The climate case for building 15-minute neighbourhoods

We can respond to the climate crisis while building a better city


In April 2019, the City of Ottawa declared a climate emergency. This was a landmark decision that shows council’s expressed commitment to reducing emissions in our city, and doing our fair share in response to the global climate crisis.

The climate emergency declaration was an important step forward. It contained important policy elements such as additional spending, an upward revision of climate targets, and the addition of an equity lens to analyses of local climate impacts. But it also pointed to the importance of accelerated city-wide action, and to the need of ambitious policy to get there.

According to the city’s Climate Change Master Plan, we have a long way to go. The graph below shows progress towards achieving community greenhouse gas emission reduction targets, including the old target of 80% below 2012 levels (roughly compatible with 2 degrees global warming above pre-industrial levels) and the new target of 100% below 2012 levels (roughly compatible with 1.5 degrees global warming above pre-industrial levels).

Progress towards achieving community greenhouse gas emission reduction targets (City of Ottawa, Climate Change Master Plan, 2019)

The above graph shows that while we’ve made progress reducing city-wide (or “community” emissions), more drastic action is needed to decarbonize by mid-century. The graph also doesn’t tell the story behind the emissions reductions our city has experienced so far. To date, emissions reductions are largely the product of provincial – rather than municipal – policy. The dip in Ottawa’s emissions between 2012 and 2018 shows the climate policy success of the provincial coal phase-out (2012-2014). This policy – the single largest greenhouse gas reduction measure in North American history – drastically reduced emissions from buildings in our city.

Now, to reach our targets, we must move further and faster. According to the United Nations, the next decade will be especially important in determining global success in limiting the climate catastophe that accompanies 2 degrees of warming.

At the local level, we know that success will largely depend on tackling two major sources of emissions: buildings and transportation. “Buildings” refers to how we heat, cool and electrify our homes, offices and other structures in our city. “Transportation” refers to how we move around, into and out of our city – including commuting by car, delivery by truck, and other modes such as flying and train travel. Collectively, these sources account for 89% of our city’s emissions, as indicated below.

2018 community greenhouse gas emissions by sector (City of Ottawa, Climate Change Master Plan, 2019)

What is the role of cities in response to this global crisis? At Ecology Ottawa, we know that we cannot create a greener country and planet without also building greener cities. A major part of that effort means tackling the climate crisis. After all, cities are where 80% of Canadians live, and municipal governments have direct or indirect control over nearly half of the emissions that occur in Canada. So, cities are essential vehicles for climate action if we want to do our fair share in this global fight. A city like Ottawa – relatively wealthy and highly educated, with no major industry emissions – has an obligation and an opportunity to lead the way.

Why focus on sprawl?

The links between urban sprawl and climate change are well-documented in cities and regions around the world, but are perhaps best encapsulated for Ottawa’s context by former Environmental Commissioner of Ontario Dr. Dianne Saxe. Dr. Saxe has called urban sprawl “Ontario’s oil sands” – it’s the province’s main driver of greenhouse gas emissions, has a wide array of other environmental costs, and is bound up with a complex web of political and financial interests that benefit from the status quo.

More sprawl means people must travel further – often by car – to get to jobs and basic amenities. It also typically means more carbon-intensive housing patterns, with energy inefficient single-detached homes dominating instead of more compact forms. In Ontario (the Toronto area is shown below), there’s a clear link between climate pollution and urban form – with dense, walkable communities seeing the lowest levels of emissions.

Annual per capita residential greenhouse gas emissions in Toronto area (Environmental Commissioner of Ontario, A Healthy, Happy, Prosperous Ontario: Why we Need More Energy Conservation, 2019)

Besides sprawl’s power to determine a city’s carbon footprint, there’s another reason to consider it as an important focus for cities’ attention: it’s largely under the control of cities themselves. While carbon pricing is often touted as one of the most powerful tools to fight climate change, cities in Canada have no power to enact policy of this kind. Instead, we must continue to urge federal and provincial policymakers to quickly ramp up carbon pricing – especially since many of the assumptions in the City of Ottawa’s climate models rely on carbon pricing in order to succeed.

But cities have massive power over their urban form. And here, Ottawa is an exceptional case. Unlike many cities around the world, Ottawa also has vast areas of rural land within its borders. This presents a challenge and an opportunity – the challenge is to resist developers’ temptation for developing on greenfield land, where costs are low, profit margins are high and vested interests are at play, with millions of dollars at stake. The opportunity is to build a city that protects vibrant, intact greenspaces and prioritizes local food security as a key part of resilient city-building. Within the urban area, we must strive to build bustling, walkable and bikeable neighbourhoods connected by world-class public transportation.

Sprawl’s mirror opposite: 15-minute neighbourhoods

In many ways, the concept of ’15-minute neighbourhoods’ is sprawl’s mirror opposite – a way of thinking about the climate-safe future we want, and the kind of urban policy we need to get there. Just as sprawl comes with a host of severe costs, its opposite is appealing because of the many opportunities it presents for community-building and enduring urban sustainability. And just as sprawl is conventionally defined as some combination of low-density, single-use development and car-dependency, we can make progress on 15-minute neighbourhoods by enhancing density, increasing the vibrancy of our neighbourhoods and reducing car-dependency. Below, we explore what needs to be done in each of these areas in order to make Ottawa a climate leader.

More density

When it comes to cities and climate change, there is a clear and widely observed rule of thumb: the denser the city, the lower its carbon pollution. Density is a powerful tool in the fight against climate change, but it can’t happen with the flick of a switch. It takes policy ambition and, underpinning that, community support for more bustling, dynamic neighbourhoods. Also, density alone isn’t a silver bullet; it needs to be combined with smart policies that enhance, rather than degrade, the vitality of our neighbourhoods.

More vibrant communities

To make our city more walkable, we must change our approach to community design. We can no longer afford to follow the 1950s ideal of vast tracts of housing separated from basic amenities like parks, schools and grocery stores. We must push back against the big-box outlets, strip malls and vast parking lots that degrade livability while doing damage to our environment. The answer is to integrate a range of development types into neighbourhoods all over Ottawa, while incorporating a vibrant tree canopy and other green infrastructure. In so doing, we can dramatically alter the planning status quo while building a better city.

Less car-dependency

Along with other mid-century planning mistakes, Ottawa planners and policymakers have taken our city away from pedestrians and given it over to the car. And while our city works to do better, we still see new communities cut off from basic amenities and viable transit. A better way is possible, but we must tackle car-dependency head-on. We need to give Ottawans more choice in their transportation options, and more reasons to choose healthy, sustainable transportation alternatives like active transportation and transit.

What’s next?

To build the kind of bustling, connected community we envision, we are proposing a comprehensive suite of policy reforms. We’re calling it An Action Plan for 15-Minute Neighbourhoods. The next two years will provide a massive opportunity to embed these ambitious actions into the most important policy documents at our city’s disposal, with lasting effects on both the character and climate performance of Ottawa.

Stay tuned for the release of the Action Plan in the coming weeks!