In 2020, the City of Ottawa will be updating its Official Plan. This plan lays out the parameters for how Ottawa will manage our growth for the next 26 years, and as part of that we will also be reviewing the Residential Growth Management Strategy. This strategy will decide how best to incorporate the 400,000 new residents expected by 2046. On May 11, 2020, there will be a joint meeting of the Planning Committee and the Agriculture and Rural Affairs Committee to consider the expansion of the Urban Boundary as part of this review. This will be one of the most important decisions that Councillors will make during this term of Council.
Council is being presented three different options by City staff to accommodate the population growth of 400,000 residents: the Status Quo scenario; the No Expansion scenario; and the Balanced Approach scenario.
- The Status Quo scenario would mean that the city would continue with new developments at its current rate and the majority of the development would not be through intensification.
- The No Expansion scenario would mean the city would not expand its urban boundary and after 2040 all development will be through intensification and densification into existing areas solely.
- The Balanced Approach scenario would expand the urban boundary to help accommodate new development, while ensuring that a majority of development will be through intensification.
City staff have recommended that Council adopt the Balanced Approach scenario.
Over the past year, I have hosted Official Plan open houses, information sessions, and have received numerous emails and phone calls from residents. These discussions allowed residents to share many of the concerns they have about future growth, as well as highlight their priorities and what they feel need to be included in the strategy.
Broadly, the themes that I heard included:
- Environmental concerns – the impact on our surrounding environment and climate change in general from increased urban growth;
- Increased traffic – the pressure on arterial mainstreets, collectors, and highways;
- Protection of the agricultural lands surrounding Ottawa;
- Ensuring a supply of affordable housing – as well as ensuring that the housing market in general remains affordable for families, young adults starting out, and seniors;
- Protecting the unique character of neighbourhoods – supporting intensification, but avoiding scenarios where multi-story complexes are interspersed with single family homes on existing suburban streets;
- Ensuring that new developments are livable neighbourhoods for residents – local neighbourhoods providing amenities, retail, and transit; described as a “15 Minute Community”.
These themes and concerns were communicated by the vast majority of residents that shared their views. While some residents prioritized the themes differently, these themes were ones that were shared by nearly all who provided feedback. Considering this feedback, as well as the very detailed report that was prepared by City planning staff highlighting the real-world impacts of the various strategy options, I will be supporting the Balanced Approach scenario.
The Balanced Approach scenario is the only option that would ensure that we are able to accommodate the new growth coming to our city in an environmentally sustainable way, while maintaining the unique character of our neighbourhoods. While some may advocate for taking one of the extreme ends of the spectrum, the evidence provided does not support taking such a position.
Ottawa does not live in a bubble. We have seen surrounding towns, such as Rockland, Carlton Place and Embrun, explode in new growth over the past decade. Many of these new residents are commuting into Ottawa to work, putting pressure on our infrastructure without the City of Ottawa being compensated for that expense through the benefit of their property tax dollars. This was the same situation that followed Jacques Gréber’s plan in the late 1950’s for the former City of Ottawa to build a greenbelt. Gréber’s Greenbelt plan was designed to keep the borders of Ottawa contained and prevent urban sprawl. After Gréber’s plans was enacted, the Federal Government purchased up the lands that would eventually make up the Greenbelt as we know it today. In the report, it was argued that there would be plenty of room for population growth within the Greenbelt and it would not be an issue until at least 1965. Unsurprisingly, land prices inside the Greenbelt were much higher than outside of it. As a result, the populations of the satellite communities of Kanata, Barrhaven, and Orléans exploded in the subsequent decades; the cost of living in these once, far-flung communities being cheaper for families than within Ottawa proper. We are already seeing a repeat of this history.
Last year, City Council declared a climate emergency. If we now take the position that the majority of new growth in the National Capital Region will be borne by surrounding communities and across the Ottawa River, all we have done is abdicated our responsibility as a city to help combat the climate crisis.
