We can respond to the climate crisis while building a better city

In April 2019, the City of Ottawa declared a climate emergency. This was a landmark decision that shows council’s expressed commitment to reducing emissions in our city, and doing our fair share in response to the global climate crisis.

The climate emergency declaration was an important step forward. It contained important policy elements such as additional spending, an upward revision of climate targets, and the addition of an equity lens to analyses of local climate impacts. But it also pointed to the importance of accelerated city-wide action, and to the need of ambitious policy to get there.

According to the city’s Climate Change Master Plan, we have a long way to go. The graph below shows progress towards achieving community greenhouse gas emission reduction targets, including the old target of 80% below 2012 levels (roughly compatible with 2 degrees global warming above pre-industrial levels) and the new target of 100% below 2012 levels (roughly compatible with 1.5 degrees global warming above pre-industrial levels).

Progress towards achieving community greenhouse
gas emission reduction targets
(City of Ottawa, Climate Change Master Plan, 2019)

The above graph shows that while we’ve made progress reducing city-wide (or “community” emissions), more drastic action is needed to decarbonize by mid-century. The graph also doesn’t tell the story behind the emissions reductions our city has experienced so far. To date, emissions reductions are largely the product of provincial – rather than municipal – policy. The dip in Ottawa’s emissions between 2012 and 2018 shows the climate policy success of the provincial coal phase-out (2012-2014). This policy – the single largest greenhouse gas reduction measure in North American history – drastically reduced emissions from buildings in our city.

Now, to reach our targets, we must move further and faster. According to the United Nations, the next decade will be especially important in determining global success in limiting the climate catastrophe that accompanies 2 degrees of warming.

At the local level, we know that success will largely depend on tackling two major sources of emissions: buildings and transportation. “Buildings” refers to how we heat, cool and electrify our homes, offices and other structures in our city. “Transportation” refers to how we move around, into and out of our city – including commuting by car, delivery by truck, and other modes such as flying and train travel. Collectively, these sources account for 89% of our city’s emissions, as indicated below.

2020 community greenhouse gas emissions by sector
(City of Ottawa, Climate Change Master Plan, 2021)

What is the role of cities in response to this global crisis? At Ecology Ottawa and the People’s Official Plan, we know that we cannot create a greener country and planet without also building greener cities. A major part of that effort means tackling the climate crisis. After all, cities are where 80% of Canadians live, and municipal governments have direct or indirect control over nearly half of the emissions that occur in Canada. So, cities are essential vehicles for climate action if we want to do our fair share in this global fight. A city like Ottawa – relatively wealthy and highly educated, with no major industry emissions – has an obligation and an opportunity to lead the way.


Why focus on sprawl?

The links between urban sprawl and climate change are well-documented in cities and regions around the world, but are perhaps best encapsulated for Ottawa’s context by former Environmental Commissioner of Ontario Dr. Dianne Saxe. Dr. Saxe has called urban sprawl “Ontario’s oil sands” – it’s the province’s main driver of greenhouse gas emissions, has a wide array of other environmental costs, and is bound up with a complex web of political and financial interests that benefit from the status quo.

More sprawl means people must travel further – often by car – to get to jobs and basic amenities. It also typically means more carbon-intensive housing patterns, with energy-inefficient single-detached homes dominating instead of more compact forms. In Ontario (the Toronto area is shown below), there’s a clear link between climate pollution and urban form – with dense, walkable communities seeing the lowest levels of emissions.

Annual per capita residential greenhouse gas emissions in Toronto area (Environmental Commissioner of Ontario, A Healthy, Happy, Prosperous Ontario: Why we Need More Energy Conservation, 2019)

Besides sprawl’s power to determine a city’s carbon footprint, there’s another reason to consider it as an important focus for cities’ attention: it’s largely under the control of cities themselves. While carbon pricing is often touted as one of the most powerful tools to fight climate change, cities in Canada have no power to enact policy of this kind. Instead, we must continue to urge federal and provincial policymakers to quickly ramp up carbon pricing – especially since many of the assumptions in the City of Ottawa’s climate models rely on carbon pricing in order to succeed.

But cities have massive power over their urban form. And here, Ottawa is an exceptional case. Unlike many cities around the world, Ottawa also has vast areas of rural land within its borders. This presents a challenge and an opportunity – the challenge is to resist the push to develop on greenfield land, where costs are low, profit margins are high and vested interests are at play, with millions of dollars at stake. The opportunity is to build a city that protects vibrant, intact greenspaces and prioritizes local food security as a key part of resilient city-building. Within the urban area, we must strive to build bustling, walkable and bikeable neighbourhoods connected by world-class public transportation.


Sprawl’s mirror opposite: 15-minute neighbourhoods

In many ways, the concept of ’15-minute neighbourhoods’ is sprawl’s mirror opposite – a way of thinking about the climate-safe future we want, and the kind of urban policy we need to get there. Just as sprawl comes with a host of severe costs, its opposite is appealing because of the many opportunities it presents for community-building and enduring urban sustainability. And just as sprawl is conventionally defined as some combination of low-density, single-use development and car-dependency, we can make progress on 15-minute neighbourhoods by enhancing density, increasing the vibrancy of our neighbourhoods and reducing car-dependency. To be clear, we are not suggesting that Ottawa become a megacity, complete with ever-increasing traffic issues and little to no green space at all. There is a middle ground, and the residents of Ottawa need to come together to determine what constitutes that middle ground. Below, we explore what needs to be done in each of these areas in order to make Ottawa a climate leader.

