Denley: Why wait decades to shape a better Ottawa?
I don’t envy city councillors and staff trying to interest the public in the city’s latest Official Plan process. Any pitch that inevitably includes the words “official,” “plan” and “process” is a tough sell.
As part of the exercise, staff and their consultants have attempted to divine what forces will shape the city in the future. That’s the subject of a 54-page report called Ottawa Next, Beyond 2036. Should that constitute insufficient reading, there are an additional nine reports on different aspects of the challenges growth brings.
The city’s “vision” is to become the most liveable mid-sized city in North America “over the next century.” Yes, century. We aren’t in a rush in this town.
City staff are challenging the public and our elected leaders to think about Ottawa’s future, and that’s good, but looking too far ahead can take our attention away from making things better right now.
If we want condos, they will come. If we want something city-enhancing, we’d better start thinking.
Instead of speculating about the distant future, why not propose specific, achievable ideas that could be accomplished in the next five years, or sooner? That is not the main purpose of the Official Plan, which is a legally required set of rules and guidelines for growth, but if the city wants to engage the public, give us something to get excited about.
No one seems to be against enhancing access to the Ottawa River, but who’s going to do something about it, and when? Opening the Chaudière Falls to the public was a good start, but what’s next? The city and the National Capital Commission need to work together on this, and surely there has never been a better time to do that. The NCC’s new CEO is a former city councillor and the city’s planning boss is a former senior NCC planner.
While a new Official Plan can create the impression of a blank slate, most of Ottawa is what it is. We don’t get a redo on what we have built so far. The exception is LeBreton Flats. Its fate is the most important urban planning issue in Ottawa. The collapse of the development plan there offers us a chance to do better. The fundamental choice is between a new neighbourhood for downtown or a unique waterfront attraction that will become the number one place to go in the city. If we want condos, they will come. If we want something city-enhancing, we’d better start thinking.
The city’s Official Plan will be the first full and fresh look at our growth ambitions in more than 20 years. Previous plans have largely been tweaks. What better time to ask ourselves if some of our widely held assumptions still make sense?
For example, rather than push suburban development out toward the horizon, are we willing to contemplate developing part of the Greenbelt to make our city more efficient, compact and urban? In the same vein, should the Central Experimental Farm remain sacrosanct? With all due respect to soil research, this is the logical location for the sort of major botanical garden that graces many other cities.
Perhaps the easiest challenge we face is to be a little bit smarter at City Hall. The city planning report touts the importance of our airport, and rightly so, but that doesn’t justify spending an additional $4 million a year to operate a rail line to the airport. This rail service will require three different train to get downtown, then travellers will have to hump their luggage to their hotels. No one will use it.
In Melbourne, Australia, there is a bus that will take you from the airport to the downtown train station for $18. It runs every 10 minutes, 24/7. From the train station, you can catch a free shuttle bus to the major hotels. This is a private sector service that has been in place for 40 years, and it’s owned by the Ontario Public Sector Employees Union pension plan. How hard would that have been?
The first step to a different, better city is different, better thinking.