Under the No Expansion or Status Quo scenarios, our city will have no say in this development and ensured this next generation of residents in the region will be pushed into their cars to commute to their work in Ottawa. In that vein, the impact on our highways and arterial roads quickly becomes apparent. As we have seen in Ottawa’s east end, many of those commuters on the 174 are coming from outside Ottawa and live in Glengarry-Prescott-Russell. While they are by no means the only ones using the roadway, we are already experiencing the traffic impact of growing neighbouring communities. The Balanced Approach scenario allows the city to take control of new growth and provide mass transit and enforce environmentally conscious planning practices laid out in the City’s Official Plan, including building the desired “15 Minute” Communities.
Many residents flagged the importance of protecting the agricultural lands that surround Ottawa. I think I can safely say very few among us would ever be in favour of seeing cultivated farmlands torn up and replaced with a sprawling subdivision. When we discuss the expansion of Ottawa’s urban boundary, we are also discussing what lands the City has authority over. This past year, the City moved to protect several hundred new hectares of wetland south of Stittsville, adding it to the protected Goulbourn Wetland. The return of beavers to the area grew the size of the wetland, and after 16+ years of discussion, this Council was able to move to protect these lands from new development. Sadly, the section of the wetlands that fall outside of Ottawa borders are under other jurisdictions and we cannot say that they will face the same degree of protection.
This example is applicable to current discussion regarding the urban boundary, in that through Planning Regulations, City Council would lay out strict criteria that proactively identifies agricultural lands and creates a buffer around them. At the end of the day, Ottawa cannot protect what it does not “own”.
The issue of affordability is one topic that resonated with the majority of residents. Whether affordable rentals, or the general affordability of our housing market, this is an issue that impacts all of us. When we look to cities such as Vancouver or Toronto, we see that they have limited to no ability to expand in any direction but up. Last year, Ottawa’s population hit 1,000,000. This Residential Growth Management Strategy acknowledges that our population will grow an additional 400,000 in the next 26 years. When we look at our existing city and imagine housing an additional 40% of our population in just a short 26 years, the impact of intensification on every single neighbourhood in our city becomes quickly apparent.
However many 2-3 bedroom condos or apartments are built, there will always be families that opt instead for a single family housing unit – and are willing to pay a premium for it. As we have seen in cities like Toronto, this effect has pushed the cost of detached home ownership out of the reach of many residents. As a result, this puts increased pressure on rental units, raising those rental costs proportionately. Though Ottawa is fortunate to have one of the highest income populations in the country, we must still ask what kind of housing market characteristics we want to have in the city. As our children leave home, many may very well face a housing market that effectively shuts them out.
This past year, Ottawa also recognized that we were in a housing and housing affordability crisis. To address this crisis, our city needs to ensuring housing is built with affordability and variety in mind. Although, under the No Expansion scenario or the Status Quo scenario we will still see housing built for the new population growth, it would tie the city’s hands in terms of the types of housing being built, while substantially increasing the cost for those housing types, such as single-family homes, that differ from the prescribed high-density type that would have to become the norm.
Under a No Expansion scenario, every community in our city, and Innes Ward in particular due to our neighbourhoods generally having well below the average density found in other suburban parts of Ottawa; would need to see strong intensification, with substantial infill projects to fill this gap. Regardless of how quickly the City’s urban core builds upwards, our population will see a roughly 40% increase in 26 years. To date, Innes Ward has generally avoided many of the large infill complexes that have been built up around the city. Our roadway infrastructure was designed for lower density residential communities, composed of detached, semi-detached, and townhouses, and is therefore not currently designed to absorb 1,500+ unit condo developments popping up along the length of Innes Road, for example. Within the report tabled by city planning staff, which you will find linked at the end of this post, are examples of the type of intensification on our existing suburban streets that would have to take place over the next 26 years to support the new growth, while maintaining existing boundaries. While many may not object to seeing large-scale developments intermixed with homes on our existing streets, there is no denying that it would permanently and fundamentally alter the character of our communities, especially older ones such as Blackburn Hamlet, Chapel Hill North and South, and Chateauneuf.
