Tale of Two Cities: Ottawa vs Calgary (part 1)

At first glance, you might think Calgary and Ottawa were the same city - both became cities in the late 19th century, both have a population just over one million, both are river cities, both have a young (average age is the mid-30s), both have a highly educated population, both have residents who love their parks and recreational areas and both are winter cities.  

However, after taking up residency on the 21st floor of the Holiday Inn Suites a block from the Rideau Canal and wandering the streets of Ottawa for a week last Fall, I soon discovered the two cities are distinctly different.  One of the first visual differences is Ottawa’s city centre neighbourhoods are populated by small brick attached homes, rooming houses and small apartment blocks. Perhaps this is not surprising when you consider Ottawa was a city of 281,908 people in 1951 (when the average home was about 850 sqft); in contrast Calgary’s population of 139,105 giving Ottawa a much larger inventory of smaller early 20th century homes and apartments. Today over 85,000 people call Ottawa’s City Center home, compared to 68,000 in Calgary. It is hard to believe they have more people living in their city centre as there are very few high-rise condos compared to Calgary.


The big positive for Ottawa over Calgary is how much more street life it has. There always seemed to be people milling about in the Byward Market and the sidewalks of Bank and Elgin Streets – daytime, evenings and week-ends. Having walked Stephen Avenue, Kensington, Inglewood, Mission and Beltline for years, it is only on the odd occasion that there is any significant street life. This is particularly surprising for the Beltline where the residential density is equivalent or greater than anything in Ottawa. Obviously, density isn’t everything!

On the flip side, I was surprised by the apparent lack of runners, walkers and cyclists along the Rideau Canal compared to the throngs along our Bow/Elbow River pathways. Ottawa has neither the rush hour of commuter cyclists you see in Calgary weekdays nor the weekend runners, walkers and cyclists, despite the almost perfect fall weather we experienced while there.

Ottawa is often touted as one of the most bicycle-friendly cities in Canada, yet I didn’t see as many cyclists as I do in Calgary.  Recognizing the “non-scientificness” of this, I did a bit of research. While Bike Calgary has some interesting information, even they question the city census vs. the federal census stats on cycling due to time of year the census takes place and other variables. A Herald article on cycling had 12,000 people commuting into the downtown for work (about 8.5% of the estimated 140,000 downtown workers - a number which is also difficult to confirm) seems very high.  An Ottawa city planner informed me they currently estimate that about 3% of Ottawatonians commute to work by bike, but they didn’t have specific numbers for downtown.  Though it is very difficult to get “apples-to-apples” comparison, the lower commuter cyclist numbers in Ottawa, may reflect that fact Ottawa has only 300 km of pathways compared to Calgary’s 750 kilometres.

Ottawatonians boast about Gatineau National Park (first national park outside the Rockies) only 15 minutes from their downtown. They also love the National Capital Greenbelt a, 203 sq km crescent of land that marks the boundaries of the city of Ottawa.  Originally conceived as a way to control urban sprawl, development has since jumped the Greenbelt with the city of Kanata (population of over 100,000), home of their NHL Senators.

Calgarians also love their parks - Fish Creek and Nose Hill Parks are two of the largest urban parks in North America, both within the city limits. We also have Banff and Kananaskis and the new Glenbow Ranch Park on our northwest edge. While Calgary doesn’t have a Greenbelt, by 2015 we will have a unique Greenway, a 110 km green space utilizing the Transportation Utility Corridor to create a pathway/recreational system encircling the city.

As for plazas, Ottawa’s Festival Plaza is next to its City Hall complex much the same as Calgary’s Olympic Plaza is adjacent to our City Hall and Municipal Building.   However, Ottawa has nothing to match our Shaw Millennium Park with its world-class skateboard park or Prince’s Island Park. But then, we don’t have a skating rink to rival their amazing Rideau Canal.  I also didn’t see anything in Ottawa to match our Talisman Centre or Eau Claire Y.


Ottawa’s Sparks Street Pedestrian Mall lacks the tony atmosphere of Calgary’s Stephen Avenue Walk with its upscale shops restaurants and links to Calgary’s Financial and Arts District.  As well, Ottawa’s Rideau Centre indoor shopping mall is looking pretty tired and is in need of a mega makeover (a $250M makeover is being discussed), like Calgary’s uber cool The Core received recently.  Ottawa also lacks Calgary’s iconic Hudson Bay Store downtown; theirs is more like a suburban department store in scale and design. It does nothing to complement the Byward Market district with its market, shops and restaurants for blocks around. It is a major “must-see” attraction for tourist and a great urban living amenity. Calgary’s Eau Claire Market pales in comparison.

From a street retail/restaurant perspective, Ottawa and Calgary are on par. Ottawa has its Byward Market District and Elgin, Bank and Glebe as their major shopping streets, while Calgary has Kensington, 17th Avenue, Design District, 4th Street and Inglewood. 

Thought both cities have award-winning restaurants, the one thing that sets Ottawa apart is its street bakeries and neighbourhood pubs. However, Ottawa lacked the diverse independent cafe culture Calgarians enjoy. And yes, Ottawatonians still have to shop at provincial Beer and Liquor Stores; how antiquated is that?  

Last Word

At this point I would say from an urban living perspective Calgary and Ottawa are on par. Next week we will look at how the two cities compare with respect to architecture, skyline, museums, attractions, galleries, festivals and urban design and renewal.  I will also share with you the lessons learned from Ottawa.

If there is a lesson to be learned, it is that residential density doesn’t necessarily lead to more street life. Take, for example, Calgary’s south downtown communities. They have good density and yet the retail streets 11th 12th and 17th Avenues and 1st 4th and 8th Streets have little street vitality. I am not convinced one-way vs. two-way streets make a significant difference as far as street life goes - as some planners would have us to believe. 

I believe the key to street vitality is the retail mix.  The street retail needs to be small scale and focus on everyday needs – bakeries, small specialty food and grocers, pubs and cafes. Too often Calgary’s street retail is focused on higher end shopping and dining, which don’t have the everyday appeal that is needed for ongoing vitality. However, there are signs of increasing street life with all the new yoga studios popping up everywhere in the city centre and new local everyday foodie places like Bite Groceteria in Inglewood, Sidewalk Citizen bakery in Kensington and Sunterra in Victoria Park.  But I fear that even these are too high-end for everyday needs people of the majority of people living nearby.