The draft new Official Plan: The good, the bad and the missing -- Part 2 | Unpublished

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Erwin Dreessen's picture
Ottawa, Ontario
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Retired economist (Ph.D., Berkeley, 1972) Co-founder (1997) and former chair of the Greenspace Alliance of Canada's Capital.  Wrote an annotated bibliography on what sustainability means for businesses (2009) --

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The draft new Official Plan: The good, the bad and the missing -- Part 2

February 21, 2021

Part 1 explained how the City has let the citizenry down by the way the draft Official Plan was released.  But does it have good ideas that improve upon the current Plan?

City of Ottawa Official Plan website:

Remarkably, the best stuff is in the environment area.  There are some good policies on increasing resiliency against extreme heat.  The overall goal for the city's tree canopy coverage would increase from the current 30% to 40%. The objective of access to greenspace would be enhanced somewhat.  There is an innovative proposal to allow for swapping out approved but not yet built country lot estates (the bane of rural landscape integrity) for land adjacent to villages.  Some of these improvements nonetheless miss the mark, as I will note in Part 3.

The draft Plan falters badly when it comes to setting out clear rules for such basics as maximum and minimum building heights. But the deeper fault is that the Plan proposes to divide the urban area up in so-called Transects -- Downtown, Inner Urban, Outer Urban, and Suburbs.  The distinctions are essentially based on when the areas were built out.  It then sets out policies for Hubs, Corridors and Neighbourhoods in each.

To complicate matters, a Built Form Overlay -- Evolving or Transforming -- plus a carve-out of Special Districts, imposes further policies to move specific areas towards the goal of becoming "the most liveable mid-sized city in North America."

Imposing these constructs on broad areas of the city will inevitably homogenize them.  This seriously impedes what the Plan on the other hand claims to promote: 15-minute neighbourhoods.  It's the rage all over the world -- satisfy most of your daily needs within a short walk from your home, possibly even work nearby, and be close to frequent transit if you need to venture further out.  "15-minute neighbourhood" is mentioned 87 times in the Plan. However, there are no firm criteria, and no maps, which doesn't prevent the Plan from setting out one set of policies if you're in a 15-minute neighbourhood, and another if you're not.

The Transects superstructure of the draft Plan is utterly unhelpful.  It denies the reality of neighbourhoods, which should be the basic unit of urban land use planning. The issue is not whether you're in a 15-minute neighbourhood or not, but to what degree you live in one, and what's missing to make it better.  That requires a conversation at the neighbourhood level.

No-one was consulted when a piece of neighbourhood was declared to be "Evolving" or "Transforming."  Justification is limited to vague qualitative statements on where that particular section of the 'hood is at -- try "where the area is subject to a gentle evolution from suburban to urban built form and site design" or "where the area is in a location, at a stage of evolution, or subject to development pressures that create the opportunity to achieve a fully urban built form." Is the city now to be governed by the gut feeling of planners?

Not all parts of the City bureaucracy practice such a top-down approach.  Over the span of a decade, the City's zoning gurus have engaged in an intense and fruitful dialogue with communities and developers to set some rules around infill housing. The result is a set of zoning by-laws known as Infill I and II.  Their intent is to capture the character of a neighbourhood, make a new dwelling fit in and avoid negative effects such as privacy issues, sun obstruction and loss of permeable surfaces and vegetation.  These by-laws appear to be working well and promise to be a bulwark against the loss of trees and other greenspace in our neighbourhoods.

It was strange, therefore, to find directions for future zoning in the draft Plan that directly contradict Infill I and II.  It rejects the concept of compatibility embodied in “your street gives you your rules” and replaces it with overly broad urban form parameters. The word "tree" is mentioned 512 times but whether the proposed policies on trees are consistent with Infill I and II is far from evident. 

On both substance and process, this draft Plan fails the grade and clearly was released in haste.  To be fair, with the Council-approved timeline there is little staff could do but steam ahead.  This process is as much a failure of political leadership as it is the result of an autocratic culture among planning staff. 

Erwin Dreesen's Official Plan Analysis series