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Minto Park in downtown Ottawa. Photo: Ross Dunn (Apt613 Flickr Pool).

Future of Ottawa: Green Spaces with Robb Barnes

By Apartment613 on May 25, 2021

This week in the Future of Ottawa series, we’re taking a look at green spaces in the city. Read on for a guest post from Robb Barnes at Ecology Ottawa.

Robb Barnes is the Executive Director of Ecology Ottawa. Before joining Ecology Ottawa as a volunteer in 2013, Robb worked in the non-profit, public and private sectors. Robb brought advocacy experience to Ecology Ottawa from his time in politics and non-profits, and policy experience from his time as a management consultant working closely with various levels of government. Robb is passionate about environmental and animal welfare issues, community organizing and urban design. Robb holds a Masters in Public and International Affairs, where he focused on the intersection of ecological economics and urban sprawl.

Apt613: What is the future of green space in Ottawa?

Robb Barnes: Green space in Ottawa is at a crossroads. This year we’ll see the passage of the city’s new Official Plan, a major policy and land use plan which will shape Ottawa’s urban form to 2046 and beyond. We have a major opportunity here to protect our tree canopy, provide better access to parks and other green spaces, and to hold the line on further urban sprawl.

The challenge we’re facing today, which will only intensify in years to come, is about how to successfully balance green space protection with development. Done right, the Official Plan gives us an opportunity to develop in a better way—that is, with more urban density but also with more stringent safeguards for the protection and enhancement of local nature.

If you care to make a prediction… Where is Ottawa going in 2021?

The optimist in me wants to say we’ll get stronger protections in place for green spaces city-wide. One key ingredient will be an ambitious tree canopy protection target of at least 40% by neighbourhood. This number may sound abstract, but it will deliver tangible benefits if achieved. The latest studies on this issue identify 40% tree cover as the minimum urban canopy cover required to help adapt to the impacts of climate change, and making this target city-wide will mean that all communities in Ottawa—in all areas, income strata, etc.—get green space benefits. This means protection from heat waves, protection from flooding, and better local food access.

Where in your wildest dreams could this go in your lifetime?

In my wildest dreams, Ottawa steps up to the plate and becomes one of the world’s leading cities on green space protection. We would stop sprawl in its tracks and embed sprawl’s counter-point—walkable, bustling, tree-covered 15-minute neighbourhoods—into the heart of Ottawa’s urban fabric. We would leverage our urban-rural connections to become a hub for local food production. We would be recognized globally as a city that protects its urban forest and integrates trees and green infrastructure into city-building. We would be a leader in urban biodiversity innovation and deep green infrastructure.

What is the best innovation to take place for green spaces since the pandemic started affecting Ottawa?

One of the things we’re seeing is increased public engagement and love of green spaces. People are realizing how accessible nearby nature is, especially for a city of our size and scale. Now, the challenge is to protect it, strengthen it and expand it as we return to a new normal.

Robb addresses a crowd gathered at City Hall when Council declared a climate emergency in Ottawa in 2019. Photo courtesy of Ecology Ottawa.

Who is the future of green space in Ottawa?

I would say it’s the kid growing up in one of the low-income developments in our city right now.

When I grew up playing in these spaces with my friends, these places were dominated by asphalt and concrete. To a large extent, this is still the case. This has to change if we want to succeed on green space protection.

We can gauge our success on this issue by the extent to which that kid has access to vibrant and intact green spaces in the near future. This will be a proxy for how well we are protecting vulnerable residents from climate impacts, and how much progress we’re making on issues of food security and nature protection.

Tell us something that you wish people told you when you started your career in environmental activism.

That you have to meet people where they are. For too many years, I was convinced that once we had the right answers, we could change the world simply by letting others know, or by expecting leadership from elected officials.

But knowing about challenges and solutions is only a small part of the journey. We have to go out into the world and meaningfully engage others if we want things to change for the better. And to meaningfully engage others, we need to understand where they’re coming from and what drives them. If we’re to have any hope of progress, we need to get outside our comfort zone and talk to people who disagree with us.

So, the lesson is to listen first, engage with your head and your heart, and then the rest will follow.


Back in 2015, Apartment613 took a look at the future of Ottawa across several different sectors. In 2021, we’re bringing the series back, asking experts, artists, and community leaders to shed some light on their local field or industry, as it stands now and where they think—or dream—it will go over the next few years. Every week we’ll profile a different cultural sector in Ottawa, leaving no niche unexplored—from social justice to theatre, bars to sports, to the future of the municipality and its natural environs. Keep an eye out for a new batch of posts every Tuesday on Apt613.ca.