“We Have to Change our Whole Mindset if We are Going to Have a Future”

I’ll have a massive post about urban planning and Edmonton up over the weekend, but I want to talk a bit about a decision made – and how an almost better one was made – in Ottawa earlier this week.

Ottawa was debating the expansion of its suburban lands on which development is permitted. The administration recommended adding another 842 hectares; developers wanted more than 2,000. In the end, after a motion to fully freeze development outside the suburban boundary failed by 3 votes, a compromise allowing development on 222 new hectares of land passed by a single vote.

Edmonton is considering its new Municipal Development Plan, aptly titled “The Way We Grow”. I view Ottawa and Edmonton as similar cities. Both have a population in the city of around 800,000, and a metro population of over 1,000,000. They both have harsh winter climates, and are heavily government/public sector cities. Looking to Ottawa for lessons is better than comparing Edmonton to Montreal, Toronto, or Vancouver.

Edmonton’s draft MDP talks about focusing more on infill – which is progress, but doesn’t go so far as actively discouraging low-density suburban growth. Like the majority of cities across Canada, it would appear that Edmonton is not quite ready to take that step, despite increasing evidence that low-density growth just isn’t cost-effective or sustainable.

The title of the post is a quote from Councillor Diane Holmes, who moved the motion to freeze the suburban boundary. She also added this:

She said her residents are getting fed up with their property-tax dollars supporting suburban growth through road, sewer and water service construction, which developers profit from, then subsidizing operating costs in the suburbs. A city study has shown that households inside the Greenbelt pay an average of $1,000 more in taxes than they receive in services from the city, while households outside the Greenbelt pay less.

More and more people are starting to realize this. 10 in favour, 13 opposed to a freeze on new development space. A few years ago this would have been unfathomable. I believe we’re nearing the tipping point where it will become common wisdom that we have to grow up, and not continue to grow out indefinitely. In a few years time, the votes on Ottawa City Council will turn around. Kudos to our nation’s capital for almost getting it right. Someday Edmonton and other cities will follow suit as well.

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2 Responses

  1. Without arguing the point of the cities’ similarity, there are three major differences between the two which should also be remembered when engaging in comparative urbanism (something that too few people do!).
    First, the overwhelming presence of the _federal_ government as an independent actor in the city’s growth and development; second, Ottawa’s natural growth constraint of the river and provincial border; third, Ottawa’s lack of surrounding jurisdictions.

    I think the first point is more or less self-explanatory and won’t go into further detail.

    The second, however, has major implications for the city’s organization: because the city is constrained by the Ottawa River, it’s been forced to grow largely axially east/west, with only one serious crosstown route. (The routes for going north/south are either laughably small — Bank Street — or laughably congested.) As a result, Ottawa’s been forced to spread further east and west to accommodate low-density growth than would have been the case had the river been (a) slightly smaller, (b) crossed in more places, and (c) not been a provincial boundary; in that situation, we’d be looking at a more circular pattern, probably somewhat denser, similar to Edmonton or Calgary’s, though still with a constraint from Gatineau Park.

    The third point is also important: urban political structure matters. Because of the shotgun marriage, the city’s boundary now extends deep into the hinterland, so there’s no competition from neighbouring jurisdictions to attract development. This may make Ottawa’s longterm position more tenable than Edmonton’s, because developers can’t simply move to Strathcona County to evade Edmonton’s requirements. While the Quebec side’s an option, it’s at best a poor comparison due to the geographical factors alluded to earlier, not to mention the linguistic and political factors; Gatineau’s not St Albert.

  2. And yeah, the big three are not appropriate comparisons because of (a) massive scale differences [Toronto] and (b) geographical constrains [Vancouver, Montreal]. The only obvious comparisons in Canada are Calgary and maybe Winnipeg; I suspect for more comparables, we’d need to look to the US, which is problematic for entirely different reasons.

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