Ottawa’s urban boundary decision – What’s at stake on May 27?

On Wednesday, May 27, councillors and the mayor will decide whether or not to expand Ottawa’s urban boundary. This decision, to be made as part of the development of Ottawa’s new Official Plan, will guide the shape of our city until 2046. Because of the many issues at play, the vote on urban expansion will define the environmental legacy of most councillors’ careers.

While the issue is complex, it boils down to a choice between two pathways for Ottawa’s future growth. On the one hand, councillors can opt for more urban sprawl. This is the so-called “Balanced” proposal recommended by city staff and largely backed by the development industry. On the other hand, they can choose not to expand, and to build a walkable, connected community while protecting greenspace and farmland. This is the “No Expansion” scenario that thousands from across our city have been calling for.

The case for No Expansion is supported by a number of individuals and groups, many of which are part of a grassroots collective known as the People’s Official Plan for Ottawa’s Climate Emergency. Environmental groups include Ecology Ottawa, Just Food, Community Associations Forum on Environmental Sustainability (CAFES), the Greenspace Alliance of Canada’s Capital, the City of Ottawa Environmental Stewardship Advisory Committee, Bike Ottawa, Free Transit Ottawa, Ottawa Transit Riders and Healthy Transportation Coalition. The No Expansion option also has the support of groups working on equity and affordability, such as the Alliance to End Homelessness Ottawa and City for All Women Initiative (CAWI). This position has broad and deep community support, through community associations across the city, the Federation of Citizens’ Associations, and through thousands of signatories to Ecology Ottawa’s “Hold the Line” petition.

What can be done?

Time is running out. We urgently need councillors and the mayor to know that thousands of their constituents demand leadership in the fight against sprawl.

The following councillors have supported environmental initiatives in the past. Their support is critical if council is to adopt the No Expansion scenario. Phoning them is the most important thing you can do, but sending an email also helps.

For those in any other area of the city, we urge you to phone Mayor Jim Watson at 613-580-2496, or email him at jim.watson@ottawa.ca.

And if you haven’t already signed the Hold the Line petition, please do so. This will automatically email the mayor and your area councillor with a form letter that you can customize.

Background: What is urban sprawl?

Urban sprawl is a feature of many cities all over the world, and Ottawa is no exception. Sprawl is often characterized by a few key elements:

  • There are strong separations between types of development, with vast tracts of houses separated from workplaces, grocery stores and schools.
  • Development is low-density, often characterized by large, single-family homes on large, winding, poorly-connected streets. Because of these low densities, transit is inconvenient, inefficient and expensive.
  • As a result of the above, cars are required for essential functions, such as going to work, getting groceries – even visiting nearby parks. In other words, people don’t have alternatives when it comes to getting around the city.

While Ottawa City Council has been working to reduce sprawl by increasing density in some suburban communities, we have a long way to go. New communities are still cut off from transit, single-family homes are still prioritized, and residential communities from the businesses and services that urban residents need. All of this means more cars, more roads and more congestion.

Why are the consequences of more sprawl in Ottawa?

Sprawl negatively affects all aspects of Ottawa’s environment, and poses serious challenges to work on equity, affordability and inclusion. If council opts to expand the urban boundary on May 27, this is the type of development pattern Ottawa will be choosing to expand.

Here are a few of the reasons why thousands across our city are concerned with sprawl, and are urging council to adopt the No Expansion option presented by city staff:

Environmental

  • Sprawl is a climate-killer, and would ramp up climate pollution from the two biggest sources in Ottawa: buildings and transportation. More sprawl means much more single-detached housing, the most energy inefficient form of housing available. And building more car-dependent communities with poor transit access means more climate pollution from cars and trucks.
  • More low-density and car-dependent communities means more trees and greenspace are cleared and paved over – often for single-detached houses, box malls and parking lots.
  • Paving over greenspace means less green infrastructure – the living systems that slow down, soak up and filter rainwater where it falls. This means more water pollution and greater vulnerability to flooding, an increasingly common challenge in our climate-changed world.
  • Paving over greenspace also weakens and degrades local nature at the time of an escalating global biodiversity crisis. This decision will be council’s most lasting legacy on the health of local ecosystems and urban biodiversity.
  • Years of sprawling development have dramatically reduced Ottawa’s availability of farmland – something that is especially precious in Canada, and even more important given rising concerns over food security. While council is working to protect patches of farmland from development, there are open questions as to whether these protections go far enough.
  • More sprawl means transit continues to be expensive, inefficient and ineffective. Transit in Ottawa was in crisis even before the Covid-19 pandemic hit, and fares are some of the highest in the country. If Ottawa continues to build at low population densities, buses will have to travel much further to serve the same number of people, and we face continued strains on a service that is vulnerable to collapse.
  • More sprawl means walking and biking connections are harder to build. With more car-dependent communities come more streets that are dangerous and inaccessible for pedestrians and cyclists. In Ottawa, urban density correlates with better active transportation infrastructure, and important connections to transit hubs.

Social

  • While developers often claim sprawl is needed for people to attain affordable housing, this claim is misleading and confusing. First, it confuses “affordable housing” – housing that is attainable for low-income Ottawans – with the price of a home. A new, single-detached home in a sprawling community is not “affordable housing.” Attempts to lower housing prices overall depend on housing supply, not land supply, and any real plan to address the lack of affordable housing in Ottawa requires ongoing investments in this area.
  • Sprawl poses serious a serious challenge to equity and social inclusion. Car-dependent communities pose a serious challenge to anyone seeking access to social services, especially low-income residents and marginalized groups.
  • Sprawl poses a serious challenge to public health. Car-dependency and long commutes pose serious challenges for mental and physical health. Meanwhile, greater density supports emergency-response times, hospital staffing and access to other amenities.

Economic

  • Urban expansion is extremely expensive for all residents of the City of Ottawa. While the City of Ottawa has failed to provide councillors with a detailed breakdown on the costs of its proposed sprawl scenario, we know from comparable examples (e.g., London, ON, referenced here) that massive new infrastructure costs will result. More sprawl likely means hundreds of millions more dollars spent on roads, sewers, lighting and other services. Imagine how much more we could invest in climate action, transit and social services if we didn’t waste it on sprawl.

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