Sense of Place Virtual Workshop

The Ottawa Biosphere Eco-City initiative (OBEC) has a goal of creating a culture of sustainability in Ottawa. This will lead to a sustainable city that supports the health of the Biosphere (all life on Earth) and people’s quality of life of. Sustainability is simply “Using the resources we need for a good life but leaving enough for others, including future generations, to have a good life too.” OBEC uses 10 Themes of Sustainability and simple Tools to engage people. One of its activities is to hold public workshops to promote understanding of individual Themes. This workshop on the Theme of Sense of Place took place on Saturday 13 May 2017 in the historic Rideau Public Library in Ottawa.


Sense of Place is a feeling of belonging to a neighbourhood, city of region. It helps people to care about their surroundings. This inspires stewardship for the environment as well as care for other people, both desirable aspects of a Biosphere Eco-City.


The meeting opened with a blessing from an Aboriginal Elder. Then three panellists spoke about different aspects of Sense of Place. The discussion afterwards was full, but could have gone on longer. Other cities could benefit from a similar workshop.




Terry McKay is an Elder of the Gitandeau Tribe from the Northwest Coast of British Columbia. He had been invited by the Algonquin First Nation to provide a welcome to participants in Algonquin territory.


As a retired upholsterer, Terry makes quilted blankets with various Indian designs. Also, he is a founding member of the Odawa Aboriginal Community Justice Program, which provides healing to Aboriginal young people so they can be responsible for their actions and make positive changes in their lives. Terry described sense of place and sacredness from the Aboriginal perspective. He spoke of his origins and briefly about his experience with the Residential School Program. Terry described the role that the four elements – earth, water, air and fire – play in aboriginal life. He then presented the four sacred medicines – sweet grass, tobacco, cedar and sage – and used the sweet grass for a smudging ceremony. Many of the participants came forward to experience this aboriginal healing practice. With an eagle feather, Terry concluded the blessing of the event.




Don Gibson grew up on the banks of the Rideau River in Manotick. There he swam, fished, paddled, rowed a boat and caught frogs. The river gave Don a sense of identity and a life-long passion for river conservation. He went on to a career as National Manager of the Canadian Heritage Rivers system, earning awards along the way.


Don spoke of rivers as connectors between communities and boundaries between areas. He explained how rivers define cultural landscapes, with reference to the French seigneurial long lot system along the St Lawrence River and the development of settlements along the Rideau Canal. Rivers are also sacred places, as shown by Aboriginal pictograms along Canada’s rivers, and by reverence for rivers in early civilizations along the Nile, Euphrates and Ganges.


In the words of OBEC’s Elaine Isabelle – “Fundamental to a sense of place is a strong feeling of authentic human attachment and belonging, and this fosters human engagement and commitment.” In the case of Don, this feeling came when he was a child. For others, it comes through experience and knowledge of history, geography, flora or fauna of the river. When we know the surroundings – the river watershed, its natural and cultural landscape, the challenges to them, then we can work as a community to see that they function in a sustainable way.


The Rideau Roundtable is a leading organization for sustainability along the Rideau, from Kingston to Ottawa. It promotes stewardship for cultural and natural landscapes through conservation, education, recreation and adventure.


For conservation and education, the Rideau Roundtable has created a fish sanctuary, protected rare turtles, introduced native trees and shrubs to shorelines, documented best practices, hosted water protection workshops, carried out source water protection, conducted workshops on climate change, produced a State of the Rideau River Report, sponsored a Healthy Living by the Rideau program for youth, and hosted a speaker series on sustainability along the Rideau.


For recreation and adventure, the Rideau Roundtable has hosted interpretive tours along the Rideau Waterway in 34-foot voyageur canoes, hosted a voyageur brigade from Kingston to Ottawa for Canada’s 150th birthday, led many types of canoe trips to focus on natural and cultural heritage, and organized an annual Paddlefest in Smiths Falls. For information visit


Don concluded by noting that a healthy river with clean water leads to healthy and sustainable communities. There are also economic benefits through adventure and heritage tourism. Children reap long-term social and health benefits through outdoor activities in a clean environment. Opportunities such as paddling adventures can give youth a sense of pride and accomplishment, and a sense of place, to help them build a sustainable future.

Don at age of 3 by Rideau River

Don & friends on Rideau River

Bloodvein River Pictograph

Voyageur Canoe on Rideau River




Birgit Isernhagen, a planner for Ottawa Public Health, worked a number of years in environmental management and development review. This gave her a great deal of insight on how the physical environment affects sustainability. She spoke of ways in which planning can be used to create a sense of place for communities and the city.


Birgit began with a series of questions:

  • What places do you visit in your neighbourhood?
  • Are there places in the city that you feel are inviting?
  • Do some places make you feel good?
  • Does the journey to you destination influence your decision about what type of transportation you take to get there?


The public realm consists of public owned places and spaces that are accessible to all: streets, sidewalks, pathways, squares, parks, trails, transit systems, conservation areas, waterfront areas and patios.


Ottawa Public Health supports healthy and active living. It also recognizes that the built environment impacts physical, mental and social health. A healthy built environment includes the following:

  • A more connected street network
  • Higher housing density and mixed uses
  • More street trees
  • More green spaces


This healthy built environment produces all sorts of benefits, including: greater health (from walking and cycling), reduced risk of developing chronic conditions, higher self-esteem and less anxiety in children. It also encourages people to spend time in and enjoy the public realm. This strengthens their sense of place.


