. But it doesn’t end there. There are a host of independent cafes, tech start-ups and social entrepreneurs emerging all over the city (though the majority remain concentrated downtown). There is an arising restlessness for change and I am not sure where it’s coming from. Could it be from the new arrivals Ottawa is attracting to the city because of its relatively stable economy, while in the midst of a recession?
Florida is right, the talent is here. The issue that comes up again and again in the nation’s capital is the lack of institutional support and infrastructure for nurturing this creativity. There is a risk of losing the talent without this support. This is in fact a weakness that Florida points out, “if [Ottawa] doesn’t gain talent as quickly as its peers it will be left behind.”
I know far too many people who escape to Toronto or Montreal on the weekends because they cannot find the right kind of social life here. Ottawa’s core downtown district generally shuts down by five or six o’clock on a week day because customers are not available after hours. Instead, they go home to their families after work. If the city had an efficient transit system to tie its core with outlier communities, then perhaps Ottawa wouldn’t be half the sleepy government town it presently is. Or maybe it is a question of actively engaging single urban professionals in city life. Local artists and musicians would have better access to local audiences and would be more likely to stay, rather than leave for opportunities in Toronto, Vancouver or Montreal.
Those are some initial thoughts, anyway. But what do you think? What do we need to do inject some life into this city?