Ottawa’s new Official Plan will be a policy framework for the physical development of Ottawa to 2046. It will define key targets and set broad policies for land use and related housing and infrastructure decisions that guide many other policies, programs and bylaws including zoning, community design guidelines, the Transportation Master Plan, the Climate Change Master Plan, the Green space Master Plan and the Waste Management Master Plan, among others. These in turn affect virtually all aspects of day-to-day life in Ottawa.
By the time the new Official Plan is formally adopted in late 2021 we will be well into the most critical period in human history, the ten-year window scientists consider our only hope for keeping global heating to 1.5 degrees Celsius over preindustrial levels. This marker, the bare minimum needed to avoid the worst effects of a changing climate, is now considered by many scientists to be exceptionally difficult to achieve, and catastrophic heating in excess of 2 degrees Celsius increasingly likely. In fact, green house gas (GHG) emissions globally and in Canada continue to climb rather then turning the corner for the steep decline urgently needed to meet any of these targets.
Dianne Saxe, the former Environment Commissioner for the Province of Ontario, has described land use decisions as Ontario’s oil sands. “Our decisions on land use”, she argues, “are the largest driver of our emissions and they lock us into, if they are done badly, a high fossil fuel future we are not going to be able to survive” (see her Video presentation). For this reason, the political choices about land use and supporting infrastructure embodied in the new Official Plan are the most important decisions that residents and Council can make to do our part and help protect ourselves from the worst effects of climate breakdown.
Since April, 2019 neighbourhood groups and environmental organizations that follow City of Ottawa politics have come together online and face-to-face to discuss the climate emergency we all face, and to organize actions and campaigns to influence the shape of Ottawa’s new Official Plan and related City Council decisions. The gatherings have been motivated by two things. First, many are deeply concerned that the new Official Plan is not moving far enough and fast enough on the climate agenda. Signals from City staff regarding strategic directions for the Official Plan, while encouraging in many respects, still include urban expansion and related sprawl. The potential to harness climate solutions as drivers of the economy for both urban and rural Ottawa is largely overlooked, as are important themes such as food security and the vital role of biodiversity in maintaining healthy ecosystems and people. The need to embrace intensification is acknowledged in the strategic directions, but without a clear and strong commitment to intensification that benefits all residents, including the most vulnerable. More broadly, the climate emergency, declared by Council on April 24, 2019, and the housing and homelessness emergency, declared by Council on January 29, 2020, do not seem to be driving the shape of the Official Plan, or Council decisions on strategic directions. We consider these major failings, and a reason for residents to get more involved in public policy decisions on land use in Ottawa.
The second motivation is that the City’s consultation process, while wide ranging in its attempt to ensure that many voices are heard, is missing the opportunity to truly engage people in co-creating this important public policy. Consultations by the City have mainly involved efforts to collect opinions on City plans from individual residents and selected stakeholders. Oddly, environmental organizations were not identified by the City as a stakeholder group, despite the significant environmental impacts of land use decisions. More importantly, the City’s consultations have so far failed to connect people and stakeholder groups to each other. It is as though they have little to say to each other, like separate spokes in a wheel. This approach to consultation, while typical of public engagement at all levels of government, isolates and controls the flow of ideas from the public into the City’s planning hub. Unconsciously (or not), it partially hides the many small and larger decisions regarding what ideas and perspectives are kept and which ones are set aside. Scope for creative thinking and invention outside of the range of ideas city planners are already familiar with is also limited, unnecessarily and to the detriment of a city-building process in a complex world. Importantly, decisions that are fundamentally moral and ethical rather than merely technical, such as the value of environmental sustainability and social justice in a time of existential crisis, remain relatively unseen and unexamined.
The Peoples Official Plan for Ottawa’s Climate Emergency (POP) contrasts with the spoke and hub approach to public policy in that it seeks to elicit, share and synthesize ideas through connection, reflection and dialogue among different “peoples” living in Ottawa. It seeks to form a spider web of interconnected and responsive threads. The priorities and policy actions that are emerging and shared here are not fixed in stone and do not necessarily represent the full and final positions of all those involved. Many important voices, such as indigenous peoples and rural residents, have yet to be actively incorporated, and may very well change the flow and direction of the conversations. Nevertheless, the process and outcomes to date reflect a sincere effort to seek consensus among diverse voices across the city around priorities people want to see embedded in Ottawa’s new Official Plan and related decision-making framework. As such, the POP is not simply an awareness raising effort, but rather a practical step along the path to creating climate solutions that are also community solutions to the interrelated challenges of our time, including sustainability, social justice and democratic decision-making on matters of urgent public policy.