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Photo by Alan Wainwright, Apt613 Flickr Pool.

Urban Imaginaries: What could Ottawa be?

By Jamie MacPherson on March 8, 2022

Sharing often leads to beautiful things. Case in point—when a longstanding regular at Centretown coffeehouse Arlington 5 (A5), Dave Harder, pitched an idea to founder and owner Jessie Duffy, a unique collaboration with the School of Industrial Design at Carleton University was born. They want to get people talking about what Ottawa could be.

Arlington5. Photo: Maya Chopra.

Bank and Arlington is a special place. This corner houses a quaint coffee shop with kind staff and splendid local drinks, eats, and art. Steps away from a busy thoroughfare, this space “encourages belonging, co-creation and collaboration,” says Duffy. At small tables, big ideas are exchanged and crafted. It’s here that Harder and Duffy collaborated on visions of “a new commons,” which Harder later shared with Chiara Del Gaudio, an Assistant Professor in Carleton University’s Urban Imaginaries Lab.

Urban Voice, Urban Stories. Photo: Maya Chopra.

Duffy and Del Gaudio’s conversations led to Urban Imaginaries, a bold new project whose purpose, Duffy explains, “is to see people engage in everyday spaces in ways that are beyond transactional, and to open up a conversation around imagining multiple possibilities for the spaces we inhabit. Our motto at A5 is ‘This is (y)our space,’ which I see as an invitation to belonging and co-creating beyond transactional interactions. For me, I would love to see how that invitation could extend into the city around us, and to actively participate in the shaping of space around us, and to question what shapes the city and who it is shaped for.”

Are you listening to the city? Photo: The Urban Imaginaries Project.

Everything is designed: Streets. Common areas. Each square foot of this city. Del Gaudio wants us to be cognizant that design processes created Ottawa: “Everything that there is around us has been designed by designers. The design of buildings, but also service systems, policies, etc. All of this informs how we behave, how we live, and our possibilities of being.” By being really aware, we can start to see our neighbourhoods differently and understand that we too are designers.

Wandering for rediscovering and reimagining. Photo: Chiara Del Gaudio.

Urban Imaginaries (UI) wants you to start asking questions: About what Ottawa is, why it looks the way it does, what it could be. About who gets to participate in its creation and changes. And, as Del Gaudio notes, “What are its forgotten possibilities, hidden opportunities, the alternatives, and what are the alternatives we can co-create.” Was Ottawa’s design truly participatory, neutral, or was a “power dimension” involved?

The project is starting from A5, which stood out to Del Gaudio “as a place for community-building and engaging in supporting non-mainstream voices and visions,” or a common, namely “a resource of the local community.” UI wants to get us thinking about where we want to live, how we want to live, what it means to live here, and to live together. Using A5 as “a place for place-making,” UI links it with a message for Ottawa: Don’t forget that you’re allowed to participate in the formation of your communities. The design process is not just for those delegated to design; it’s for all “the different actors of its community/ecosystem,” Del Gaudio reminds us.

“From walks to explore and discover the city, to critical mapping (counter-mapping) of the neighbourhood, to a process of envisioning alternatives,” Del Gaudio says Ottawans will have a new way to look at our city. A “soundwalk” and three radio shows on CKCU are planned, thanks to Professor Vincent Andrisani of Carleton University’s Communication and Media Studies Program. Andrisani will show you how to listen to Ottawa.

Duffy says the participatory events will take place every second Sunday for 12 weeks, starting February 27, and they will give the 613 a chance to imagine the future together. “You’re invited to shape (y)our city! This is (y)our space!”


The next Urban Imaginaries event takes place on Sunday, March 13. Check out the website for more info.