Musings on Urban Design in the Capital

Giovanni's, one of the illustrations from White's Confectionaries series.

“I like stuff that’s really run down, that looks like it’s been lived in, that looks like it’s got some history to it,” said Ottawa illustrator Colin White over a cup of coffee at a local café. “These are things you don’t think of when you think of the Capital City.”

It’s true. A peek into Ottawa Tourism’s photo gallery reveals clean, pristine architecture without a rust mark in sight. That is suspicious for a city that suffocates under blankets of snow eight months of the year.

White’s most recent series, Confectionaries: Streetscapes from Ottawa, features colourful illustrations of downtown community shops, confectionaries and delis that are within cycling or walking distance from his home. He plunks himself down on busy street corners and spends a couple hours sketching.

White is attracted to the uniqueness of his subjects. “There was care put into [the corner stores] – the fact that some [signs] were hand painted.” He adds that 7-Elevens and Mac’s convenience stores don’t carry that same personal touch – many are uniform in colour and display the same ads.

Despite his affection for “scratches, dirt [and] peeling paint,” White doesn’t hold a grudge against any of the new condos popping up all over the city, as part of the city’s 20/20 urban design strategy. Just so long as they’re not terribly ugly, tall or imposing. “[They’re] better than Soviet-esque apartments,” he said wryly, in reference to the Brutalist-style architecture that peppers the downtown core.

White grew up in the Ottawa Valley, but he never felt a connection to the city until his adult years. He studied for his undergraduate degree in Montreal and moved to England afterwards to pursue a master’s degree in graphic design. In London he explored the city by foot, avoiding public transit and stopping for moments to sketch.

White decided to spend more time on foot when he returned to Ottawa in 2006 and eventually grew fond of the city, to his own surprise. “There was more going on here than I thought there would be,” he said. His main qualm now with the city is its lack of viable public transportation. The city currently has plans to expand its light rail, but this won’t be implemented until 2017. Its existing bus routes have been shrunk, and some cancelled altogether.

“The main thing that Ottawa doesn’t have going for it – that could really turn it into a world-class city – is transportation and pedestrian access,” said White.