More density

When it comes to cities and climate change, there is a clear and widely observed connection: the denser the city, the lower its carbon pollution. Density is a powerful tool in the fight against climate change, but it can’t happen with the flick of a switch. It takes policy ambition and, underpinning that, community support for more bustling, dynamic neighbourhoods. Also, density alone isn’t a silver bullet; it needs to be combined with smart policies that enhance, rather than degrade, the vitality of our neighbourhoods. We know what bad density can look like, and we know it isn’t positive at all.

More vibrant communities

To make our city more walkable, we must change our approach to community design. We can no longer afford to follow the 1950s ideal of vast tracts of housing separated from basic amenities like parks, schools and grocery stores. We must push back against the big-box outlets, strip malls and vast parking lots that degrade livability while doing damage to our environment. The answer is to integrate a range of development types into neighbourhoods all over Ottawa, while incorporating a vibrant tree canopy and other green infrastructure. In so doing, we can change the planning status quo while building a better city.

We continue to work in collaboration with Walkable Ottawa to realize our vision of transitioning to 15-minute neighbourhoods over the next few decades, in an effort to build a better, more walkable city.

More transportation choices

As with other cities all over the world, Ottawa has seen cars prioritized at the expense of pedestrians and cyclists over the past few decades. And while we work to do better, we still see new communities cut off from basic amenities and viable transit. A better way is possible, but we must tackle car-dependency head-on. We need to give Ottawans more choice in their transportation options, and more reasons to choose healthy, sustainable transportation alternatives like active transportation and transit.

Take Action

City View 15-Minute Neighbourhood Workshop Report

Over two Saturdays in January 2021, Ecology Ottawa hosted a workshop for residents of the City View community and other interested parties, led by Walkable Ottawa founder Rosaline Hill and planner Carolyn Mackenzie.

The aim of the workshop was to look in detail at the existing infrastructure in City View and assess how the stated aim in the draft Official Plan to regenerate the area, identified as an evolving overlay, will impact the community in its transformation to a complete 15-minute neighbourhood.

Thoughts, concerns and suggestions of participants were consulted on several key topics relating to creating complete 15-minute neighbourhoods, namely: community amenities, roads, sewer system, sidewalks, cycling, transit, small shops, parks, greenspaces and tree canopy.

Participants included families with children and grandparents, keen walkers, avid cyclists, aging-in-place residents, wheelchair & walker users and dog owners.

See below for the analysis in the report.


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Alta Vista 15-Minute Neighbourhood Workshop Report

Over two Saturdays in March 2021, Ecology Ottawa hosted a workshop for residents of the Alta Vista community and other interested parties, led by Walkable Ottawa's founder Rosaline Hill and volunteer Carolyn Mackenzie.

The purpose of the workshop was to foster discussion around a range of issues related to creating a more walkable neighbourhood, and to generate ideas for further exploration and evaluation.

We believe strongly that neighbourhood-level planning is a key tool to advance elements including walkability and climate resilience, toward an overall goal of increased liveability. The Official Plan should provide clear direction for how neighbourhood-level planning is to be included in the City's planning processes.

See below for the analysis in the report.


You can also see the video from the workshop here: first session and second session

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Overbook Workshop: Protecting the Tree Canopy during Densification

In April 2021, we joined Walkable Ottawa, Greenspace Alliance and arborist Andrew Boyd to hold a workshop to consider neighbourhood walkability with a focus on how to protect the tree canopy.  Tree canopy and a shady walk are essential to a walkable neighbourhood. We were honoured to be joined by Natasha Bertrand helping us to explore the indigenous connection to trees and Lisa Nisbet, Environmental Psychology Professor discussing Trees and Mental Wellbeing.


The workshop focused on street trees: understanding the existing condition of our street trees and infrastructure that impacts canopy and root space. We tested ideas for regulations for root space in new developments, brainstormed ideas to increase tree planting and maintenance on public and private property. The goal of the workshop was to put together a proposed plan of action that would get a sample Overbrook street to 40% canopy as quickly as possible, and then maintain that percentage of tree canopy indefinitely, in line with our call for Ottawa's Official Plan to require 40% tree canopy per neighbourhood.

This is a grassroots process, intended to inform the City of Ottawa and the public on how this can be done. Together we can help to understand your neighbourhood and help plan an evolution to a complete 15-minute neighbourhood with delightfully shady walkability! With thanks to everyone who participated in the workshop. You can see the report from the workshop here:

For more information, we invite you to watch these great video clips from the workshop:

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15 minute neighbourhoods - walkable shopping destinations

In November 2022, we held a workshop with Walkable Ottawa on making successful walkable shopping destinations within 15 minute neighbourhoods.

The City of Ottawa has put 15 minute neighbourhoods at the centre of the plan of how our city will grow and flourish in future. A key component of a 15 minute neighbourhood is a walkable shopping destination. Imagine small shops where you could buy milk and some basic groceries, a small bakery? A café where you could meet your neighbours? An ice cream shop?


The purpose of the workshop was to get at questions such as:
- Where could a walkable shopping destination be located in my neighbourhood?
- What are the elements that need to be included/addressed to make a new shopping destination a success or to make an existing one even better?
- What steps are needed to encourage a new walkable shopping destination to take root in my neighbourhood?

This is a grassroots process, intended to inform the City of Ottawa and the public on how this can be done and to develop a framework that could be tailored to contribute to creating complete 15-minute neighbourhoods across the city.

We’ll be sending out a link to the survey results and workshop report early in the new year. If you are interested in the topic and want to get more involved, you can:
- support this work by discussing within your community, your network, your friends and neighbours to help build momentum for more walkable neighbourhoods that include walkable shopping destinations;
- let us know if you’d like to host a shopping destination conversation focused on your neighbourhood; and
- stay tuned for a walkable neighbourhoods coffee house series at Walkable Ottawa early in 2023!

Watch the workshop here!

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