OPINION – Neighbourhood Plans Are Key to Residents’ Quality of Life

ERWIN DREESSEN

In 2017 and 2018, the TVO network broadcast a fascinating series by Canadian-Danish urbanist Mikael Colville-Andersen entitled “The Life-Sized City.” In each of the twelve cities he visited around the world (including Windsor/Detroit and Montreal), a common theme was that empowering neighbourhoods resulted in more innovative solutions to urban form and more satisfactory living. A neighbourhood’s quality of life improves when its residents are intimately involved in shaping its future.

Empowering neighbourhoods was much in fashion in Ottawa in the 1980s and ‘90s. Key to reaching that goal was to develop neighbourhood plans that embodied the vision, key principles and specific land use designations of the area, within the framework of the municipality’s main living. Through developing neighbourhood plans, residents gained a real sense of ability to control what their neighbourhoods should look like and how they should evolve.

Before amalgamation, the old City of Ottawa, as well as Nepean, dedicated significant resources to developing neighbourhood plans. Through extensive consultation with each community, a consensus resulted. The plans were then distilled into so-called Secondary Plans (SPs) which were approved by the Council, which gave them the force of law. Smaller Ottawa-Carleton municipalities, including a number of incorporated villages, had their own Official Plans.

By the time of amalgamation, in 2001, the new Ottawa had about 36 SPs on the books, including former municipalities’ Official Plans, all collected in what was termed Volume 2 of the new City’s Official Plan that was adopted in 2003. Since then, some 26 additional SPs have come into force.

In addition, much effort has gone recently into the development of so-called Community Design Plans (CDPs). In greenfield communities such as Kanata North and Riverside South, these efforts have been led by developers — part of progressing from designated Urban Expansion Area to more detailed planning of the new community. In established areas, the term is essentially the new name for neighbourhood plans. Although CDPs are approved by Council, they have no force in law unless they are translated into a Secondary Plan.

Question: Have such planning efforts over the past 30 years served to empower neighbourhoods? Answering that question would be a useful research topic for urban planners. An equally interesting question is whether the amendments to SPs, old and new, which have been numerous, have enjoyed significant consensus within the communities in question.

Recent events suggest that the answer to both questions is “no” — that the trust that had been built up between the City, landowners and the community in first achieving the Plan, has subsequently been broken. That was clearly the case when, in July 2018, Ottawa City Council approved an amendment to the Bayview Station SP (originally adopted in 2013), allowing three high-rises of 65-, 56- and 27-storeys as the proponent wished, in place of the 30-storeys height limit specified in the SP. Community members came out in droves, protesting lack of information — clearly, not enough effort had been put into achieving a consensus. The planning department’s rationale was that it would amount to the same number of units — missing the point completely.

In June 2019, four items before Ottawa’s Planning Committee each involved disrespect for SPs. The one that received the most media attention was the shocking failure of Regional Group, facilitated by City planning staff, to respect the agreements that had been built up over many years regarding the development of the former Oblate lands in Old Ottawa East. Another decision changed the Scott Street SP (originally adopted in February 2014) and a third modified the Wellington Street West SP (originally adopted in 2011), both over the objections of the local community associations and citizens. A fourth item involved an interpretation of “transition” in the SP for Riverside Park that ignored building heights; the Plan had been adopted before amalgamation.

These actions by planning staff and City Council are ominous signs of a willingness to breach a social contract and counteract any objective to value the empowerment of neighbourhoods. They reveal a fundamental misunderstanding of what neighbourhood planning is about and feed into public disillusion with the planning process.

As part of the desire to come up with a brand new Official Plan, City staff has suggested that Volume 2 of neighbourhood plans and policies “will be reviewed to remove duplication or conflicting policies and directions.” Will that involve seeing the existing SPs only as technical details and ignoring that they represent the aspirations of a community? Given the time frame involved (the whole project is to be wrapped up by March 2021), there will be little opportunity to ask what the neighbours think or to build on community visions. In fact, as two Councillors have said in light of the events of June 2019, citizens see little incentive to participate in planning exercises when they witness how readily City Council sides with whatever a development proponent wants, regardless of what the community thinks.

Nothing less than a culture change for both planning staff and City Council is required to turn this around.

[Erwin Dreessen is a long-time community activist. This op/ed article was first published in the Ottawa Citizen in 2019 and is reprinted here with his permission since it remains as timely today as ever.]

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