Ottawa has an Official Plan from 2003. It is the master document describing development in the city.
So the general idea is that the Official Plan shapes and constrains everything that can happen in terms of development in the city.
Engagement is underway for the new 2022 Official Plan
I have to say in that in my view the idea that the Official Plan manages development hasn’t worked particularly well.
With the suburban-urban divide on council, and with individual wards having basically no say in development or road design within their wards, Council tends to do spot approvals for basically anything that is requested. Ward residents hate the uncertainty this brings, with what is typically a spot upzoning changing the expected character of the neighbourhood. Council has promised repeatedly that the layers upon layers of secondary plans are to bring certainty in planning, but so far they haven’t.
About the only meaningful constraint the Official Plan imposes is on the development lands around the city. But there is always a push to expand the urban boundaries.
So at the core there’s the Official Plan, but the Official Plan has amendments upon amendments, page upon page of amendments in the Annexes to a point where I don’t know how anyone could meaningfully understand it.
In addition to the Official Plan there are other plans, specifically the Infrastructure Master Plan, Transportation Master Plan and the Development Charges By-law. I don’t know what effect these plans have. The 2013 Transportation Master Plan is a model of promoting active transportation and transit in its main text, and then lists seven pages of road widenings in its annex (pp. 108-114). It’s not clear that the Transportation Master Plan has any effect on Council decisions or budgets. The one thing that is certain is that anything that is not explicitly on the approved urban and rural Cycling Network is generally declined.
This is not to say that the city isn’t slowly improving for active transportation and transit. The LRT will by a wide margin have the biggest impact on the city, but there are also separated bike lanes (cycle tracks) and road narrowings (road “diets”) including Main and Elgin. The road changes are almost always a compromise rather than a full transformation, and the arterials like Bronson and Kent remain pretty much untouchable one-way highways in the heart of the city.
Ultimately what matters is the city budget and individual Council votes on specific buildings and road redesigns. In theory the Official Plan and other plans should guide the budget and votes.
If you’re in the urban core, it can be a challenge to be endlessly consulted about layers upon layers of plans (including NCC plans in addition to the city plans) while having the underlying reality of a suburban-majority council.
How many times can you provide the same feedback? Anyway, the Council could take some steps that would transform the city’s urban fabric, including:
- the city should have one or more dedicated pedestrian planners
- all consultations should include one or more sessions where the Councillor(s), planners (including traffic planners) and citizens walk and cycle the affected area(s)
- I would add to this that Councillors need to use the infrastructure they approve. I like the idea of a winter and summer transit challenge, but we also need Councillors to do winter and summer pedestrian and cycling challenges. The reality is that it is hard to get around this city by any other mode than car, particularly in the winter.
- Demand again and again that cars be slowed to 30km/h or less in residential zones (which applies to much of downtown Ottawa). Using road design, not just signs.
- make sure the experience of getting to and from the LRT on foot and by bicycle is delightful
- invest in Vision Zero now
- allocate budget according to target modal share
- including increasing subsidies for transit, and decreasing subsidies for single-passenger vehicles, in particular parking subsidies
It’s important to understand that this involves reallocating money. Road redesign costs money.
Vision Zero done properly is an integrated process with road redesign. Vision Zero isn’t about some sign you stick in your lawn asking people to slow down. Vision Zero means that every single time there is a death of a vulnerable road user, every single time, there is a detailed investigation of the design of the road involved and an analysis of the design as a risk factor. Then you spend a bunch of money to redesign the road to make it safer. And you keep doing that, over and over, until it actually is safe with zero fatalities. That’s Vision Zero.
The thing is, the 2013 Transportation Master Plan already says the right words:
- Create a Supportive Built Environment
- Maximize Walkability
- Develop a Great Cycling City
- Transform Ottawa’s Transit System
I think it’s Jeffrey Tumlin who has observed that in city after city where he consults, they have plans that say all the right things about active transportation and transit, and then they continue to budget for a 1960s single-passenger car city. You can see a presentation by Tumlin in my blog post What has prevented Walkable Urbanism, and how to fix our cities.
END Personal Observations
By all means, participate in the Official Plan consultations
But remember that ultimately what matters is the yearly budget and the monthly Council votes.