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Photo: _Vee_ / Apt613 Flickr pool.

The urban boundary debate is not about a line—it’s about smart city planning and affordable housing

By Aileen Duncan on May 16, 2020

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Aileen Duncan is a policy analyst, millennial, and aspiring property owner. She grew up in Orléans and resides in the Glebe. She volunteers with the City of Ottawa’s Planning Advisory Committee and writes about arts, culture, and urbanism for Apartment613. All opinions are her own.


The only time I really understand that Ottawa is home to a million people is during Bluesfest. People come out from their far-flung homes and we party together. It’s fabulous. But where are they during the rest of the year? Hanging out in their 15-minute neighbourhood, I presume?

There are plenty of things to love about Ottawa, but the lack of bold public policy isn’t one of them. Wait, that’s not entirely correct—there are some great policies in place, but it’s so easy to lose confidence when it feels like our city is being planned by for-profit property development companies.

Enter the debate on whether to extend the urban boundary. The City is undertaking an update to its official plan for the next 25 years. These decisions will guide the way intensification occurs across the city, how investment decisions are made for social and physical infrastructure, and how we will make space for the 402,000 people expected to move to Ottawa.

“What boundary—and why do I care?”

Fear not—the heart-shaped city we know and love will remain! The decision before council would impact the type of development permitted and the density targets in areas on the outer edges of the “urban area.” (Hint: It’s not just the downtown core. Kanata is thriving, you guys.) The urban area extends from Kanata to Orleans and includes the Greenbelt.

The land being considered for development is about the size of Lowertown, Centretown, the Glebe, and Hintonburg combined. This issue was studied by the committee of Agriculture and Rural Affairs because expanding the urban area will remove land from the rural area. On May 11 and 12, the committee heard from over 100 people and organizations and received 1,000 written submissions, possibly setting a record. They will resume on May 19 to hear from City staff and deliberate the matter, which then goes to City Council on May 27.

“OK, I’m in. Which side am I on?”

City staff are recommending a “balanced approach” where the boundary is expanded by up to 1,650 hectares. Many groups, including Ecology Ottawa, are advocating to “hold the line” and go with the No Expansion scenario, which focuses all intensification within the existing boundaries in order to meet climate targets to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and avoid a further dispersed and car-dependent city. Advocates to expand the boundary say a lack of housing supply drives up costs, which reduces housing affordability, and that not providing sufficient options will cause people to move outside the city limits, where they use our services and infrastructure but don’t contribute through municipal taxes. Kemptville is the new Gatineau, amirite?

Intensification has a bad rep, but it is more than condo towers. City staff categorize all dwellings into four categories (Single-detached, Semi-detached, Rowhouse, and Apartment). I don’t know about you, but I consider a spacious unit in a detached triplex very different from a 20-storey apartment building, yet this distinction isn’t captured in the debate on intensification. Perhaps we need more categories.

The thing is, where the city grows is not the most important factor. What will impact us most on a day-to-day basis is how we grow. Are we creating an affordable and connected city where everyone has access to greenspace and social services, we can walk to the grocery store, hop on an LRT and reach these potential new neighbourhoods?

And if the City of Ottawa is trying to move in that direction, what is getting in the way?

“I’ve heard there are problems with the City’s recommendation.”

Municipalities are required to “maintain an appropriate range and mix of housing,” and planning for this is complex. I certainly couldn’t have developed a better growth management strategy than the team of hardworking and thoughtful public servants that produced these 57 remarkably technical pages.

However, there are some crucial missing factors from the report, which casts doubt on whether the information is sufficient to come to a conclusion on the recommendations. Primarily:

  • Um… pandemics? Is high-density living near employment hubs important or desirable during a global health emergency that is bound to be repeated as the climate warms? We cannot go within two metres of each other or use public amenities like parks, and we are seeing that teleworking is not only feasible, but perhaps even preferable. Can we really assume that residents of outlying neighbourhoods will continue to commute to a downtown location five days a week?
  • No costing. There is no financial analysis of how much it will cost to build infrastructure and services (water, transit, roads, community centres, social services) in new areas. I’ll repeat that – we don’t know how much it will cost to “sprawl” versus increasing density. I’m no municipality, but I don’t treat my billions of dollars with such carefree ease.
  • Dwelling preference. Seniors will account for a large portion of housing demand in the later years of the planning horizon. As far as I can tell, there was no public engagement or market research done to validate the assumptions about the types of dwellings that seniors would prefer.
  • Lack of long-term vision. Yes, 25 years is a long time in the planning world. We didn’t know COVID would be a thing six months ago. But there should be some idea of what would happen in 100 years, when Ottawa has two or three million residents. Will we need another waste treatment plant in 50 years? Where will it be? How does this impact the pipes we are laying now? The arguments for expansion would be strengthened by the inclusion of longer-term forecasting.

“So who plans the city?”

I’m glad you asked! This is the key problem. City staff are recommending a 25-year plan that requires regulatory and zoning changes or by-law exceptions in order to be built by developers. This adds time (and therefore cost) to the units, because costs are passed onto consumers.

Staff have introduced some charming concepts including the “613 Flat,” where a minimum percentage of units have “six rooms in one unit, with at least three bedrooms. The remaining three rooms would be a kitchen, living room, and bathroom.” (City of Ottawa – Residential Growth Management Strategy for the New Official Plan) The idea is to make intensification liveable and provide diverse options for housing.

But where is the incentive for developers to deliver these types of buildings, particularly when they have to navigate a tangle of by-law exemptions and/or pay additional fees to do so? Not to mention that land in the urban area is getting more expensive, which drives up the cost of the units.

During the committee proceedings on May 11, many development companies spoke about their commitment and connection to the city. I’m sure this is true; however, perhaps this means they need to adhere more closely to our policies and ask for variances rarely.

I recognize the City first needs to update its zoning by-laws and regulatory process, but let’s give the plans some teeth. The City needs to take this ambition to make Ottawa the most liveable mid-sized city, translate it into zoning that actually works to accomplish this goal, and stick to the plans.

“Are you for or against the expansion?”

We need to reframe the question. I don’t mind where the urban boundary is. I care about building an affordable and climate-resilient city with a high quality of life.

I expect the city to grow If not now, then in 2031 or 2047. Growth means we are doing something right. There will be a good discussion, and if council doesn’t approve the expansion, developers will appeal to Ontario’s Local Planning Appeal Tribunal, who will make a binding final decision, likely to favour the developers. This happened in 2009 when the now-defunct Ontario Municipal Board ruled in favour of expanding the urban boundary by more than was suggested.

But don’t let that discourage you. Remember: Urban expansion doesn’t have to mean urban sprawl. If we must grow, how can we make the most of opportunities to intensify the existing urban area, invest in these communities so we aren’t competing for social services and space in the parks, and plan for our growth in a smart way? If we move the boundary now, can we challenge ourselves not to expand again for 100 years?

In conclusion:

It’s not about the line. We are trying to figure out what kind of city we want to live in and how to make space for everyone who wants to live here.

What do we want? A strong zoning framework, neighbourhood plans that are actually followed, a holistic and coordinated long-term vision with all partners (I’m looking at you, federal government), and public and private investment working together to make the vision come to fruition!

When do we want it? Now!

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