So Healthy built environments that create a sense of place are:

  • Complete (contains all desirable features)
  • Compact (desirable features are close to each other)
  • Connected (people can get to where they want to go)
  • Provide shade and a natural experience
  • Vibrant (varied and enjoyable activities)


Birgit gave three Ottawa examples of planning work to create sense of place in the public realm:


  1. Sens Rink of Dreams – used for skating in the winter and for dancing, sports and events in the summer;
  2. Green Spaces – areas that include plants and trees to give people the health benefits of nature, and make them feel good;
  3. Complete Streets – which bring people into the streetscape because they are interesting and contain all the features of a healthy built environment e.g. benches, lighting, crosswalks, sidewalks, trees, bicycle parking.

Placemaking is an approach that is used internationally in cities to transform public spaces for the public good. It enhances safety and security, creates economic opportunity, improves public health, creates diverse public environments and builds democracy. More information on this can be found in the PPS-UN Habitat report “Placemaking and the Future of Cities (

The City of Ottawa used placemaking to improve the community environment of the neighbourhood of Leslie Park. This was a mixed community with a number of social problems. The park area beside the residences was regularly used by drug dealers and was avoided by other citizens. City planners redesigned pathways and a bridge in the park to make the natural area more inviting for all residents. This led to summer and fall outdoor festivals, community gardening, supervised skating rinks and more. The Leslie Park Community Association is in touch with the area’s 800 households. Placemaking has dramatically reduced crime, added community features and made this a very good place to live.


Parkdale Market, Ottawa

Sens Rink of Dreams at Ottawa City Hall

Complete Street

Leslie Park, Ottawa






Sheila Gallant-Halloran owns a travel agency, Lush Life Travel, an independent affiliate of Vision Travel Solutions, and is a member of the worldwide luxury travel network, Virtuoso. Her work providing dream vacations and adventure travel circles the globe. She loves to work with travel partners who make sustainable tourism and sense of place a priority.


Sheila helps people travel differently. The return on investment in travel can be a return on life. And the way to do this is to experience nature and culture. There is a movement among travellers to experience what is authentic. So the culture and nature of a destination are tourism products that must be protected. Beyond this, responsible travel agents feel the even greater responsibility to safeguard the world’s cultural and natural treasures.


Ecotourism began in the 1990’s and embodied responsible travel to natural areas that conserves the environment and improves the wellbeing of local people. It evolved to sustainable tourism in 2002. This maintains the same caring principles to the environment and local people. But it adds education of travellers on how they can live more sustainably.


In 1950 there were 25 million international travellers annually. In 2016 there were 1,200 billion. Over 3 million tourists cross international borders each day. With sustainable tourism, a potential threat can be converted to a movement to make the world a better place. 2017 has been named the United Nations International Year of Sustainable Tourism Development, and it has led education efforts.  Sheila works with her Virtuoso network (including the director of sustainable tourism, Costas Christ, and Sustainability Winners such as Big Five Tours, Lindblad Expeditions, and Natural Habitat) to raise awareness, and further this education with her clients.  Sheila’s travelers are now putting sustainable tourism at the top of their vacation desires.


The three pillars of Sustainable Tourism are:

  1. Environmentally friendly – take only pictures, leave only footprints, reduce, reuse, recycle, embrace green;
  2. Protect natural and cultural heritage – support wildlife conservation and safeguard cultural heritage;
  3. Support economic and social well-being of local people – provide fair wages, support local business, create a good local future.


Sheila provided many examples of benefits that sustainable tourism has provided in travel destinations, including:

  • Solar powered safari camps in Kenya/Tanzania
  • Bio-fuel transportation in Sri-Lanka
  • Recycling in the Galapagos
  • Community-based preservation patrols
  • Replanting of indigenous plant species
  • Hiring exclusively female guides in India & Egypt
  • Shared conservation agreements on indigenous lands
  • Habitat restoration


There are many tourism destinations that are leading examples of sustainability, such as: Family Coppola Hideaways throughout Central America, and the Brando Resort in Polynesia.


In Canada, however, we have one of the best examples of sustainable tourism strengthening sense of place. That is Fogo Island, Newfoundland, where Zita Cobb’s Shorefast Foundation has created a resort and artist colony based on the local culture. The extraordinary Fogo Island Inn at Joe Batt’s Arm reflects the design of a fishing stage, on long poles above the rocks, where islanders would dry their catch. And of course it provides an iconic view of the ocean on which Newfoundlanders have gazed for generations. The Inn’s kitchen harvests local products from the land and the sea for its meals. The Inn is a 100% social business: all operating surpluses are reinvested in the community of Fogo Island.


Islanders have been building their own boats, houses, tools and furniture for centuries, and the Shorefast Foundation continues the tradition. Artists and designers from away and local artisans have produced furniture and furnishings that visitors are very happy to purchase. Traditional boat building continues as well. This keeps residents sense of place strong.


In addition, Shorefast provides living and workspaces for artists from around the world. In total, sustainable tourism here supports over 100 full time jobs. All of this keeps the culture of Fogo Island very much alive and strengthens residents’ sense of place.


For more information, please contact Sheila Gallant-Halloran at or see or call 613-837-0699 Sheila can share details (and leverage her Virtuoso connections to VIP you) at any of these travel partners.


Photo credit: Turtle Inn, Belize

Photo credit: Food for Blancaneaux Lidge, Belize

Sheila Gallant-Halloran with Zita Cobb of Shorefast Foundation (Sheila’s photo)

Fogo Island Inn (Sheila’s photo)

Boat building on Fogo Island (photo credit Fogo Island)




After questions from the audience, project leader Jennifer Lee presented flowers to each of the speakers.

Jennifer Lee presents gifts to workshop speakers (Photo: Y Zhang)