Opinion: Building a better Ottawa

Ottawa city planner Alain Miguelez brings a world of experience to a job that comes with more than its fair share of challenges.

Born in Argentina, he and his parents moved to Ottawa via France when he was two. An urban geography buff who is fluent in three languages (Spanish, English and French), Mr. Miguelez earned his master’s degree in planning from the University of Montreal before doing an internship with the National Capital Commission.

Later, he joined planning and engineering group Stantec, followed by a four-year stint at the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation. Mr. Miguelez was ready and eager to shake up a staid Ottawa planning department from the moment he arrived at city hall in 2002, a year after the province amalgamated 11 municipalities and the former regional government of Ottawa-Carleton into the thing we now know as “Ottawa.”

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If that resume hasn’t exhausted you yet, Mr. Miguelez somehow found time to get married, father two children and write two books, the most recent being a coffee table work titled Transforming Ottawa, Canada’s Capital in the eyes of Jacques Gréber. It seeks to explain why Ottawa looks the way it does and has evolved the way it has thanks largely to the Gréber Plan, completed shortly after the end of World War II.

But it was his stint at CMHC that opened Mr. Miguelez’s eyes to the realities of housing. There, he was involved in everything from helping underwriters with a soup-to-nuts analysis of single-family and multi-residential construction to looking at how to make public streets, squares and spaces more interesting, more animated and safer to taking down barriers to make it simpler for homeowners and developers to add their bit to the mix.

What he didn’t expect to find was this: “There is a legacy of fear and paranoia among residents … a deep concern over how to achieve greater proximity (planner speak for higher density and more intensity, the latter meaning mixing different types of uses together in the same space or very close to each other). People are trying to find culprits. As in, ‘Who ruined my city?’”

The answer, he says after a moment’s reflection, is: “It’s a shared responsibility. First, we got sprawl via the introduction of the private car. Then we became over-regulated by policy that tried to control everything. Detailed regulations remove creativity; they take too long to satisfy, and there are too many fees.

“Did you know that it would be impossible, impossible, to build a desirable community like the Glebe today?” he adds. “It was once considered a suburb, you know. So why can’t Kanata, Riverside South, Orleans, Barrhaven look more like that?”

The answer, according to Mr. Miguelez and his boss, John Smit, is twofold:

1. Prescriptive zoning codes have put development in a straightjacket.

2. Developers themselves got locked into a car-based mindset that took hold in the 1960s and 1970s and has been flourishing, to the detriment of our city, ever since.

“We need to focus on developing personalities for different enclaves,” Mr. Smit says. “We have great neighbourhoods like Little Italy, Chinatown, Centretown, Old Ottawa South, Lansdowne, Vanier, ByWard Market, Lowertown, Britannia, Mechanicsville, Hintonburg, Overbrook and Manor Park. We have to build on what we have, and then make sure we don’t leave suburban places out of this new approach to community development. This is crucial. We need an Ottawa brand that can match that of Mississauga or, for that matter, Toronto.”

Mr. Miguelez eagerly completes the next lap in this two-man relay by adding: “We have an acronym for it too, Bruce: BBSS.”

Busily taking notes on my tablet with my three-finger typing, I take the bait and ask what that stands for.

“Building better, smarter suburbs,” he answers with a charming smile.

Only members of the armed forces like acronyms better than urban planners, but I take their point. Ottawa can do, and is doing, better.

I have a sense that the millennial generation, unfairly criticized as the “140-character generation,” will be a great one. Maybe its achievements in robotics, artificial intelligence, health and medicine, business models, green-tech, farming, driverless electric vehicles, virtual reality, social media, communication, space travel and mass customization will rival those of the generation that took humans from horse-drawn trolleys in the late 19th century to space travel by the 1960s.

So the foremost challenge this community – and, frankly, every city, town and village in this country – face, is to keep and attract millennials.

If Mr. Miguelez and Mr. Smit get their way, Ottawa’s planning department will do its part to make this city a more attractive place for them to live, work and create.

Bruce M. Firestone is founder of the Ottawa Senators and a broker at Century 21 Explorer Realty. Follow him on Twitter @ProfBruce.

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