A recent Ottawa Citizen column re-ignited a debate about what to do with Canada’s first pedestrian mall on Sparks Street. Here is my response:
As someone who worked on Sparks Street for two decades, I have followed with some interest the debate on whether this street can be “saved” or not.
There are many challenges inherent to this pedestrian mall, not the least of which is that (unlike the Byward Market where people naturally congregate) it is a physically dark space and one has the feeling of being hemmed in by all the buildings.
Unless one is a worker downtown, it is not a “go to” destination for the average Ottawa resident. However, we should take note that it is indeed a “go to” destination for visitors from across Canada, who do come and actively seek out and visit the Sparks Street mall, take photos to show the folks back home, etc.
It has become a modern-day, Canadian pilgrimage site. Google “56 Sparks Street” and you’ll see why.
With this in mind, my suggestion for saving Sparks Street is an organic one:
Build on the pre-existing interest that hundreds of thousands of Canadians already have to visit Sparks Street, and create an “anchor” site that develops that interest further and would cause them to hang around on the Mall a bit longer.
Specifically, a centre or museum that is dedicated to the important role that Canada and Canadians have been playing in international humanitarian assistance over the decades since World War II and beyond.
And name the site, “The Lotta Hitschmanova International Humanitarian Centre”, in honour of the woman (a refugee to Canada herself) who made Sparks Street so well known to Canadians across the country. (Click here to hear her voice again.)
This won’t solve the many other challenges that Sparks Street faces, but it would at least give the mall the “anchor” that it is currently missing.
And it would be an open invitation to those Canadians who remember that Ottawa was not just a centre of power and politics, but also a Canadian centre for compassion and caring for our brothers and sisters around the world.
That would give thousands of Canadians yet another reason to come and visit Sparks Street, even on days when the Mall is at its darkest.