A Call for a Green and Just Recovery in Ottawa

The intersections of the COVID-19 pandemic, the climate emergency and heightened attention to pervasive anti-Black, anti-Indigenous and other forms of racism provide a context for urgently rethinking and reshaping our society.

With COVID-19, the City of Ottawa has shown it can react quickly in an emergency–but has not yet been able to reimagine and redirect investments towards a more environmentally and socially just city.

In contrast to other cities around the world, Ottawa has been reluctant to reallocate public space to walking, biking and other sustainable uses; and is not treating the climate emergency and other important public investments with the urgency they require. On the contrary, at a City Council meeting on June 24, 2020, city staff presented budget scenarios that include a $2-million reduction in the budget to address the climate emergency, and cuts to social services. These are likely on the agenda for the City’s Finance and Economic Development Committee meeting on Tuesday, July 7, 2020.

Individuals and groups from Black, Indigenous, environmental and community organizations in Ottawa are speaking out against these cuts, including at a press release in front of City Hall on Monday, July 6, 2020 at 11 a.m., to be streamed live on Facebook.

Please join the live event and demand more of our elected officials and City administration.

Urban Growth in Ottawa

Ottawa has big decisions coming up that will affect our future as a sustainable and livable city.

On Monday, May 11, Ottawa city councillors on the City’s planning committee and agricultural and rural affairs committee will vote on how to accommodate the city’s projected growth (around 400,000 new residents by 2046).

The key decision is being expressed as what proportion of growth should happen within the existing urban boundary (through intensification), how much through development on vacant land within the boundary, and how much through growth outside the boundary (in rural areas of Ottawa), by expanding the urban boundary.

It’s not really the first question that should be considered. A first step is to look at what kind of growth we are undertaking. Intensification can create livable and sustainable cities, but not the way Ottawa has been doing it. Planning and intensification within the current urban boundary have been driven by the interests of developers, often ignoring city and community plans, the value of existing built and natural environments, and the kind of city that residents want. It’s been led by financial considerations rather than people- and environment-focused ones.

The boundary debate also hasn’t taken into sufficient account who we’re planning and building for. Who will Ottawa’s residents be, what kind of housing and services will be appropriate and affordable for them? How can we increase walkability, social connectedness, and other important features?

Many residents, and groups including Ecology Ottawa, Greenspace Alliance of Canada’s Capital and Healthy Transportation Coalition, are calling on Ottawa City Council not to expand the urban boundary, but rather to Hold the Line. They’re saying that in a climate emergency, Ottawa’s official plan needs to be a climate emergency plan. Expanding the urban boundary will only increase the economic, environmental and social costs that residents will have to bear, including the costs of building and maintaining car-centric roads, expanding connections to water, sewer and other infrastructure, and potential destruction of agricultural and environmentally sensitive lands.

Some thoughtful people have pointed out that the vote doesn’t need to take place right now, on such an important issue. Some aspects are not yet thoroughly reviewed, and we’re in a municipal state of emergency due to COVID-19, which has short-term as well as longer-term implications. As expressed by the Healthy Transportation Coalition, “the sprawl debate is sucking up time and resources that could be put into adapting our existing transportation networks to life with COVID-19, as is happening in many other cities.”

It’s time for the City to have a different debate.

Connecting in a Time of Coronavirus

“Be kind, stay calm, stay safe:” Message written in multicoloured chalk on the Byron Path – D. Deby photo

I hope you’re staying safe and healthy in these strange and stressful times.

Thoughts to everyone who is going through illness, isolation, fear, loss of income, difficulty obtaining services, or other challenges. Thanks to all who are working to keep everyone healthy.

One thing that’s struck me is how under a pandemic that affects us all, each of us may be having a different experience. Some people are dealing with isolation or boredom; some are supporting kids, elders, other loved ones; some are struggling to maintain mental wellness; for some, challenges include accessing food, shelter, income, outdoor spaces, or health services, and/or dealing with inequities that are exacerbated by the COVID-19 situation; many are putting themselves at risk to provide essential services.

All the more reason to “practice physical distancing but maintain social connection.” We need each other in a time of coronavirus, whether that happens online or by phone, greeting others from a safe distance on outdoor walks, volunteering or donating if circumstances permit, or sharing in other ways.

It’s impressive how many individuals, groups, businesses, institutions and leaders in our city (and elsewhere) have stepped up to the challenge of supporting others through the pandemic. Of course, we’re learning as we go, and there’s much more to do.

