The Life and Death of City Planning at Ottawa?

“The only thing certain about city planning is that there’s nothing certain about it”.

No, this is not a quote from the legendary Canadian-American city planner and urbanist, Jane Jacobs. It comes from none other than Ottawa City Councillor Jan Harder who also has been the chair of the City’s Planning Committee since 2014 (she was the vice-chair before that) and will continue to perform that responsibility up to at least 2022. If there is one person who has contributed the most to uncertainty in terms of city and land use planning since 2014, it is Councillor Harder.

Harder’s axiom comes from her op-ed that was posted on the Ottawa Business Journal’s website where she writes about the purpose of the  City’s Official Plan and the new approach that the City is taking in coming up with a brand new Plan. Her op-ed provides some unusual if not perplexing insights into City of Ottawa planning, at least from the Planning Committee Chairwoman’s perspective.

First, Harder seems to even contradict herself in the op-ed. She argues that the Official Plan is a “living” document or a “guideline” rather than a blueprint for setting land use policies and development patterns when it comes to approving development applications. City Council has the flexibility to approve Official Plan or zoning changes that “push the envelope” if it makes sense from a planning perspective but “only if it’s consistent with the city’s Official Plan”. Isn’t being consistent with something more closely associated with a blueprint than a guideline, eh?

Harder further argues that the Official Plan policies are only guidelines because “they cannot be explicit about what must [Harder’s emphasis] be located where”. Well, she is partly right which means she is also partly wrong. The zoning bylaw is very precise in terms of where, what, and how much can be built on every single property including setbacks, design features etc. and the zoning bylaw is not independent of the Official Plan. In fact, the zoning bylaw is the main implementation planning mechanism for the Official Plan. There are also other planning instruments that accompany the Official Plan which provide more detail on land use and urban design including site plan control and Secondary Plans at the neighbourhood level. Secondary Plans are actually included in the Official Plan document.

It is interesting to compare Harder’s opinion about having a flexible, dynamic Official Plan that is open to pushing the planning envelope with her position when she was appointed as Chair in 2014. It is totally opposite. According to Harder then, the City has been too soft on development applications in the past and stated that “the assurance of certainty about what could be built next door…are important achievements for the city’s political leadership because that’s what residents want”. Incidentally, the “no surprises” in the planning approval process was also the Mayor Watson’s election promise then. And just 4 years ago, Harder described the City’s Official Plan as a “new and more definitive planning blueprint” [my emphasis].

Coming back to 2019, Harder assures Ottawa taxpayers that future development will be adapted to the needs of residents and businesses within each community. “No one wants to see such a drastic change in their own neighbourhood that the places we call home become unrecognizable.”  This is very similar to the new way of doing things in 2014 when she stated that there should be greater effort for city staff to better communicate with affected residents about planning applications. Planning Committee’s track record since 2014 is not one that speaks to success as the residents of Vanier as well as other communities know very well.

There is another topic in her op-ed that is more interesting than the contradictions identified in Harder’s axiom and that is the new approach being undertaken for the new Official Plan which is summarized in the staff report entitled Ottawa Next: Beyond 2036. This new approach, according to Harder, is a scenario planning initiative which identifies a range of possible “scenarios” depicting the future growth or development trajectory of Ottawa around four themes: economic development, quality of life, environment, and urban form and mobility.

This long-range scenario planning approach is interesting and useful in that allows thinking outside the box by incorporating innovative ideas and concepts. The challenges though, from a strategic planning perspective, are that, first and most obviously, it is impossible to forecast what will happen by the next City election never mind over the next 20 years or the next century which falls within Harder’s time frame. Second, the City cannot really change its future trajectory significantly. It can, however, support, facilitate, reinforce or accommodate future change. Moreover, the City can make small incremental changes as it moves along the trajectory which when accumulated over time, can result in significant improvements in the local quality of life.

The issue I have with Harder’s viewpoint is that she appears to view this longer-range scenario planning process as a substitute or replacement of the Official Plan review process when it is not nor does it look like it is the intent of City staff either. The purpose of the Official Plan has not changed very much since the Province of Ontario introduced the Planning Act in 1990. It remains a long-range (typically 20 years) planning document to manage development and the use of land consistent with provincial policy statements. The scenario planning initiative goes well beyond this mandate. The results of the scenario planning can of course provide input into the Official Plan review at relevant stages but the end result is more of a strategic plan not an Official Plan.

Whether one calls it scenario planning, strategic planning, land use planning, or Official Plan planning or even budget planning, any process ultimately has to be rooted in some kind of reality if city planners are going to make a real difference. The City has many urgent challenges and issues ahead of itself in the immediate future which cannot wait until the next century or even 10 years from now such as: climate change, an aging population, affordable housing, homelessness, sustainable development, community safety, public transit.

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