What do you want Ottawa to look like in 2046? City gears up for ‘major refresh’ of official plan

Canada's Parliament Hill, including the Peace Tower and Library of Parliament at Centre Block, is shown in this aerial image on Monday, Feb. 17, 2014. THE CANADIAN PRESS IMAGES/Justin Tang

To be the most liveable, midsized city in North America.

It’s a bold objective but that, in a nutshell, is the City of Ottawa’s end goal as it embarks on a three-year endeavour to create a new official plan – essentially a master blueprint for the national capital’s future growth and development.

And councillors are urging residents to contribute to that vision and to tell the city what they want Ottawa to look like 20 to 25 years from now.

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The official plan, among other things, regulates the use of land and resources, plans for infrastructure, and manages how the city will adapt to growth and change in all its communities – urban, suburban and rural.

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Ottawa’s current official plan is over 15 years old. It was adopted in 2003 and was designed to “respond to the needs of a newly amalgamated city” – which Ottawa is no longer, said Stephen Willis, the city’s general manager of planning, infrastructure and economic development.

“It’s time to do a major refresh,” Willis told the city’s planning committee on Thursday. “The pace of change is accelerating in the world … and it will continue to accelerate.”

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The city hopes to bring the new official plan to city council for approval by early fall of 2021, he said. Right now, Ottawa is limited to creating an official plan covering a 20-year period, but the city has asked the province for an extension to a 25-year period – to carry the plan until 2046 – so it can more easily plan for long-term investments.

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While it employs a “big picture” approach, the official plan review is also quite a technical undertaking, one that isn’t necessarily exhilarating or even interesting for the average resident of Ottawa, several councillors pointed out.

Willis told councillors that staff are exploring different ideas for public engagement and insisted they want to hear from as many people as possible about their vision for Ottawa.

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Planning committee chair Jan Harder also made her own passionate appeal to those inside and outside city hall to “get excited” about and contribute to the official plan review.

“A lot of people, through their work, through their pleasure, go to a lot of places… they have travelled the world. What have you seen that you like?” Harder said after committee. “Don’t take the sandbox we’ve been living in and think that you just have to move the parts in it. Think far beyond that. That would be a great gift to this city if people could get engaged.”

“This is very important to me. … I intend to get it right.”

After hearing from councillors and public delegations, the planning committee approved city staff’s work plan for their review of the official plan. The work plan still has to be approved by city council.

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Ottawa has had trouble keeping up with the pace of change in Canada and in the world, and the city must now plan to be “adaptable” to a wide range of scenarios it could find itself in over the next several decades,” Willis told councillors.

So what trends, opportunities and challenges does Ottawa need to respond to and prepare for? City staff hired two internationally-renowned consultants to help them out.

One of the more obvious drivers of change is population growth, and Ottawa is expanding quickly. The national capital is now three times bigger than the city’s first urban plan (implemented in 1950) projected it would be at this point in time. Sometime before Canada Day this year, according to Mayor Jim Watson and Willis, Ottawa will hit and pass a population of one-million people.

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More people presents greater opportunities for Ottawa to capitalize on. The city has evolved from being predominantly a government town to a more “diversified, knowledge-based economy” – and that economy will continue to drive innovation and growth in Ottawa and beyond, Willis said.

He argued that attracting talent and enticing those people to stay in the national capital will be crucial to Ottawa’s success, saying the city’s technology hub in Kanata North is struggling to find and retain talent amidst “ferocious competition from around the world.”

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Having a diverse population and workforce is a major piece of that puzzle and perhaps Ottawa’s biggest crutch at the moment, according to one of the consultants the city hired.

“All the successful cities in the world have over a third of their population not born in the country,” said Joe Berridge, a Toronto-based urban planner and city-building strategist who gave a presentation to councillors and city staff earlier on Thursday. “Toronto is up at 50 per cent; [Ottawa is] down at 20 per cent. What that suggests is that you’re not attracting that young, new talent from around the world who are essentially the people who are going to make your new city.”
Urban planner and city-building expert Joe Berridge gave a presentation to members of Ottawa City Council and city staff on Feb. 14, 2019, as the municipality prepares to give its official plan a “major refresh.” Beatrice Britneff / Global News

That said, Ottawa shouldn’t see its big neighbours – Toronto and Montreal – as competitors in this journey because the national capital can benefit from their economic success, Berridge argued. For example, Ottawa has an opportunity now to attract people from the talent pool in Toronto who can’t afford to live there anymore, but who like living in Ontario and Canada, he said.

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Berridge – who has advised cities in North America, Europe and Asia on the development of their city centres and waterfronts – said Ottawa is also lagging in areas like post-secondary education, pointing out that none of Ottawa’s universities cracked the top 200 in last year’s QS world university rankings.

On the bright side, by virtue of being the nation’s capital, Ottawa is already punching above its weight in other areas, including connectivity to the rest of the world and tourism, according to Berridge. Airports and culture are major drivers of urban development and are major considerations when people decide where to set down roots, he argued.

“You compete by the quality of your city,” he told reporters after his presentation. “And that quality is the hard quality of transit and utilities and connectivity and airports, but it’s also the soft quality of good places to eat and to stroll and … to enjoy urban life.”

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Ottawa is a “lovely place,” Berridge said, but it has to “leap to the next level.” Canada’s capital could consider emulating a comparable midsized city like Denver, Colo., he suggested.

“I like the energy of Denver, which is trying to say, ‘We are not as big as San Francisco but boy, can you have a good time here,'” Berridge said. “That’s … I think, the message that Ottawa should be thinking about as well.”

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Councillors, residents ask more of city’s approach to official plan review

Some councillors and public speakers at planning committee called on the city to be more ambitious in their approach to the official plan review.

A few told the committee they want further discussion of how “liveability” is defined. Several said they want more attention given to environmental issues like climate change and how Ottawa plans to protect its green spaces for the future.

“We are facing a climate crisis,” argued Paul Johanis, a member of Greenspace Alliance of Canada’s Capital. “This new official plan must be the city’s climate emergency plan.”

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Willis said planning staff agree the official plan review needs to incorporate a “climate lens overlay” and said discussions on that matter are ongoing.

Bay Ward Coun. Theresa Kavanagh, the city’s first council liaison for women and gender equity, also asked Willis if staff would look at the official plan through a “gender lens.” Willis said it’s a “key consideration” and that he’s asked staff to look at how other cities are incorporating gender-based analyses in their planning.

Somerset Ward Coun. Catherine McKenney said she’d “get excited” about the major review if she saw a commitment to eliminate homelessness in Ottawa, or an aspiration to be the “healthiest” city in the country. Willis said the issues of housing and health will be incorporated in two waves of discussion papers scheduled for later this year.


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