Monday, November 9, 2009

Is this really the city that fun forgot?

Recently, I've been seeing lots of transit ads for an interesting new user-generated content site: "picture it. downtown."

My first thought was that this is a great idea for helping define Ottawa's brand. Let's celebrate the people who are trying to make urban Ottawa just a little cooler.

Having lived in Ottawa for since 1995, I've always been frustrated by our lack of self-confidence as a city. We allow ourselves to be perceived as a cold, grey, bureaucratic wastelend — "the city that fun forgot".

When outsiders say "Ottawa", they really mean "Government". Just look at today's headlines:

Ottawa's mind closed on carbon (Toronto Star)

Native tribe will petition Ottawa to remove its Indian status (Globe and Mail)

Anyone who knows our city's history, or who has visited the Bytown Museum, knows that we have not always been seen this way. In the days before we were the capital (or even "Ottawa"), Bytown was known as the roughest town in British North America — home to thugs, hookers, and corrupt leaders who could put contemporary New York's Five Points neighbourhood to shame.

So, what happened? How did we become so boring?

Ottawa certainly has lots of life in its core. The Byward Market is a great place to hang out, day or night. We have a fun and exciting independent film community (did you know that pornstar Sasha Grey was in town for a "safe for work" shoot?). We have edgy artists and laid-back galleries. We are a centre of excellence for animation. We have a good music scene. Saucy happenings. A unique ad industry. We even have a few world-class cultural institutions — or so I've heard.

So, as you can imagine, I saw this "picture it" contest and eagerly Googled it in the hopes that Ottawa downtowners were finally going to let the world know how many interesting people, places and scenes this city has in its core.

Or so I thought. Despite the contest's tagline "Grab a friend. Go downtown. "Snap a picture. Share it." the vast majority of pictures I've seen on their online showcase lack something very important: people.

I see pictures of nature, of architecture, of objects. And very few of the people and who bring this city to life. Where's the Parking Angel? Weird paranoid bike guy? The Shawarma Nazi? Digeridude? Last call at the Elgin St. Diner?

If I were to go on the user-generated picture on that site, I would get the impression that Ottawa is a cold, empty place, halfway between museum and nature preserve. And that makes me sad, because that's not the downtown Ottawa I've lived and worked in for 14 years.

But I'm not bashing the contest — or 76 Design, who put together a nice site. It's still a great idea, and user-generated content just is what it is. But I'm going to submit some better pictures to that site. I hope you will too.

Oh, and for those of you following Movember, the 'stache is coming in nicely. Visit my page at to watch it grow and/or donate to end prostate cancer.


  1. Nice post. Agreed totally. Its a tough go but everyone that cares needs to continue to slug it out and participate. And generate excitement. And things like Movember are the fun kinds of initiatives that get people involved.

    By the way... you should check out M4K aka Mustaches for Kids ( Mustache charities abound! We're very much a local focused organization - focusing efforts in a local manner will make a difference: buying local, shopping at locally owned stores, going to neighboorhood pubs, etc.

  2. I like the saucy happenings.

  3. Thanks, Brett!

    A colleague also told me about M4K. I'm already committed for Movember, but maybe next time I have a hairy hankering. I'll also bring your cause up in our Agency's social responsibility group ("Cause Loop").

  4. Hey Tom,

    Good post. With about two weeks to go in the promotion, we hope more people like you continue to participate and post photos that do an even better job of showcasing Ottawans doing more of all the cool stuff the city, in particular downtown, has to offer. Already we've had a huge amount of traffic (unique visits) to the website, with most people spending more than 4 minutes on the site. And there has been a fairly good participation rate (in 3 weeks) in terms of photo uploads (more than 700).


  5. I think the "Picture It" campaign is a great idea but you are right about the lack of people or "community" in the photographs.

    I wonder if that comes down to the ideal of not taking and/or not posting pictures of people you don't personally know. (Unless you're a pro photog.)I know I am always a little worried about taking pictures of public areas for fear of being singled-out by someone that may have been in the shot.