Ottawa vs Calgary Second Period Faceoff

The following is the second of a two-part series comparing Calgary and Ottawa.

Last week, Calgary and Ottawa faced off on streets, parks, pathways, plaza, pathways, shopping and dining.

The score was tied.

This week, the two cities compete on architecture, skyline, museums, attractions, galleries, festivals, post-secondary schools and urban design and renewal. May the best city win.


Ottawa’s skyline can be impressive — but only as you drive into the downtown over the Ottawa River from the Gatineau side.

Without any tall buildings, the skyline quickly disappears, unlike Calgary’s, which is impressive from all sides and can be seen from as far away as Nose Hill Park and Sarcee Trail.

Ottawa iconic architecture consists mostly of public structures such as the historic Parliament Buildings, the contemporary National Gallery, the Museum of Civilization and the new Convention Centre.

On the other hand, Calgary’s signature architecture is seen in private buildings — Calgary Tower, Bow Tower, Nexen Building, Bankers Hall and 8th Avenue Place.

Ottawa falls short in the architectural experimentation that is currently taking place in Calgary. It lacks futuristic condos, such as our city’s Arriva, Sasso or Nuera, or iconic pedestrian bridges, such as the Peace Bridge near Prince's Island or the Water Centre in Manchester.

However, Ottawa’s Convention Centre kicks Calgary’s butt thanks to its new $170 million, 192,000-square-foot expansion — significantly larger than Calgary’s entire 130,000 square feet.

Its Ritchard Briton design features a large glass facade that wraps around the entire front entrance, making a dramatic statement.

Both cities also have their architectural dogs. The National Arts Centre is a Brutalist-style building that's dark and gloomy on the outside; it certainly doesn’t say “let’s celebrate the arts.”

But then, Calgary's Epcor Centre for the Performing Arts isn’t exactly an iconic building, either.

I was surprised to find that in 2000, the National Arts Centre was named by the Royal Architectural Institute of Canada as one of the top 500 buildings produced in Canada during the last millennium.

From an historical perspective, Ottawa can claim numerous major historical buildings, with the Fairmont Chateau Laurier Hotel occuping a much more prominent place in Ottawa’s city centre than downtown Calgary’s Fairmont Palliser Hotel.

However, Ottawa doesn’t have the contiguous historical streets that Calgary has thanks to Stephen Avenue and Inglewood.

From an urban design perspective, Ottawa has its outdoor Sparks Street Mall, while Calgary has Stephen Avenue Walk.

Stephen Avenue plays a much greater role in the everyday life of Calgary’s downtown than does Sparks Street for Ottawa's. Stephen Avenue is the gateway to our financial, shopping and retail districts, as well as being one of Canada's leading restaurant rows.

And while Sparks Street was Canada’s first pedestrian mall, it is not as well connected to the other activity areas in downtown Ottawa.

While Ottawa has plans for an LRT system, it currently depends on Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) as its major downtown transit mover — and the capital city's Downtown Transit Mall along Rideau Street is looking very tired.

Calgary’s LRT system and the city's recently renovated 7th Avenue Transit Corridor is much superior to Ottawa’s.


As you would expect, Ottawa kicks Calgary’s butt when it comes to museums, attractions and galleries.

Being the capital of Canada, Ottawa has many must-see attractions, museums and galleries — Parliament Hill, National Gallery of Canada, Canadian Museum of Civilization, Canadian War Museum and Canadian Museum of Nature being the top five.

Calgary’s top five is th Calgary Zoo, Telus Spark science centre, Glenbow Museum, Calgary Tower and maybe Devonian Gardens.

However, Calgary will be stepping up its game due to the completion of the new National Music Centre and the upgrades to Fort Calgary over the next few years.


Ottawa’s major urban renewal project is LeBreton Flats, an area flattened in the 1960s to make way for government offices.

When contaminated soil was found, the urban renewal stalled and only recently has development begun with the new Canadian War Museum and a new mixed-use development. Today, the area is home to fewer than 200 people.