A Balanced Approach scenario will allow us, as Council, to put the necessary bureaucratic tools in place for city staff to ensure that new developments are built that compliment our existing neighbourhoods. It does not mean a free-for-all of urban sprawl, nor does it require Ottawa to focus only on building up – taking housing costs along with it. What is required however, are clear and specific regulations on how development must take place over the next quarter century. No longer can we allow communities to be built with road, cycling, and pedestrian infrastructure; parklands; recreation facilities; and retail amenities; being either an after-thought, or if planned, not built for 10, 15, 20+ years after the homes go in.
As a city, we need planning regulations that require stricter timelines and greater weight on developers for making sure that “whole communities” are planned. If we are to be serious about tackling climate change, affordability, and livability issues, we need to normalize these concepts into all stages of the planning process – as an example: OC Transpo planners need to be involved early and meaningfully in the planning process. Finally, City staff must ensure that all developers are held to account and fully deliver on the agreed plans. It cannot be up to the City, and ultimately taxpayers, to build infrastructure that should have been addressed or built before the first occupant moved in. We would never build a condo tower and let it open without working elevators and no stairwell, so why should we allow communities with no retail amenities and only one over-burdened access road?
To that end, I am introducing a motion calling for the Strategy to be amended to pointedly require that in all instances of new growth development, city planning staff involve representatives from Infrastructure, Transportation, OC Transpo, Economic Development and Community and Social Services, as well as seek input from School Boards, in the planning of new neighbourhoods to ensure that communities are being planned and built with the necessary amenities from the very start, and that strict timelines for construction of those necessary amenities, are established and adhered to throughout the development process.
In 2009, Ottawa City Council last debated moving the Urban Boundary. Unfortunately, that decision led to a short-term solution of expanding the boundary by 230 hectares, and few concrete decisions on how intensification must take place over the following years and decades. That decision to punt the issue down the road by the city, led to a successful appeal being filed with the province, which then dictated that the city boundary be expanded by 1,100 hectares – with no direction on how that new development would be managed. We are now faced with a similar decision, though the door for groups to appeal to the province has been since closed.
Several interest groups have altruistically called for “holding the line” on expansion, however the ramifications of such a decision are widespread and ultimately ignore, or even compound, the problems that the advocates are trying to address. If we choose not to expand our urban boundaries it will mean that to accommodate our growth we will have to have 100% of development be through intensification in 20 years. Here in Innes Ward it we would see the number of redevelopment and infill projects likely double or triple as a result. Under the No Expansion scenario, there would likely not be a single street that would not see some impact of that intensification. Not expanding would also lead to the prospect of a housing shortage, particularly of 3+ bedroom homes, and will certainly lead to higher prices and a lack of affordable housing.
Alternatively, the Status Quo scenario does not guarantee the protection of Ottawa’s pristine agricultural land and will lead to more urban sprawl within Ottawa and in the surrounding areas, without ensuring that any of the proper infrastructure needed for these new developments will be in place – a situation, that while it may spare our direct communities, certainly has larger ramifications on the City as a whole, as well as the housing market.
A Balanced Approach to development, one that comes with new, stringent development regulations, provides the necessary time for industry to shift from development to controlled intensification, and ensure that intensification is done in a way that respects existing neighbourhoods. Additionally, if this process is done right, the approach will ensure that this is the last time that the City needs to expand its urban boundary.
The Balanced Approach scenario is the only one that will accommodate our population growth, protect our environment and Ottawa’s agricultural land, while also protecting our neighbourhoods’ unique character and ensuring affordable housing. After hosting multiple feedback sessions and hearing from many residents, it is clear the Balanced Approach scenario is the only way forward for Ottawa.
Read the report here.
Additional documents can be found at: Ottawa.ca