Capital Shortcomings

18 Aug

Contrary to an old myth, it’s not really possible to see the Great Wall of China from outer space.

From the Moon, astronauts say, you actually can’t see anything on Earth that’s been made by human hands.

Once you get much closer to Earth in space, NASA reports, you can see many human-made objects. Cities at night. Major highways. The ancient pyramids of Egypt.

But the Great Wall of China? Nope. Another myth … busted.

On the other hand, let’s say you were on the opposite side of the Earth from China, floating in space above Ottawa, Ontario, Canada. What human-made thing would stand out the most?

The Peace Tower? Probably not, If you could see anything of it from that height and angle, it would be only its very tip.

The Rideau Canal? Possibly, although it may be too thin to stand out on its own.

Never having been in outer space, here’s my guess what would stand out first, descending on Ottawa from above the Earth’s atmosphere:

The Central Experimental Farm.

Take a look at Ottawa on Google Earth if you don’t believe me. You don’t have to zoom in too closely before the large brown-and-green elbow-shaped swath of territory comes into view.

I floated over Ottawa this past summer, a lot closer than NASA does – on a hot-air balloon ride – and from that vantage point, there is nothing in the capital that stands out more than the huge agricultural space that takes up so much of the geographical centre of town.

Now, the Experimental Farm is a fine institution. I have had dozens of happy visits there over the years.

But floating above it in a hot-air balloon, I had to chuckle to myself. I remembered growing up in Montreal and making fun of my Ottawa friends for living in a city – a national capital, no less – built around barns and pastures.

The rest of Ottawa from the air is pretty enough, but largely nondescript. That adjective would fit much of our city from the ground, too, save for the area around Parliament Hill. There are far too many ugly functional government buildings and there is far too little imaginative urban planning befitting the capital of such an advanced country.

Journalist Andrew Cohen stoked much local controversy two years ago, when he wrote about these shortcomings in his book The Unfinished Canadian:

The reason we don’t think boldly about Ottawa is that we are not proud of Ottawa. We have none of the reverence for our capital that the French have for Paris or the British for London or the Italians for Rome… Canadians don’t demand a vision of their capital from Parliament, and Ottawans don’t demand a sense of their city from City Hall. Ottawa is happy with the ordinary. It is genteel and orderly, terrified of spontaneity.

Of course, Ottawa is something of a contrived national capital, plucked from back-country obscurity by Queen Victoria as a compromise location between Ontario and Quebec. As far as national capitals go, it certainly is no Paris or London or Rome.

But Washington, DC is also an example of a contrived capital. Its location was picked by its namesake, George Washington himself, who lived a short way down the Potomac in Virginia, and it was built almost from scratch, not ready for use as the capital until 1800, a year after Washington’s death.

If you floated over Washington, DC in a hot-air balloon – and managed to avoid being shot down by the U.S. Air Force – you’d probably notice a beautifully laid-out capital city, its large avenues forming diamond shapes over its grid of streets, and meeting up in large circular plazas and parks. You’d also see the city’s most impressive buildings and monuments all along its lengthy National Mall.

On the ground, Washington is no less impressive. If you wanted to visit all of its incredible free museums, many of them part of the Smithsonian Institution, not to mention the city’s great historical monuments, you’d have to spend at least a couple of weeks in D.C.

It is a city that understands its importance as a living history museum. After walking around Washington for only four days this summer, I think my kids now know as much about American history as they have learned about Canadian history over a number of years.

Our capital should offer the same kinds of experiences, shouldn’t it? So why do we settle for less?

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