Op-ed: Crafting a new plan for growth in Ottawa

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The only thing certain about city planning is that there’s nothing certain about it. Not in absolute terms, anyway.

The notion that the city can promise certainty about what gets built, and where, is a popular one. That’s understandable. No one wants to see such a drastic change in their own neighbourhood that the places we call home become unrecognizable.

But we live in a province that allows anyone to submit an application for any sort of development, and the city is required to give each application due consideration, assessing it against provincial and municipal planning policies.

Think of those policies as guidelines, though, rather than blueprints. Because they cannot be explicit about what must be located where, applications that might push the envelope about what is permitted do sometimes make sense, from a planning perspective. So a building that is significantly bigger or taller than anything surrounding it sometimes gets the go-ahead.

But only if it’s consistent with the city’s Official Plan.

The Official Plan is Ottawa’s single-most comprehensive planning document. It guides decisions about questions such as, “where do density and taller buildings make the most sense,” or, “where is suburban growth more appropriate than maintaining rural lands.”

The Official Plan is also a living document – one that’s updated regularly based on the future that Ottawa residents have told us they hope to see. Every five years, it gets a major review and we incorporate the feedback we gather from residents and businesses.

The city is set to start that review process once again, but this time we’re doing a couple of things differently. 

We’ve had more or less the same Official Plan since Ottawa amalgamated. It has been updated, but it’s still based on the initial plan that tied together the existing policies of the various municipalities that were in force before 2003.

A lot has changed since then, so we’re taking the opportunity with this review to look more broadly at what has worked and what hasn’t, and to make more significant changes.

Really, we’re creating a new Official Plan – one with more context-sensitive policies to keep us from painting large parts of the city with the same brush. 

Take the suburbs, for example. At present, the Official Plan treats suburbs in Barrhaven, Kanata and Orléans all the same, despite considerable differences in terms of population growth, business interests or transportation needs. 

By crafting an Official Plan that’s mindful of such individual contexts, we will ensure future development is adapted to the needs of residents and businesses within each community. 

And not just for the next 20 years, but well beyond. That’s the other thing we’re doing differently.

Ottawa Next

Usually, an Official Plan review looks about two decades down the road, but this time we’re forecasting much further into the future. Over the past couple of years, the city commissioned a study to explore some of the potential challenges that lay ahead and to predict trends that might affect growth over the next 100 years.

A staff report Ottawa Next: Beyond 2036, summarizes the results of that study, which explored a variety of scenarios to identify challenges. With thousands of possible scenarios, an exhaustive list would be impossible, but Ottawa Next explored three possible scenarios for each of four themes: economic development, quality of life, environment, and urban form and mobility.

With the world changing quickly, Ottawa can’t afford to have policy documents that prevent us from adapting to unforeseen challenges. We need to be prepared for the futures we’re most likely to face. 

Adding this extra dimension to our Official Plan will help the city set a steady course, both for the next couple of decades and into the next century, as we grow to become the most livable mid-size city in North America.

That’s our goal, and it all starts with the preparatory work we do now to develop our next Official Plan.

We’re going to get there together. We’ll discuss Ottawa Next in more depth at the city’s planning committee on Thursday, Feb. 14. And soon, city staff will be inviting all residents to provide feedback through public consultation meetings, feedback on discussion papers and web surveys, just to name a few.

There is a clear role for every single person to have their say as we craft our new Official Plan over the next three years. And while that might not mean certainty, it does mean a shared vision for the path ahead.

Jan Harder is chair of the City of Ottawa’s Planning Committee and City Councillor for Barrhaven Ward.

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