Calgary’s East Village, with much the same history of starts and stops, is fortunately much further along with its renewal. It is currently home to 2,500 people, with major new condo projects under construction.

It will soon be home to the new National Music Centre, as well as an upgraded Fort Calgary and St. Patrick’s Island Park.

Calgary also boasts significantly more diverse infill residential projects in its city centre — be that skinny infills, new single-family mansions, low-rise infills or new condo towers.

Conversely, in Ottawa, only a few infilling houses, a couple of low-rise condos and no major condo towers under construction could be found.


Both Calgary and Ottawa host a variety of annual festivals.

Ottawa's signature ones include Winterlude (a three-week festival that attracts up to 1.5 million people), Canada Day celebrations and Canada Tulip Festival as well as Blues, Jazz, Fringe Festival and Folk music festivals. In 2010, Ottawa's festival industry received the International Festivals and Events Association’s World Festival and Event City Award in the category of North American cities with a population between 500,000 and one million people.

Calgary’s signature events include the Calgary Stampede, Spruce Meadow show jumping events, and Lilac Festival. Our other major festivals would be Children’s, Folk, Kiwanis, Sled Island and Wordfest, making the two cities on par with respect to festivals.

Ottawa’s National Arts Centre has four performance spaces with a total of 3,670 seats, while Calgary’s Epcor Centre for the Performing Arts has five spaces and 3,200 seats. Calgary also has four other theatre spaces — The Grand, Vertigo (Playhouse and Studio) and Lunchbox.

In addition to concerts, dance and theatre, Ottawa's National Arts Centre hosts Canada’s Dance Festival, International Animated Film Festival and Magnetic North Theatre Festival.

But Epcor plays host to the High Performance Rodeo and Enbridge playRights Festival. Again, the two cities are on par.

Neither city has a major collecting public art gallery. The Ottawa Art Gallery is on par with the Art Gallery of Calgary or MOCA Calgary (formerly the Triangle), as is the commercial gallery scene which, like Calgary’s, is scattered around the entire city centre.

As for the indie music scene, there are a couple of interesting live music venues in Ottawa, but nothing like Calgary’s signature venues — Beatniq, Blues Can, Broken City, HiFi Club, Ironwood, Mikey’s, Palomino, and Ship and Anchor. Calgary is the clear winner here.


With more than 40,000 students and staff , the University of Ottawa (U of O) campus is an integral part of downtown Ottawa’s landscape.

While downtown Calgary has the new University of Calgary building and expanded Bow Valley College, they are no match to the U of O campus with its seven residences and the thousands of students who populate apartments in the immediate area.

U of O, which is the world’s largest bilingual university, attracts students from around the world, giving it an international flavour.

It is unfortunate that Calgary's SAIT Polytechnic and Alberta College of Art and Design were not located closer to downtown when first conceived because they would have changed the shape of our downtown.


The lesson to be learned this week is the importance of tourists and students in creating street life and urban vitality.

In Part 1, I commented on the street life in downtown Ottawa that is lacking in Calgary, I have to think this is the result of Ottawa’s downtown being a tourist attraction with several must-see attractions, while Calgary has none.

Leisure tourist love to wander and explore. Show me a downtown with evening and weekend vitality and I’ll show you a downtown that is a tourist destination.

Similarly, students are also a major source of street life in any urban centre. Montreal is a prime example of this with more than 100,000 post-secondary students inhabiting the city centre every day.

Calgary’s lack of a post-secondary campus as part of its city centre landscape is a major flaw in our urban planning.

However, when all is said and done, looking at more than 15 different elements of urban living, even though Ottawa is a government mid-rise town and Calgary a corporate highrise city, they are pretty much on par as a place to live, work and play for young urban professionals and empty nesters.

Richard White has written on art, architecture and urban culture for more than 20 years. He is currently the urban strategist at Ground3 Landscape Architects. He can be reached at Follow him at Visit his website at