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.