Council is Shooting in the Dark on its Urban Boundary Decision
Next week, the Planning Committee of City Council has a big decision to make that will shape how Ottawa grows between now and 2046 through its new official plan. It will vote on a recommendation by City staff to expand the area in which development is allowed to occur to build new suburbs. The new land is needed, they and developers argue, to accommodate around 400,000 new Ottawa residents between now and 2046. The recommendations reject the alternative: require new development to occur through intensification.
For the sake of the environmental and economic sustainability of our city, a recommendation to expand should be opposed. Council, though, hasn’t been given the information it needs to make that decision.
Letting our cities continually encroach on greenspace further from the core comes with significant environmental and infrastructure costs.
Ottawa faces some huge challenges including a significant infrastructure deficit, a shortage of housing and an affordability crisis, as well as a climate emergency that has led the City to develop an ambitious target that seeks to reduce Ottawa’s greenhouse gas emissions by 100 per cent by 2050. Dependence on cars is a huge source of emissions and our best chance to tackle that is to build the city around rapid transit and create more walkable communities.
Given these considerations, what information does Council have to make an informed decision about whether to grow more suburbs?
Ottawa like many cities in Canada has a lot of aging infrastructure that needs to be renewed, even as we grow. If Council is going to make an informed decision about whether to continue expansion of the suburbs, they should have their eyes wide open about the costs and benefits of doing that.
Staff could have provided examples of the full lifecycle costs associated with upgrading infrastructure in intensified areas versus new development based on the last 20 years of experience with intensification. But, there is no analysis of this in the documents that could help inform Council’s decision. Development cost charges only pay for up front construction costs that can be as little as 20% of the cost of what’s needed to operate and maintain infrastructure over its full life. Council won’t know what the City could have saved if it holds the line on sprawl.
On climate change, the report asserts that both expansion and no-expansion scenarios will achieve the City’s target. But, no GHG emissions modelling of the scenarios has been done. The report simply states that it will be easier to achieve the climate target with the no-expansion scenario and that the City will need unprecedented action in all sectors to meet its target, including land use. Is Council simply supposed to hope for the best that the expansion approach will get us where we need to be?
On transit, the report talks about concentrating development near the LRT and rapid transit. How do we know that the balanced approach will get us the density needed to make LRT viable? Transportation staff must have already crunched the numbers on the required ridership required (and associated density). But there is no modelling of the scenarios that would show what the density would or could be around LRT that could help inform Council’s decision. Is the balanced scenario going to be enough? If not, how will that affect the cost to deliver transit services in an even further expanded city?
Even more puzzling is staff’s determination of the number of ground-oriented homes in the suburbs that will provide the choice and affordability people will want and need by 2046. We’ve been told by the Mayor that there’s been significant stakeholder consultation that has led to this recommendation. But there’s no indication that staff has gained any insight at all on what people want in terms of where they want to live or how they want to live. Were there any surveys, focus groups, or interviews done?
Seniors over 70 (including many over 85) is one of the biggest demographics that need to be considered and there is little information in the growth management strategy about what their housing needs might be in the future. Staff has made sweeping assumptions about the type of housing that will be needed based on no real analysis of the demographics or housing trends. Instead the City has used a figure that shows what our housing mix was in 1986 and again in 2016 to show what will likely be needed in the future. We know by now that what we currently have isn’t working for us.
There are other gaps too that lead me to question whether we really need all the extra suburban development called for in the expansion scenario. Given our aging demographic, wouldn’t there be plenty of opportunities for turnover of single-family homes to younger families and more demand for the addition of smaller coach houses and secondary suites? The staff report is silent, citing a lack of data.
If Council takes the staff recommendation for the expansion approach at face value and approves it, then they’re working without the benefit of a true cost/benefit analysis and that’s not in the public interest.