The draft new Official Plan: The good, the bad and the missing -- Part 1
What is meaningful consultation? This question is at the root of much of the recent debate about Ottawa’s new Official Plan, at Council, in the media and among community groups. It applies not only to the duty to consult indigenous peoples embedded in the Canadian constitution, but also to the Ontario Government’s Planning Act. Under reforms brought in by the previous government, the Act intends to have municipal governments pay more attention to what the public has to say -- listen and learn.
There once was an expectation that the new Official Plan would be a succinct, high-level document that would set out the key objectives, principles and rules regarding land use in Ottawa. Subsidiary ("Secondary") Plans could follow to flesh out specific policies for each area of the City. Where no Secondary Plan existed, it could be developed in consultation with the community.
The draft before us that was released last November contains the remnants of this promise in the form of boxes at the beginning of each policy section that lay out "What we want to achieve". These are clear statements and also the titles for subsections that follow. It's an excellent way of organizing complex material.
With its 264 pages (plus 22 Schedules and ten Annexes), however, it goes downhill from there. What we got is a highly complex, top-down plan which slices up the city in six "transects" where the various Designations take on different meanings, plus five Overlays and seven Special Districts, each with policies of their own. Moreover, the text is replete with inconsistencies, contradictions, omissions and meanderings making it almost unreadable even for the most veteran of civic activists.
The failure or unwillingness to create meaningful dialogue on the Official Plan is clear from the way the documents were released: Online only. It is impossible to grasp the complexity of these Plans by looking at them online. To study them one needs to constantly flip from text to schedules, or from one section to another. Good luck doing that with documents of this size while also keeping your sanity. Only after repeated requests did the City deposit 12 copies of the draft in the Public Library. Having this material printed on your own account would cost about $80.
No one at the City thought of sending a copy to every established civic organization or contacting each of the community associations who in years past have spent thousands of hours coming up with a Secondary Plan for their neighbourhood. Had they done so, they might have explained what was done with these approved plans and why. Instead, they have declared through the draft document that henceforth Secondary Plans are the purview of City Hall, not of the communities who must live with them. This decision, if it stands, spells the end of community planning in this city – an ominous development that breaches a social contract and cuts deep into the civic fabric.
The communications folks at City Hall also have made 21 one-pagers available, with feedback forms where you can express your degree of agreement with various statements or ideas (not the actual proposed policies) that seem to have been randomly selected. This is manipulation of the public's input and not genuine consultation on the real thing.
Planning without buy-in from the people affected is bound to alienate and, in the end, risks defeating the purpose of planning. This is a particular danger with this Official Plan which proposes very significant (and, to my mind, positive) changes in urban form such as a 15-minute and walkable neighbourhood. Intensification to date in Ottawa has left many residents unhappy because they feel powerless and suffer all the negatives without any benefits. Dreams of liveable neighbourhoods described in the draft, while well worth pursuing, cannot possibly come true when cooked up by City Hall and buried in an impenetrable document.
Part 2 will dive into some of the policy proposals – the good and the bad. Part 3 will look at what's missing and what should happen next.
Erwin Dreesen's Official Plan Analysis series: