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Ottawa following tired path in expanding urban boundaries

(UPDATED with Ottawa council approval on May 27) Ottawa council has approved a plan to expand the...

(UPDATED with Ottawa council approval on May 27) Ottawa council has approved a plan to expand the city’s growth boundary by almost 1,300 hectares. The moves follows a 10-1 vote a week ago from a combined committee – (including both its planning and agriculture and rural affairs committee members) to accept a staff recommendation on the issue.

The recommendation is based on projected population growth of 402,000 people by 2046 to 1.41 million, requiring additional 194,800 homes. The expansion area is based on a staff recommendation that half the growth would take place in existing neighbourhoods and the rest on currently undeveloped lands.

And, the city decided in advance that most of the growth will be in the form of single-family homes.

A CBC Ottawa article about the proposed boundary changes reports: “Some 88 per cent of those yet-to-be-built units would be houses that fit one family, with their own front door. The rest would be apartment units.”

I think this recommendation is unfortunate.

Following a failed philosophy

The main reason it is unfortunate is not that we will be building on farmland. In a growing city like Ottawa, there is a place for expansion in addition to intensification.

The reason it’s unfortunate is that most of what will be built will be the kind of environment that we’ve known for decades is not working well: auto-dependent, low-density, and with zero flexibility to evolve into anything else.

I know this will happen because this is the only type of greenfield development we’ve been doing.

In Ontario (and actually, everywhere in Canada outside Quebec), we’ve proved incapable of doing Greenfield development in any other way. With all the talk about building better communities, there is nothing like that at the edges of our cities.

Could we build amazing transit-oriented development, or at least even build low-density neighbourhoods capable of change? We could, but we don’t.

So, it’s only reasonable to avoid factoring this capability into urban expansion, and instead intensify within the existing built-up area.

But, is this even a viable alternative? Could Ottawa successfully pull this off?

What could Ottawa learn from the GTA?

Instead of dramatic expansion, Ottawa’s alternative would be to learn from the Greater Toronto Area.

The GTA had to handle growth within strict urban growth boundaries, with a greenbelt limiting development at the fringe.

In fact, the GTA was much better equipped to plan for its growth than Ottawa: it is a larger region with more resources for planning, and congestion and high housing prices made it more urgent to succeed.

How did it do?

In spite of its advantages, the GTA failed completely at achieving sufficient growth through intensification. It failed to allow sufficient intensification, in sufficient locations, and at reasonably sufficient development costs to keep the region affordable.

In fact, housing prices skyrocketed at a time when population growth remained constant.

If the GTA failed to remain affordable without significant expansion, it would be hard to fault Ottawa for choosing a less challenging direction.

This is why, even though the status quo of auto-oriented expansion is bad in many different ways, I can understand, even if not support, Ottawa’s choice.

What’s the alternative?

To handle the rapid growth in Ottawa while achieving affordability, a higher quality of life and limiting environmental impact, we need to change our approaches for both infill and greenfield development.

In existing neighbourhoods, we need to go beyond the dichotomy of small high-density pockets in a sea of low-density that don’t change. The existing approach does not create enough housing because there is too little room for this type of development.

Also, high-rise construction is expensive.

Instead of only high-density development, we need to provide opportunities for medium-density, low-rise development (the “missing middle”) in all areas of the city where good transit is accessible. This will provide more room for housing and it will be more affordable to build.

We also need to change our approach to greenfield development. We need to create active mixed-use centres around transit stations – the concept of transit-oriented development is quite well understood.

But what about areas further from the stations?

We can still build ground-related units, but we can do it better. The neighbourhoods can be more compact, for one.

But more importantly, new low-density neighbourhoods should be designed with walking and cycling in mind and with the flexibility to add density and other uses over time.

This is the way neighbourhoods grew throughout history and we need to return to this approach.

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