Making smarter development decisions to ‘become the city we aspire to be’

TOON Dreessen
Editor's Note

This article is sponsored by Architects DCA. 

Just over two years ago, the City of Ottawa declared a housing emergency. Following that declaration, on Feb. 22, 2022, the Ontario government released its Housing Affordability Task Force Report, presenting 55 recommendations for how to lower housing costs and create the 1.5 million new homes Ontario will need in the next decade.

In past articles I’ve brought some core development issues to light: how we need more ‘missing middle’ housing, essential for sustainable, moderately-dense development on main streets such as Bank Street, Wellington West, Montreal Road and Gladstone Avenue; the need for a range of development scales, from modest infill to tall towers, each sited and well designed for communities; the need to rethink the incentivization to create the development we aspire to have; and how last minute changes to building height allowances run counter to density and affordability goals.

The city enacted a new Official Plan (OP) to try and tackle some of these issues, but it will be years before a full, new, zoning bylaw is in place. We can’t wait for every last appeal and amendment to be finalized to take action – the housing emergency, not to mention the climate crisis, isn’t going away. If we continue to use land inefficiently and unsustainably or build roads through protected wetlands because of poor planning, we’re pushing today's problems further down the road. We need to move quickly.

Change can start at the top

Architecture is a political act, requiring politicians to vote to approve planning applications and funding for projects as well as support submissions for new developments.

And yes, that means politicians come to grand openings to celebrate success.

Knowing that, we now need politicians to believe in architecture and its power to affect a positive social change. That means also having a City Architect to provide guidance and advice to council. In Ann Lui’s article Toward an Office of the Public Architect, via Azure Magazine, Lui writes that we need to consider a role in which a “public architect serves their community by protecting communities from the active enforcement and legacies of predatory municipal regulation in the built environment.”

Locally, that means investing in publicly-owned supportive housing to provide a #HousingFirst model. We need to free up publicly owned land for co-operative housing and create a land trust to provide affordable options.

The city needs to reduce barriers to planning that inhibit affordability in private sector developments. That can, and should, include streamlined approvals for incentivized development and deferral of charges for sustainable projects. Thought should be given to reducing barriers for smaller development projects and creating supportive models for newer technologies such as mass timber, prefabrication, and modular systems.

This isn’t just a challenge for city council or for the planning department. The development industry must help to deliver on these goals. That may mean creating new types of homes; creating new designs for a new paradigm, one that confronts and challenges the crises we face. Architects must also be pushed to design differently, to challenge our clients and engage with communities.

We have to collaborate on the challenges we face in order to reduce barriers, cross divides and rethink our approach to governance. We need to understand the root causes and bring leadership to solving problems so that we become the city we aspire to be. The time is now. 

Toon Dreessen is president of Ottawa-based Architects DCA and past-president of the Ontario Association of Architects. For a sample of Architects DCA’s projects, check out the firm’s portfolio at bit.ly/DCA-portfolio. Follow @ArchitectsDCA on Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn and Instagram.