Op-ed: Zoning in on a better Ottawa

Ottawa skyline
Editor's Note

In the first of a three-part series, OBJ columnist Bruce Firestone explains how the city’s efforts to create a new official plan could set the stage for unprecedented economic growth – and how you can help make that happen

The late urban planning writer Jane Jacobs, the renowned author of the Death and Life of Great American Cities, had a theory: the closer government is to people, the more important it is to its citizens and the better its performance, productivity and delivery of services are likely to be. She called this the “subsidiarity principle.”

Cities, towns and villages provide a host of basic services, including water, sewers, roads, electricity, public transit, parks, libraries, schools, garbage collection, recycling, policing, firefighting and much more. I would argue these are all essential services that make a huge difference to a resident’s quality of life.

But municipalities, counties, townships, provinces and states exert a more subtle influence over urban residents in ways that have huge potential to affect their daily lives ​– through zoning codes and official plans that determine the shape, density and form that our communities take.

Several recent studies have suggested that zoning restrictions have played a huge role in skyrocketing housing prices while severely impeding economic growth.

In their groundbreaking study, University of Chicago economist Chang-Tai Hsieh and University of California at Berkeley professor Enrico Morerri argued that zoning restraints on new housing have prevented people, especially younger workers, from moving to or staying in clusters of innovation. They concluded that such constraints lowered aggregate U.S. growth by 36 per cent between 1964 and 2009.

Think of it this way: if zoning codes had been as open and permissive in 2009 as they were in 1964, the U.S. economy would have been one-third bigger. That’s an enormous increase in economic well-being amounting to nearly $7 trillion per year in additional gross domestic – or an extra US$21,432 per year per person, based on 2017 population estimates.

In the words of Harvard economist Edward Glaeser: “Arguably, land use controls have a more widespread impact on the lives of ordinary Americans than any other regulation. These controls, typically imposed by localities, make housing more expensive and restrict the growth of America’s most successful metropolitan areas.”

Here in Ottawa, the city’s planning department led by general manager Steve Willis is currently reviewing its official plan, with the goal of creating a “21st-century” document.

This work will be fundamental to creating a regional economy and future that is flexible, resilient and sustainable. It is imperative that the city creates a plan that doesn’t pick industry or individual winners and losers and doesn’t tie proponents up in red tape, but rather fosters creativity and makes the capital a more attractive destination for talent.

Ottawa has already started down the path towards less restrictive zoning practices.

In 2016, for example, the city changed its zoning bylaws to permit coach homes – also known as “granny flats” – in the backyards of existing houses. This seemingly small change opens the door to neighbourhoods that are more interesting, more diverse, denser and more intense – not to mention that coach homes can provide additional income for homeowners as well as create decent affordable housing in places where it is needed most.

Input needed

However, much more work still needs to be done to modernize our zoning rules and restrictions.

The new planning blueprint must have buy-in from a wide spectrum of interest groups and organizations – not only local politicians, but also urban as well as rural residents, BIAs, community associations, developers, environmentalists, tenants, not-for-profits, entrepreneurs, planners and others.

To that end, I urge you to offer your input on the new official plan in the following ways: Take 10 minutes or so to complete my survey here; participate in a 90-minute online session I’m hosting on May 22 from noon until 1:30 p.m. at https://zoom.us/j/388405600; join a live, in-person panel discussion (time and date to be determined); or do a one-on-one online interview with me.

Please note that the online session, live panel discussion and one-on-one interviews will be recorded and uploaded to YouTube so that members of the public who can’t participate can see what their fellow denizens are thinking.

If you would like to attend the panel discussion or schedule an online chat, you can reach out to me at bruce.firestone@century21.ca. Please indicate what your top three issues are.

Your insights could help shape the city’s future. It’s time to make your voice heard.

Bruce M. Firestone is a co-founder of the Ottawa Senators, a broker with Century 21 Explorer Realty and a real estate investment and business coach.