I share the hope and intention of others to build from this crisis a different, new, supportive and sustainable way of living together as a community and society. More on that later. For now, here are some links that might be helpful if you haven’t seen them:

Updates on the pandemic, public health measures being taken and supports available:

Ways to get help or support others:

Ways to shop and support local businesses:

Ways to support access to local outdoor and green spaces:

  • Ecology Ottawa’s petition asking Ottawa’s Mayor and City Council to adapt selected Ottawa streets for pedestrians and cyclists, so residents can safely maintain physical distancing
  • Policing the Pandemic project that is mapping patterns of enforcement related to COVID-19 measures (e.g. bylaws regarding use of public spaces, and their enforcement) and effects on marginalized people
  • Community campaigns to address discrimination and bias in the implementation and enforcement of public health measures (e.g. a school trustee’s harassment of a Black student in a local park)

Please share other useful links in the comments if you have them.

Take care and be well.

Solidarity with Wet’suwet’en

Update: There’s a rally in support of the Wet’suwet’en on Parliament Hill on Monday, Feb. 24, 2020 at 9 a.m. See the event page for details.

Something significant is happening in Ottawa and across the country, and how we respond to it will have profound consequences for environmental and social justice and our collective future.

Indigenous groups and supporters are standing in solidarity with the Wet’suwet’en people, whose Hereditary Chiefs have rejected the construction of a Coastal GasLink fracked gas pipeline through their territory. The RCMP have forcibly removed people who were peacefully residing on their land.

Although the Wet’suwet’en’s rejection of the pipeline through their territory includes environmental considerations, the situation is about much more than a pipeline. The Wet’suwet’en have never given up their lands, or laws. The Canadian Supreme Court has acknowledged this. The B.C. government has recognized the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP) in law.

There’s no other way to see it: Canadian governments and police are illegally and violently supporting corporate interests, at the expense of Indigenous peoples, and the environment. The response of Indigenous peoples and allies across the country has helped expose the colonial and destructive nature of the relationship between Canada and Indigenous peoples that has existed for generations and continues today.

Here on unceded Algonquin territory—Ottawa—Indigenous youth gathered at the Justice building and took to the streets last week in support of the Wet’suwet’en.

On Monday, Feb. 17, 2020, there will be a rally at Confederation Park, starting at 2 p.m. It’s an opportunity for everyone to show support for the Wet’suwet’en nation, and insist on dialogue to create a new relationship. See the event page for details.

Check out this resource for other ways to support the Wet’suwet’en people.

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Towards Effective Light Rail Transit in Ottawa

Ottawa’s LRT – D. Deby photo

I admit to being excited when Ottawa’s LRT launched. By its second day of operation, I found an excuse opportunity to try it out, and marveled at the efficient ride, gleaming new stations and impressive scenery en route.

There were a few gaps—not least accessibility challenges, minimal space for bikes, and the problem that the switch to LRT didn’t benefit everyone (for many residents, including me, it means longer commuting times and fewer bus options). Still, the LRT marks an important shift to more environmentally sustainable transit in Ottawa. We were offered a big-city, world class system that would reduce carbon dioxide emissions, fossil fuel consumption and road salt use, and increase connections to healthy transportation options (biking, walking).

Now, like many other residents, I’m frustrated.

Daily delays and breakdowns, in conjunction with the elimination or adjustment of many bus routes, have eroded confidence in the transit system. Residents are calling for solutions, improved accountability and transparency, and better public communication.

Obviously, Ottawa needs a public transit system that works and is equitable and accessible to everyone—which means not putting all our eggs in one (LRT) basket.

We could draw on (eco-)systems thinking here. Systems thinking is about seeing all the parts of the system and the relationships among them as an integrated, dynamic whole, rather than just the individual parts. Integrating (eco-)systems thinking into design can improve a system’s capacity to handle pressures and disruptions. Fundamental to complex systems is the existence of alternatives, so the system is maintained even when something goes wrong somewhere. Redundancy, diversity and resilience are features of systems approaches.

That means a problem with one train car door doesn’t shut down the entire train/transit system. It means that bus options remain, so people have alternatives to get to where they need to go, at least through a period of transition from buses/transitway to LRT if not beyond. It means investing in improving ParaTranspo, and cycling and pedestrian infrastructure, as seamless parts of an integrated system.

It’s good that the City has announced some attention to and investment in solutions. Let’s make sure they’re comprehensive ones.

All Roads Lead to Tunney’s Pasture – D. Deby photo