A once-in-a-generation opportunity
Ottawa City Council is about to debate and decide on a new Official Plan. This is the major land use and policy document that will shape the size and character of our city for decades to come - all the way out to 2046.
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.
When it comes to land use planning, one of the major policy tools the city has in its arsenal is the scope and scale of intensification, and the degree to which it will allow for new development on previously undeveloped land ("greenfield development").
The new Official Plan is a once-in-a-generation opportunity for the city to hold the line on sprawl by embedding strong intensification targets and ensuring that the urban boundary is not expanded. This will protect vast swaths of greenfield land - vital natural areas and farmland - for generations to come.
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What do we mean by urban sprawl?
Urban sprawl is typically defined using one or more of the following, inter-related attributes:
- Low densities - people are spread out across large tracts of land. This means there are huge distances to travel to get from one place to another, and it is difficult to have a viable transit system because the costs of running the system vastly outstrip potential revenues.
- Car-centric development - communities are designed around the car. In other words, sprawling developments are planned around the assumption that the car will be primary means of transportation, and it becomes inconvenient - sometimes downright dangerous - to use alternative modes of travel such as walking, biking or transit.
- Single-use development - residential areas are separated from commercial and other uses. In other words, people don't live close to where they work or play. This means they must travel long distances, moving from a large cluster of residents to a separated cluster of retail and commercial space, and then back again. Not surprisingly, people often end up doing so by car.
What's the climate connection with urban sprawl?
The links between sprawl and climate change are well-studied and multi-faceted.
At the surface level, there are some obvious climate-related problems with a land use pattern centred around the car. Besides issues like congestion, gridlock and poor air quality, the obvious consequence is more greenhouse gas emissions from more cars on the road more often.
Within the boundaries of the City of Ottawa, transportation is the second major source of emissions, accounting for 44% of all community-wide emissions as of 2016. (The primary source of emissions in Ottawa is "stationary energy," meaning how we heat, cool and electrify our homes, offices and other buildings.) If we intend to meet our city-wide emissions reduction targets, we will need to quickly and dramatically move away from car-dependency toward other transportation modes such as transit, cycling and walking. Any movement in the direction of more sprawl means this transition will be more complicated and challenging than it already is.
In addition to this obvious climate implication, there are two secondary climate effects of sprawl.
First, as noted above, sprawl threatens the viability of transit. In Ottawa, as in many North American cities, we continue to struggle to maintain an effective and reasonably priced transit system. One major issue is cost; over the past decade, transit costs have been rising at a rate well beyond the rate of inflation, even as parking rates have remained flat. While the cost of transit is ultimately a political decision - transit could be made free tomorrow if there was sufficient political will - its long-term viability is hindered when the system faces large structural challenges. Sprawl means fewer transit riders (and therefore less revenue) over a greater distance. This inevitably raises the funding threshold needed for viable, dependable transit, not to mention a transit system that is affordable and accessible to all Ottawans.
Second, sprawl threatens Ottawa's natural greenspaces and farmland. These areas have profound value in and of themselves, and are home to a diverse array of animals, plants and insects which we can and must protect. There is a food security angle which is also deeply important here. But even further, there is a climate implication to the loss of these spaces. Vibrant and intact greenspaces, along with their rich plant life and healthy soils, have the potential to soak up and store carbon dioxide. When Ottawa's greenspaces are lost or degraded, this 'natural capital' is lost. While there is greenspace both inside and outside of Ottawa's urban boundary, the vast majority of it lies outside the urban boundary, and is at risk from an urban boundary expansion.
Of course, there are other impacts of sprawl. It affects everything from human health (more people spending more time stuck in traffic), to social isolation, to lack of access for services - especially for new Canadians who are increasingly calling suburban or quasi-suburban communities home.
Ottawa's progress on urban sprawl to date
Ottawa has made some tentative steps on combating sprawl, but for the most part they have been ineffective, tepid or poorly executed.
The Greenbelt, for example, was intended to contain urban development while allowing 'complete communities' to develop outside it, where housing and jobs would be roughly in balance. However, City policy has allowed development east, south and even west of the Greenbelt to consist overwhelmingly of bedroom communities, requiring multiple corridors for roads and pipes that threaten the Greenbelt's integrity.
More recently, there have been other instances where Ottawa has tried - and failed - to rein in sprawl.
In 2009, the last time there was a public debate on whether or not to expand Ottawa's urban boundary, city council voted to expand the boundary by 230 hectares. This was roughly one quarter of the expansion recommended by city staff and roughly one tenth of the land sought by developers. Ultimately, council's decision was overruled by the Ontario Municipal Board. That, combined with some other factors, led to 1,104 hectares being added to Ottawa's urban area.
Meanwhile, key policy initiatives designed to curb sprawl seem inadequate to the task. Take for example Building Better and Smarter Suburbs (2015), a City of Ottawa policy document which outlines planning instructions for future suburban development. Certainly, there are positive elements to this document - including emphasis on complete communities, compact growth, mixed-use development and active transportation. But many of the problems of sprawling development continue in Ottawa. We continue to see new communities designed around the car. We continue to see large tracts of single-family homes - as opposed to mixed use development - in these areas. We continue to see neighbourhoods struggle to make streets safe for vulnerable road users such as pedestrians and cyclists. We continue to see transit stretched thin by city budgets that raise bus rates while spending hundreds of millions on new roads.
What are we asking for?
As a city, Ottawa must change course. The new Official Plan is a major opportunity to make that happen.
We are urging councillors to ‘Hold the Line’ and reject new urban boundary expansion as part of the new Official Plan. Instead, the city must focus future development on the existing urban area. In the process, we can build a city of compact, complete communities with access to jobs and transit. We can preserve more greenspace for plants, animals and local food production.
More specifically, we are asking for the city to account for at least 70% of future growth through intensification rather than greenfield development. This development mix will allow all development to take place within the established urban boundary for the current planning period. This means avoiding further clearing of forests and farmland outside the urban boundary to make room for more concrete, roads and buildings.
The 70% threshold has been identified by Ottawa planners as being the most ambitious of three possible growth scenarios, and the only one in which we hold the line on urban boundary expansion. For context, Ottawa's current Official Plan has an intensification target that gradually rises from 40% to 50%, meaning that soon roughly half of new development will take place in already-developed areas, with the other half in greenfields. The city identifies this 50% "status quo" intensification target and a 60% "middle ground" intensification target as the other two viable scenarios for the new Official Plan.
Certainly, much needs to be said about the form intensification takes. Beyond high-level intensification targets, there are vital discussions that must take place around density, neighbourhood livability and the City's respect for community input. This is a critical aspect of local planning that deserves careful consideration, now and in the years to come.
But for now, we are presented with a major opportunity to embed strong intensification targets into the city's most important policy document.
Certainly, there is room for much more ambition than we have seen to date. While Ottawa is a city of tremendous beauty, it is also a city of box malls, gigantic parking lots, car-dominated communities and massive single-family homes.
A better future is possible, but it must start with political leadership. That is where you come in. Politicians will only lead if they hear clear demand from their constituents. We must demand, loudly and firmly, that Ottawa City Council use the new Official Plan to hold the line on urban sprawl.