When it comes to the protection of urban natural areas (UNAs), which are lands deemed ecologically valuable found within the city, Ottawa’s City Council made it a part of their Official Plan in 2002 to commit to and acquire these lands in order to preserve their important environmental benefits. On October 8, 2013 the Planning Committee passed a motion (Item #3) recommending City Council approve an update to the Urban Natural Features Strategy (UNFS), but not without strong opposition from a few members of the public.
The City has previously identified that UNAs play an important role in our city, as they provide several ecological, economical, health, and social benefits. These benefits are listed in the staff report, and include:
- Cleaner air and resulting health benefits to residents;
- Climate change mitigation, through carbon dioxide storage and sequestration;
- Mitigation of the urban heat island effect;
- Decreased stormwater flows and improved water quality, as woodlands slow the movement of water off the land and filter and cool it as it flows;
- Enhanced habitat for birds and other wildlife in the city;
- Opportunities for outdoor recreation such as walking, cycling, and cross-country skiing;
- Aesthetic improvement to new communities where soil conditions restrict tree-planting on residential lots and in other locations;
- Enhanced property values for homeowners near or adjacent to natural areas;
- Increased social benefit due to proximity of residents to natural areas; and
- Defining and shaping of community culture and identity.
Thus, the recommendations embedded in the UNAS update that Mr. Nick Stow, a Planner (from the Land Use and Natural Systems Unit) of the Policy Development and Urban Design Branch, are concerning, as they essentially propose to abandon the strategy. Their findings indicated that the initial strategy to purchase the high priority urban natural areas was proving to be ineffective due to a diminishing returns in environmental benefits for unanticipated increasing costs. The report determines that the value of natural areas within an urbanized landscape decreases with size and increasing isolation, as they are vulnerable to disturbance and environmental degradation, and ineffective at maintaining high levels of biodiversity. However, it would appear that since the strategy has been implemented, approximately 93% of the targeted amount of land has been acquired and now has “some form of protection”. With that being said, Stow and his colleagues suggested that, due to the declining cost- benefit ratio of the acquisition policy, the city should only acquire three properties of the remaining ten: Shea Road Woods, Armstrong Road South Woods, and Nantes Woods (UNAs 193, 100 and 95, respectively). He concluded his presentation by proposing an Environmentally Sensitive Land Stewardship Framework (ESLSF) to address the management of rural lands that have significant environmental implications. There was no mention of this Framework or what it would entail in the report submitted by staff.
The staff recommendation to purchase three UNFs was supported by Penny Thompson, on behalf of the Environmental Stewardship Advisory Committee (ESAC), however ESAC also recommended that the City to purchase the remaining features.
The concerns of the public were many. Faith Blacquiere, from the Glen Cairn Community Association, stated that the approach that the study and Official Plan took only focused on ecological factors, such as the wildlife and plants present, thus fails to adequately protect the area as it does not consider other equally important abiotic factors (ex. water quality, hydrogeology, hydrology, and fluvial geomorphology). She further went on to say that the study fell short in the sense that it treated each natural area as disconnected “pockets” of land rather than as pieces of a whole. The association expressed their concern with regards to inconsistent policies to protect the various Natural Heritage System (NHS) components in the Official Plan. They are also calling for more transparency with the study’s findings to ensure it is indeed the most important lands that will be protected.
Next to speak was Keldine Fitgerald from the Fernbank Creek Wetlands Landowners Group, who reiterated that the City should look at UNAs as a whole package, going on to demonstrate how the Fernbank Wetlands (UNA 132) has been piecemealed over the years. She also advocated that the protection of UNAs should not depend upon various regulatory agencies or the development review process as these are inadequate.
Lastly, Erwin Dreessen spoke on behalf of the Greenspace Alliance against the alterations to the UNFS, testifying to a lack of transparency and accountability by not obtaining public consultation for such significant changes, while shifting focus and funds away from the previously established initiatives that had been publicly consulted. He further went on to claim that the new goals fell short of the previous strategy, as it targeted less areas for protection and disregarded the impact this would have on the natural areas that were now considered abandoned. Finally, the report was deemed vague in that it did not elaborate on the assertion that approximately 93% of the targeted amount of land has been acquired and now has “some form of protection.”
Ecology Ottawa would like to thank the delegations who shed light on the concerns embedded in this UNAS update. This recommendation to update the UNAS was unfortunately carried by City Council on October 23, 2013, without further discussion. We hope that City Council takes the appropriate action in the future to ensure the protection of Ottawa’s urban natural areas, for the benefit of us all.
For background information on the initial Urban Natural Areas Environmental Evaluation Study (UNAEES) please visit http://ottawa.ca/en/residents/water-and-environment/air-land-and-water/urban-natural-areas-environmental-evaluation