Office of Councillor Jeff Leiper, Kitchissippi Ward, Ottawa | (613) 580-2485  |
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La Machine's joyous lessons

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What can you say about La Machine that hasn’t already been Facebooked, Instagrammed, and Tweeted a hundred thousand times over the weekend? For three days, Ottawans crammed into the downtown for a once-in-a-lifetime performance of theatre, engineering and music. No one who saw it will soon forget it.

It will be a defining moment in this city’s ongoing transition.

Now that the crowds have gone, it’s a good time to look back on what worked, and how we can keep the momentum going.

First, I’d like to offer my personal congratulations to the City staff who were key to making this weekend so successful. 2017 chief Guy Laflamme will obviously (and no doubt graciously) get worldwide acclaim for his shop’s decision to pursue and host this event, and for the months of grind to get the logistics right. But as I and Natalie walked around, we saw traffic and roads staff like Phil Landry, Bryden Denyes and Gil Tait working minute-by-minute to keep the show moving. Our motorcycle police like Jon Hall and Phil Kane were in constant motion. Guy’s 2IC Nathalie Carrière and her team never stopped. Our EMS and firefighters, roads fleet drivers, videographers and other communications staff, and OC Transpo drivers and supervisors were unsung co-stars to the event. The city owes a debt of gratitude to hundreds of volunteers who gave their time to this city-building initiative.

And, make no mistake, they got it right. (continues after video)

Besides the obvious logistics, the event’s success relied on countless big and small decisions. Many of those were probably huge gambles, and some the kind of quiet genius that will go unheralded.

Take, for instance, the “potato”. That’s what they called the moving perimeter of flimsy plastic ribbon that surrounded the machines as they went walkabout. The barrier was almost conceptual. How many debates and discussions among the various players took place before gambling that a piece of caution tape would suffice as crowd control? That there was no need for sturdier barriers? That tens of thousands of people would figure out quickly how to roam the downtown to determine their own best viewing area?

Some elements of the event were quietly micro-managed, but many of the big details were not. The organizers trusted the crowds, and it worked spectacularly. People self-organized and devised their own ways of seeing the show based on what worked for them. I can’t help but believe that the relative paucity of information on how to enjoy the show was another deliberate gamble that paid off massively.

One bet was more obvious: the social media and professional branding efforts were facilitated by Long Ma’s and Kumo’s walkabouts. Even in my own short video of Friday’s events, Ottawa’s tourism highlights were a supporting cast. Could Andaz have bought the level of advertising it received? The Chateau Laurier? Parliament Hill, the Canal, City Hall, the National Gallery? Could anyone even guess at the exposure those venues have already gotten from residents and tourists internationally, even before the professionals get into the editing studio? I saw local filmmakers like Ken Stewart and our Film head Bruce Harvey working hard all weekend to capture all the footage. The return on investment from that activity will be felt for years.

Many have also noted the non-commercial nature of the event. It was free. There were no vendors roaming with t-shirts for sale or food truck lines. There were water bottle filling stations and porta-potties and lost children volunteers, but the supporting visible infrastructure was minimal and limited to making sure visitors had access to some key services. You could bring a backpack with snacks and diapers and sunscreen to enjoy this urban adventure, but other than bus fare, there was never pressure to spend money

Of course, and this is where we begin looking forward, one of the most important decisions was to open the streets of downtown to people.

Natalie and I were deciding as we walked home down the closed Parkway on Sunday what parts of the weekend we liked best. For all the magic of the finale, we both decided we liked running around the Market like 10-year-olds best. We’d follow the machines, try to get ahead of them by deking to the next block, catch glimpses of them at the far end of streets. It was magical, delightful, and any of 100 other adjectives residents have been using for days to describe the show.

Not to hammer it, but the elimination of parking and cars from the Market and other key downtown streets was hugely successful. As has been well covered in the media, no one’s hearing any merchants complaining. Many of us have said that fewer cars, not more, in our marquee destinations will draw more people and economic activity. Yes, La Machine was a one-off in terms of scale, but the degree to which the principle was proven can’t be overstated. During breaks in the performance, thousands milled around on closed streets to enjoy a perfect summer weekend. My hope is that we take serious note of that, and make a commitment to do it more often.

In a few years, light rail (LRT) will extend deep into the west and east ends, complementing an extended and improved O-Train. Passengers coming from Orleans and Kanata and the south end will be able to disembark directly into the Market. Our cycling networks are punching further and further afield, with connections slowly being made to knit the routes together.

Let’s give residents and tourists a reason to visit and shop and be part of beautiful experiences in the Market and downtown. Less parking and fewer cars will be key to that. It will be relatively rare that we can attract 70,000 or 80,000 people at once to wander and shop, but we can certainly bring several thousand at a time once the transportation infrastructure will support it – and it will soon. We need bike lanes and parking, great transit, and safe pedestrian routes to capitalize on the opportunity we proved this weekend.

Let’s do it.

Finally, it shouldn’t be lost on anyone the degree to which La Machine was an artistic performance that drew hundreds of thousands to the streets. From Long Ma’s expressive sculpting to the choreography to the lush score performed live by professional musicians who displayed Herculean stamina, every aspect of the show was imbued with artistry. The lesson I hope we can draw from this is that any space can be a performance space. Let’s ensure artists have the support they need to share their vision with us.

A lot of trust was extended this weekend: trust in residents, trust in our City's consummate professionals, trust in artists, and trust in visionaries like Guy Laflamme. That trust was re-paid many times over. As we look ahead to the continued transformation of this city, let’s not hesitate to trust each other.

Posted July 31, 2017