In the changing landscape of Ottawa, does the concept of de-amalgamation make sense?

Advocates have expressed concerns about how to best maintain the essence of village life in Manotick, pictured, within the context of the larger City of Ottawa. File photo

With the rise of “15-minute neighbourhoods” and the ongoing challenges facing the downtown core, some local officials have been left to wonder if de-amalgamation would make sense for the City of Ottawa.

For many communities within the amalgamated city’s boundaries, the concept of compact, walkable neighbourhoods is nothing new. 

“Manotick is a 15-minute neighbourhood,” said Grace Thrasher, past-president of the Manotick Village Community Association (MVCA), and was a 15-minute neighbourhood before amalgamation in 2001, she added.

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It is a sentiment shared by current Rideau-Jock Coun. David Brown.

“It is funny how I have been in a few meetings when some of my colleagues are talking about 15-minute (neighbourhoods) and I will say we already have that, it’s called villages,” he said. “I don’t think our urban colleagues fully recognize that villages are self-contained communities where … you don’t really have to leave the area except for work.”

While there is no push to reverse amalgamation fermenting in Manotick, Brown said an ongoing concern is how to best maintain the essence of village life within the context of the larger City of Ottawa.

“I’ve heard residents say things were better before amalgamation, under the townships,” he said. “I think when we look at amalgamation or de-amalgamation, it should be done in a holistic way and look at it more as being about all of rural Ottawa, which is most of Ottawa. It is an agricultural city.”

De-amalgamation is not an idea that can work in practical terms, he added, and he would rather look at other ways to bridge the urban, suburban and rural divide.

“At the end of the day, it’s a provincial thing, so it’s not something that we can really do,” Brown said. 

A 2015 study by the Fraser Institute argues that the cost savings, smaller bureaucracy and lower taxes promised by consolidating local governments have not materialized.

“In the late 1990s, the (Conservative) government of the day wanted to consolidate municipal governments in an effort to reduce waste and lower property taxes. While that may have been a laudable goal, it’s become clear that those benefits never materialized,” wrote Lydia Miljan, Fraser Institute senior fellow and co-author of the study “Municipal Amalgamation in Ontario.”

The report determined that amalgamation efforts often increased costs such as property taxes, public-sector employee compensation and long-term debt and said, “there was no tangible, financial benefit from amalgamation.”

“The difficulty in successfully implementing de-amalgamation means that amalgamation is something that cannot — and should not — be easily entered into. More care needs to be taken in finding the best institutional structure for our municipal governments,” the authors of the study wrote in an opinion piece published in the National Post.

Twenty years after amalgamation, there is more recognition within the City of Ottawa of its diverse nature, officials agree. There are smaller, more rural and village-like areas such as Manotick, Kars and Osgoode; the urban downtown core; and ever-expanding suburban commercial regions such as Kanata and Barrhaven.

While there is no evidence of any appetite to reverse amalgamation, the city’s new Official Community Plan (OCP) includes a goal of what it calls 15-minute neighbourhoods, which to some sounds like townships before amalgamation.

Nonetheless, Thrasher said the concerns of village residents are better represented in the newest OCP. 

“For a long time, planning in the city was focused on the urban and suburban areas,” she said. “In the most recent community plan, there is a better recognition of the needs of the villages.

“We were a lot more involved and heard,” she said of the process leading to the new OCP, which was adopted by the city on Nov. 24, 2021 and officially approved by the province on Nov. 4, 2022.

“The principles of 15-minute neighbourhoods are integral to the strategic directions contained in Ottawa’s draft new official plan,” said David Wise, Ottawa’s director of economic development and long-range planning. “Fifteen-minute neighbourhoods are compact, well-connected places with a clustering of a diverse mix of land-uses. They are complete communities.”

Brown agrees that planning in Ottawa has been urban- and suburban-focused in the past, with a one-size-fits-all approach across the city. 

However, rather than the radical step of de-amalgamation as a way to address the different priorities of the downtown versus rural areas, Brown suggests changing the 2001 provincial legislation that first established the amalgamated city to better reflect those differences. That is doable and practical, he says

“There needs to be a recognition in the legislation that there’s significant differences between the 80 per cent of the city that is rural, and the urban and suburban areas,” Brown said. “I’d rather focus on what is possible,” adding it is something he has discussed with Carleton MPP Goldie Ghamari.

In 2022, Premier Doug Ford’s government raised the possibility of a new round of forced amalgamations and appointed two special advisors to examine the possibility. The government since backtracked and has stated that communities are better served when residents decide how a community is governed.

“Municipalities are the level of government closest to the people, but every community is different, one size doesn’t fit all,” said Steve Clark, Minister of Municipal Affairs and Housing.

While it is theoretically possible under provincial legislation to reverse amalgamation, it would not be simple.

The province says there is a legislative process within the Municipal Act of 2001 called the “municipal restructuring process.”  

However, since the current City of Ottawa was created under special provincial legislation, “restructuring would require legislation, unless considered a minor boundary adjustment,” according to a statement from the provincial ministry.

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