The People's Official Plan and responding to the climate emergency

Setting the stage

The City of Ottawa is in the midst of developing a new Official Plan - its major land use and policy document, designed to shape Ottawa for decades into the future.

Getting the new Official Plan right is critical for many reasons. Most importantly, the new Official Plan will have a dramatic impact on whether we as a city do our fair share to tackle the climate crisis. The United Nations has identified the next 11 years as critical to avoiding climate catastrophe. It's all hands on deck, and cities like Ottawa have an opportunity to lead the way in the transition to a climate-friendly world. In other words, the new Official Plan must be Ottawa's climate emergency plan.

Consultations are ongoing and will wrap up in December 2019. In response to this once-in-a-generation opportunity, Ecology Ottawa has joined with community groups from across the city to respond to the city's call for public input. This coalition, dubbed the 'People's Official Plan for Ottawa's Climate Crisis,' involves collaboration with the Federation of Citizens' Association, Community Associations for Environmental Sustainability (CAFES), Bike Ottawa, Healthy Transportation Coalition, Just Food, the Greenspace Alliance of Canada's Capital and other like-minded community advocates.

This summer, the group developed position papers on various themes related to the new Official Plan. Across a wide range of areas - from transportation to local economic development - we responded to the city's discussion papers and emphasized the need for dramatic and ambitious action to respond to the climate crisis.

The 5 Big Moves

On Thursday, August 22, we joined with other members of the People's Official Plan coalition to respond to the city's new Official Plan strategy document, entitled '5 Big Moves.' The new documents lay out policy directions across five areas:

  1. Growth management;
  2. Mobility;
  3. Urban and community design;
  4. Climate, energy and public health; and
  5. Economic development.

Click here to read the city's 5 Big Moves document.

It should be noted that this edition of the 5 Big Moves is designed for public input. A final version will be presented to committee, and then council, on December 12. That gives us several months to help shape the city's direction on this plan. Written comments will be accepted until December 12, but there are deadlines for public input via surveys which must be completed by September 16.

After reading the 5 Big Moves and the content below, click here to take surveys on the major areas in the plan by September 16.

Submit written comments on the 5 Big Moves to Charmaine Forgie at the City of Ottawa before December 12. Email her at [email protected].

Major steps forward

For the most part, our comments on the 5 Big Moves can be summed up in four words: "move further and faster." Broadly speaking, there are a number of policy suggestions that would move Ottawa towards a much more sustainable land use model, meaning substantial progress on climate action, active transportation and fostering health and livability into our city's very design. In many cases, the question boils down to how ambitious we choose to be in adopting and implementing these ideas.

Some of the major steps forward outlined in this document include the ones below. But important questions also need to be asked. Here are some of the highlights:

  • Achieving more growth by intensification than greenfield development (Big Move #1). This concept is fundamental to the document's growth management vision. However, the document lays out three growth scenarios, and only one involves holding the line on expansion of Ottawa's urban boundary. Like many North American cities, Ottawa is already plagued by urban sprawl. It is critical that we do not sprawl further, and this means that we focus at least 70% of future growth on intensification rather than greenfield development. (Click here to learn about our Hold the Line anti-sprawl campaign.)
  • Linking growth management strategy to greenhouse gas emission reduction targets (Big Move #1, Policy Direction #4). This is a very welcome initiative. If properly implemented (i.e., implemented ambitiously and meaningfully), this means that climate considerations will dictate the growth patterns of our city. If all new developments had to pass a rigorous climate test as part of the approval process, this would mark a seismic shift in how Ottawa is designed. We would no longer allow developers to build isolated, car-dominated communities in greenfields. We would no longer allow for energy intensive buildings, or buildings with low densities. As expected, the devil will be in the details here, but the overarching message and the possibilities of strong progress on sustainable urban design are evident.
  • Achieving a majority of trips by sustainable transportation (Big Move #2). This sounds great, but there are two important caveats. First, while the goal is laudable, the 5 Big Moves document identifies 2046 as the target year for this goal. We must ensure that the new Official Plan contains ambitious targets for sustainable transportation, in order to achieve this objective well before 2046. Second, it is bizarre that the City of Ottawa considers carpooling a sustainable transportation option. While carpooling is certainly an improvement over single-occupancy, we think the threshold for categorizing transportation options as sustainable must be higher. The ultimate test of any modal target whether we can reduce emissions at the speed and scale required by climate science. Over-emphasis on carpooling as a "sustainable transportation" tool can actually move us in the wrong direction on emissions.
  • Exploring new financial mechanisms for sustainable transportation infrastructure, such as road tolls and congestion charges (Big Move #2, Policy Direction #4). The idea of road tolls is long overdue. In the last term of council, the Transportation Committee abandoned the idea of merely studying road pricing, to say nothing about implementing it. Transportation Committee's decision does profound damage to our city. It continues to exacerbate congestion, and continues to punish Ottawans who choose sustainable transportation options by making them pay equally for a costly road system even while they play a minimal role in using it. This new Official Plan policy direction also hints at using parking fees more strategically (e.g., raising rates and using revenues to pay for sustainable transportation). This is another promising and long overdue idea.
  • Building walkable, 15-minute neighbourhoods (Big Move #4, Policy Direction #3). This is another idea that sounds great, but requires an important caveat. Nowhere in the 5 Big Moves document is any definition provided for what constitutes a "15-minute neighbourhood." Does this mean that a trip by any transportation mode can be conducted in 15 minutes? Will sustainable transportation options like walking, cycling and transit be explicitly prioritized over cars? And will this standard have any actual teeth when it comes to new community design? As we know, new communities in Ottawa are still being overwhelmingly designed in favour of the car, with transit and other transportation modes as second thoughts. Will this policy direction help change Ottawa's reckless approach to urban expansion?
  • Integrating concepts of public health, climate mitigation and community resiliency into planning (Big Move #4). The climate crisis is already having severe effects on our city. A fulsome response must prioritize mitigation - reducing our emissions in line with what the science demands - while also strengthening community resilience. All of this intersects profoundly with public health. We need to consistently think through the public health implications of sprawl, of poor transit access, of dangerous streets for vulnerable road users like pedestrians and cyclists, and of the many benefits of trees and greenspace for our communities.
  • Protecting and growing the urban forest (Big Move #4, Policy Direction #5). This is vital for sustainability, livability and resilience in Ottawa. The challenge to date is that the city has shied away from clear targets. New studies indicate that a 40% tree canopy cover is required to effectively combat the urban heat island effect. Ottawa neighbourhoods are in some cases struggling to maintain even 20% coverage. We need to see this target embedded here, along with a plan to ramp up tree cover city-wide.

