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Tobi Nussbaum reflects on last decade in Ottawa-Gatineau, challenges and hopes for NCC

Tobi Nussbaum is chief executive officer of the National Capital Commission (NCC), which manages federal lands and properties in the National Capital Region.
Tobi Nussbaum is chief executive officer of the National Capital Commission (NCC), which manages federal lands and properties in the National Capital Region. Dave Chan / via National Capital Commission

Ten years ago, Tobi Nussbaum was finishing up a master’s degree in public administration and serving as director general of development policy at the Canadian International Development Agency.

A decade later, he’s still in public service, serving as top boss at the National Capital Commission (NCC), which manages federal lands and buildings in the Ottawa-Gatineau region.

READ MORE: Orange tulips to bloom in Ottawa next spring, marking 75 years since Holland’s liberation

Nussbaum came to the federal Crown corporation in February, after serving as city councillor for Rideau-Rockcliffe on Ottawa city council from 2014 to 2018.

As Nussbaum’s first year as CEO, and this decade, come to an end, Global News sent him a list of questions: about his career, how Ottawa and the National Capital Region have transformed over the last 10 years, the challenges ahead for the NCC and the region, and finally, the future of LeBreton Flats.

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Q: How were you hoping things might shape up in Ottawa over the decade, from a city-building perspective? Were you right, or wrong? If you were wrong, how so?

A: My hope in 2010 was that there could be more opportunities in the capital to sit and enjoy our amazing waterways – rivers and canal. A decade later, we can point to the new NCC terraces and bistros along the shorelines that are providing residents and visitors with the chance to do exactly that.

Q: What’s been the single biggest game-changer in city building over the past 10 years?

A: The focus on transit – as witnessed by the new LRT and expanded [bus rapid transit] in Ottawa, and by Gatineau’s RapiBus and plans for a new tramway that would see more integrated inter-provincial transit.

READ MORE: Bugs disrupting LRT service declining but no sure-fire date for stable train, OC Transpo says

Q: What has been your biggest win as a civil servant or municipal councillor this decade?

A: I’ve always believed in the adage “think globally, act locally,” and it’s really defined the trajectory of my career over the past decade. I started the decade working on international development issues, and then transitioned to working on building a better city for everyone. Now I work at a federal crown corporation that has a real and tangible ability to improve the quality of life of residents of the capital region — and to continue to make the capital a source of pride for all Canadians.

Q: What has been your biggest disappointment or miss? What did you learn from it?

A: When I was a city councillor, I made a number of efforts to help catalyse new community associations in my ward in those neighbourhoods that were without. Recognizing the importance of public participation in civic life, I wish I’d put more resources into those efforts, including by linking them with our successful work on developing a ward-wide youth strategy, and perhaps merged efforts around youth engagement. Civic engagement is such a key ingredient to build more resilient and cohesive neighbourhoods.

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Q: What was the biggest story of the last decade in the National Capital Region, from a local perspective? Why?

A: Our region’s growing status as a leading technology hub – creating first-rate research, employment and innovation and helping to diversify our economy. The NCC plays such an important role in making the capital livable – through its pathways, public spaces, parks and focus on design excellence – and thereby contributes to making the capital a place where people would want to move to.

Ottawa beats out other communities to land Amazon distribution centre
Ottawa beats out other communities to land Amazon distribution centre

Q: How has the make-up of the National Capital Region changed over the last decade? How does this guide your decisions as new CEO of the National Capital Commission?

A: Population growth and immigration have led to a much more diverse population. There is also an increased recognition of the vital role that cities and regions play in integrating newcomers and building social capital, and this is a place the NCC can really bring its assets to bear. We can build and maintain the kind of great public spaces and amenities that contribute to national and civic cohesion, ensuring the capital continues to thrive.

READ MORE: 2019 floods could cost NCC up to $10M, board hears

Q: What is the biggest challenge facing the National Capital Region over the next decade?

A: Climate change — both in terms of mitigation and adaptation. The capital has seen first-hand the devastation it can cause, in the flooding we’ve experienced in recent years. We have to reduce our greenhouse gas emissions, and this is another place where the NCC has an important role to play. We have a new sustainable development strategy — it’s a plan with clear and measurable goals to reduce our carbon footprint and protect our natural assets. We want to show regional and national leadership on this issue.

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Drone footage shows severity of flooding in Ottawa
Drone footage shows severity of flooding in Ottawa

Q: What’s your biggest hope for the National Capital Region for 2020-2030?

A: I hope it becomes an even more exciting, dynamic, and sustainable region. And we’re well on our way. The NCC’s plans for the years to come alone are remaking the capital. Besides the exciting future of LeBreton Flats, we’re returning Nepean Point to its rightful place as one of the capital’s most iconic sites. We’re renewing the master plan for Gatineau Park. We’re building spectacular parks along both banks of the Ottawa River. And the Plan for Canada’s Capital, which the NCC launched in 2017, is a wealth of transformational capital-building ideas that are all ambitious but achievable — and many of them are already in progress.

READ MORE: ‘A coherent, exciting vision’: NCC board welcomes LeBreton Flats draft master plan

Q: LeBreton Flats has arguably been the NCC-related headline of the past year. How confident are you that the draft master concept plan is truly attainable? Where do you think the development will be by 2030?

A: I’m extremely confident. The staff at the NCC have worked very, very hard, and in nine months we’ve gone from a fresh start to having a fully developed master concept plan. The process has been efficient and thorough, including by engaging the public very early in the process. By 2030, I expect a visitor to LeBreton Flats to find a vibrant neighbourhood, great capital destinations and wonderful green spaces full of life and much-enjoyed by everyone.

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Q: Last year, the Rideau Canal had one of its longest skating seasons in recent memory. If you were a betting man, would you wager that the Rideau Canal will have a shorter or longer season in 2019-2020?

A: Given last year was of historic duration, we hope for the best but need to expect we won’t be so lucky this year. Climate change means greater temperature fluctuations, a reality we must deal with. That’s why we’re doing things like working to make sure more of our pathways are available for winter use — part of our efforts to make sure there are always opportunities for year-round healthy recreation in the capital.

NCC will ‘do things differently’ as it tries again with LeBreton Flats, CEO says
NCC will ‘do things differently’ as it tries again with LeBreton Flats, CEO says