Break the rules to build better communities, Windmill’s Westeinde tells TEDx Ottawa

Jeff Westeinde
Windmill Developments' co-founder Jeff Westeinde. Photo by Mark Holleron.

The way we develop our communities is stacked against health, happiness and environment, Windmill Development Group founding partner Jeff Westeinde told TEDx Ottawa on Thursday night.

The problem, Mr. Westeinde told the crowd at Ottawa’s independently organized speakers conference last night, is that the development system is process-oriented, not goal or outcome-oriented.

“So, we end up building what we’re allowed to build, not what we all know we should build," he said.

To change that, he says, "all we had to do was break a few rules."

Mr. Westeinde says he started by focusing on the outcomes, which required a departure from conventional modes of development planning. His company discovered a sustainable community building practice called the One Planet System, created by U.K.-based charity Bioregional.

He calls it “LEED on steroids,” because it also takes into account social sustainability — One Planet Living developments are rated by indicators such as health, happiness and the local economy.

Planned from the outset with these new guidelines, Windmill’s Zibi redevelopment on Chaudière Island has been recognized as Canada’s first One Planet Community and the world’s tenth.

The project has since received national and international recognition. It was awarded the Pierre L’Enfant International Planning Achievement Award in 2015, and in Durban, South Africa last year, the development won the best master planning community in the world from the International Society of City and Regional Planners.

Fostering collaboration

Earning these awards was a major achievement, he says, but one that didn’t come without equally significant challenges. Indeed, the complexity of the Zibi site can’t be understated – it straddles Quebec and Ontario and sits in the heart of First Nations territory.

To much laughter from the audience, Mr. Westeinde quipped, “All we had to do is to get Canada’s three founding nations to cooperate and collaborate."

He also had to win over a skeptical public.

According to Mr. Westeinde, the solution was the creation of a social contract — engaging with the public by coming to them with a clean slate and asking for input, and then delivering a world-class sustainable community based on what they want. At the same time, his team proceeded to break through bureaucratic and cultural barriers one by one, again with an eye on the sustainable outcomes.

“Developers, politicians, regulators, urban planners, need to build communities that actually build community,” he said.

JeffWesteinde TEDx
Jeff Westeinde takes the TEDx Ottawa stage.

He proceeded to give a few examples. This included successfully working with the “difficult” Quebec construction industry to allow greater numbers of First Nations workers access to the Zibi site.

Mr. Westeinde says he was also able to break through the legislative barriers that prevented giving priority to pedestrians and cyclists over cars in the new community. To get around city bylaws that he says stood in the way of realizing this vision, his company proposed that it “should own the streets in perpetuity,” proving to the city that they can maintain them and hopefully set a model for such developments in future.

Mr. Westeinde says he is most proud of a creating what will be the first zero-carbon community district energy system in the region, despite the initial objections of the local hydro company, who are now 50-50 partners.

“We can do better,” he says. “All of us have a responsibility, in my opinion, to challenge the system and demand that we want places that we know improve health, happiness and our environment.”

OBJ had exclusive access to TEDx Ottawa 2017, and will be spreading our coverage out over the next week. Stay tuned for more insights from some of the city's best speakers.