Some steps backward

While the vast majority of the content in the 5 Big Moves document seems promising, there are some clear steps backward which should be pointed out. We look forward to having these sections either removed or dramatically altered by the time the final version of this document is approved by council.

  • Considering the Greenbelt as an area for potential urban expansion (Big Move #1, Policy Direction #3). While this policy direction contains language about ensuring that expansion of urban lands within the Greenbelt is compensated by extensions beyond it, the idea is ultimately wrongheaded. The Greenbelt is a cherished natural space, and communities have developed around it. Altering the Greenbelt's geography at this stage could not only deprive communities of the access they have historically enjoyed, but also create a slippery slope for further development. Instead of thinking of how and when to develop in sensitive greenspace, we should be thinking about how to optimize the Greenbelt's function as a local food hub and source of biodiversity and natural resilience.
  • Growing the Ottawa Airport and expanding the number of connections to the airport (Big Move #5, Policy Direction #2). This initiative is strikingly out of place in the context of a policy document that largely puts forward meaningful policy proposals to address climate change and embed community sustainability. An enlarged and well-connected airport moves Ottawa directly in the opposite direction. Globally, we need to be dramatically reducing air travel, and some countries are beginning to see meaningful shifts in demand in response to the climate crisis. Meanwhile, despite public backlash, the City of Ottawa continues its plans to widen the Airport Parkway, a policy direction that will worsen congestion while embedding more car-dependency on the city as a whole.

What's missing

Here are some elements that could be emphasized, clarified or highlighted before the 5 Big Moves are finalized on December 12.

  • Climate mitigation as central organizing principle of the new Official Plan. Climate change makes a strong showing in the 5 Big Moves, but more can be done to frame the city's new Official Plan as the city's climate emergency plan. The new Official Plan is a once-in-a-generation opportunity to respond ambitiously to the climate crisis while making a better city. We need strong language in this plan that explicitly ties the success of all aspects to vigorous, science-based efforts to do our fair share to combat climate change.
  • More integration of local food production into economic discussion, with explicit emphasis on hard targets and leveraging Greenbelt for local food production. The 5 Big Moves refers to working with the National Capital Commission to ensure best use and management of the Greenbelt (Big Move #5, Policy Direction #8). Unfortunately, it fails to mention local food production in this area. We can aim much higher. For example, local community leaders such as Tom Marcantonio have been championing a vision for "50 by 50," where Ottawa grows 50% of its own food by 2050. The new Official Plan would be greatly strengthened by hard targets to gauge measurable progress in local food production, using the Greenbelt as a major source of this effort.

What are your thoughts on the 5 Big Moves? The City of Ottawa wants to hear from you.

Click here to take surveys on the major areas in the plan by September 16, and send written comments to [email protected] today.

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