2020/12/22 (Updated on 2021/08/31)

By Daniel Buckles

Photos: Depaving a section of Pontiac Avenue, Kitchissippi (upper); A Pollinator Garden in the new open area.

City Hall recently released the first complete draft of a new Official Plan, a policy framework that will guide city building and municipal budgets for decades to come. The draft has a fresh look and feel, with prominent references to health objectives, climate change and equity considerations affecting Ottawa’s vulnerable or racialized communities.

But some things haven’t changed. The draft plan continues Ottawa’s long allegiance to established building industry interests, with clear biases in favour of new construction over home retrofits, roads over active transportation and green spaces, and inappropriate development over trees.

With its emphasis on new construction the Official Plan neglects the opportunity to address Ottawa’s largest single source of greenhouse gas emissions by retrofitting existing buildings. The focus on new construction also ignores the current reliance of lower-income residents on the existing housing stock and the scope this huge stock has to increase housing supply incrementally through conversions to multi-unit buildings. The job potential from home retrofits, especially for smaller and independent builders and tradespeople, is also huge. Despite Council’s direction through the recently adopted Climate Change Master Plan, the 264-page draft Official Plan provides no high level policy direction in support of this vital housing and energy strategy.

The draft contains strong language on shifting away from cars as the dominant mode of transportation, especially in the built-up parts of the city where transit is available or planned. It calls for a gradual phase-out of low-cost parking and longer-term development of neighbourhoods where people can live, work and play close to home. But the sanctity of the roadways is largely left intact. The vision for the Downtown Core and Inner Urban area, for example, acknowledges the desperate need for space to build an active transportation and greenspace network, and prohibits new car-oriented infrastructure. However, it does not plan to draw down the public Right of Way currently taken up by streets and roads (which account for roughly 30% of the urban area). It is well known by now that major cities around the world such as Barcelona, Paris and Portland have done just that, successfully by most accounts. Until and unless the Official Plan prioritizes opportunities to convert or narrow roadways for greenspace and active transportation, life in Ottawa will remain wedded to the car and impoverished in many other ways.

Finally, as a long-time advocate of street trees and urban forests, I am delighted to see many references to the value of trees in protecting people’s property and health from forces such as heat island effects, storm water, and the eradication of nature in the city. The word “trees” appears 64 times in the draft Official Plan across virtually all sections, from health to urban design. It also makes a commitment to equitable access to an urban forest canopy, in recognition of the tree deserts scattered across our city. Even the formidable power over trees of the Committee of Adjustment is tempered by a new direction to committee members, applicants and City staff. However, the overall urban tree canopy target (40%) set in the draft Official Plan is of no value to a neighbourhood that is losing its canopy as a result of inappropriate development. In the absence of neighbourhood tree canopy targets, decisions on trees will continue to be made lot by lot. In that scenario, the most expedient private outcome will almost always prevail. Furthermore, without a dedicated mechanism to measure impacts at the neighbourhood level there is no policy path to an overall 40% tree canopy target.

The climate and housing emergencies are not going away. Council needs to embrace the challenges fully in the Official Plan, which means also prioritizing building retrofits and use of the public Right of Way to creatively grow an urban tree canopy and establish safe active transportation.