To build attractive, people-friendly venues, we must start with something basic and unsexy: fixing the municipal procurement process.

Public places such as libraries, parks, community centres, courtyards and transit systems are paid for by our federal, provincial or municipal governments. They are designed by architects, engineers and other professionals hired through Requests for Proposal (RFPs). They are essential for forging stronger communities.

The quality of those spaces has a direct impact on social wellbeing. Thoughtful, creative, accessible and welcoming spaces allow society to flourish.

Ottawa has some beautiful places: Parliament, the Museums, the Rideau Canal, Ottawa River parkways, Confederation or Major’s Hill Park, the Experimental Farm and the Greenbelt. All of these are federal commitments on behalf of all Canadians to make Ottawa a capital city.

Municipally, however, we struggle. Wellington Street could have been a vibrant public place; since the convoy was removed, no attempt has been made to make it interesting. Some food trucks, benches, planters, public art or entertainment could have made it an interesting space, even if temporary. Our parks and transit system lack public washrooms. Our outdoor pools, recreation centres and libraries are aging. This is the result of a lack of municipal will to make Ottawa a place for people.

We are quick to approve hundreds of millions for roads but hesitant for anything else. By contrast, Edmonton is building an indoor velodrome, paired with an aquatic centre. These public sports facilities will create places for the public, boost economic activity and quality of life, and are part of a $2-billion budget commitment to public places over the next four years.We are a G7 capital. While we have little or no say in federal decisions about our city, we do control what we build in the rest of our community.

We don’t have a lens through which we can evaluate decisions about cultural or social vitality. We don’t link research and development, reconciliation or sustainability targets through a cohesive policy that improves our quality of life.

We aspire to better outcomes in documents like the Official Plan, but they aren’t implemented cohesively, nor linked to broader objectives. For example, the economic impact of architecture is 14 per cent of Ontario’s GDP, according to a report by the Ontario Association of Architects. How could investing in better places boost our economy? We don’t bother to find out.

The reason we don’t make better places is rooted in how we commission projects. Carol Belanger, Edmonton’s City Architect, recently told me, “Procurement isn’t sexy, but it’s essential. Who you hire sets the agenda for the city you want.” Our poor procurement process affects how we live.

Hiring an architect or engineer is usually done through an RFP. The city issues an RFP, then bidders demonstrate their skill and experience and submit a price for doing the work. Bidders whose experience matches the RFP get higher points: it’s nearly impossible for a new business to get a contract.

Once RFPs are given a technical score, the lowest price gets the most points. Since fees are related to the amount of service a job needs, the lower the fee, the less service it gets.

City RFPs also include an outdated standard contract accompanied by pages of conditions that undermine its integrity and present real challenges to the public interest by invalidating insurance provisions designed to ensure fairness.

The city imposes further unfair conditions. It expects a successful bidder to reduce fees if the city pays on time, which it is legally required to do anyway. If the contract is over a certain amount, the city expects a further reduction, equating bulk purchase of services to a volume discount on toilet paper.

Creating a better procurement model means creating fair, equitable and reasonable conditions for talent to deliver its best.

Design fees can be a fraction of a per cent of the lifecycle value of a building. Saving a few dollars on the design can have a dramatic impact on the building’s value to a community. This is a lesson Edmonton learned well. Since a famous 2005 declaration by then mayor Stephen Mandel, “We’re done with crap,” Edmonton has transformed its procurement process, investing in people, in communities and creating stunning, resilient and sustainable places.

By changing how we hire professionals and championing design we can achieve our best, Ottawa.

Originally posted in the Ottawa Citizen.