The idea for this twinned Spacing Ottawa post originated on Twitter, after Alain Miguelez remarked that he liked the phrase “repairable Greber fragments,” a phrase someone had coined to describe areas of damage still persisting from the 1950s-era federal Greber plan for Ottawa. I wondered: if state-of-the-art urban planning of more than 50 years ago caused such damage that pieces are still awaiting repair, might not future Ottawa residents rightly conclude the same about our current planning policies, particularly the current headlong rush towards “intensification” that is proposed to limit urban sprawl?
A half-century ago, a pressing problem was urban blight, and the certain cure was urban renewal, mainly effected by wholesale removal of “undesirable” neighbourhoods. Across North America, this is now almost universally considered to be a failed policy. In Ottawa, we are nearing the fiftieth anniversary of the urban renewal of Lebreton Flats, yet this once highly-populated area still has only the recent War Museum and one undistinguished residential building. Where is the vibrant urban development promised to have occurred long ago by yesterday’s planners? Other largely failed policies of the not-too-distant past were the demolition of many buildings, especially in Centretown, to provide “needed” downtown parking lots, and the Greenbelt, which did succeed in preserving greenspace but failed as an attempt to contain urban growth, long ago becoming a green gap.
Today’s problem is urban sprawl and overdependence on cars. The sure cure, according to most of our current urban planners, is intensification—providing substantially more urban residential units through greatly increased building heights and density. There is virtually no current discussion of whether Ottawa’s intensification policies will actually accomplish this goal. Is it not possible that unforeseen problems could plague the current infatuation with intensification as a cure-all for sprawl as they did past planning policies? How can we be sure that the current generation of urban planners is so much better at predicting the future that Ottawa residents will not eventually be looking back at the remnants of a failed intensification policy that did not cure sprawl as promised, but instead caused currently-unforeseen damage?
Unforeseen consequences are difficult to predict by definition, since they are those that even experts did not see coming or considered minor. However, in keeping with this Spacing Ottawa assignment, I will make educated guesses at five things that could go wrong with current intensification policies.
1. The objective of intensification should be to limit sprawl and reduce automobile usage, not simply to create more units as an end in itself. Virtually all intensification in Ottawa now consists of condos, which mainly attract young professionals and older residents who are downsizing. Yet, the most intensive car usage is by families with working adults and young children. If, for example, the pattern of development encouraged by Ottawa’s intensification policies results in proportionally less housing for families within the urban area, then the demographic with the most automobile usage will be driven to the suburbs or beyond for suitable housing, perversely increasing car usage and sprawl overall.
2. The intensification gold rush is encouraging developers to erect condo towers as quickly as possible to cash in on profits before the market changes or new zoning regulations are adopted. While some new buildings are well designed, the large majority are architecturally undistinguished at best. Will current policies be remembered mainly for making Ottawa uglier? Will these condo buildings (and the surrounding neighbourhoods) become undesirable and drive people away? Parts of cities can be depopulated, as major American cities have learned.
3. Ottawa lacks an overall zoning bylaw that implements intensification. So, intensification today is mainly being implemented on a lot-by-lot basis, with developers pursuing substantial upzoning at individual building sites. The cumulative effect could be significant damage to the urban fabric that is not evident when making each individual decision, such as the loss of valued streetscapes and neighbourhoods. Will intensification leave a legacy of substantial cumulative damage?
4. Land prices in areas where intensification is happening are skyrocketing. New units are largely high-priced. Will intensification come to be seen as a major factor in making large parts of the urban core unaffordable for most?
5. Another fallout of ad hoc rezoning to allow intensification is that planners and Councillors are continually making decisions that increase the value of properties substantially, often by millions of dollars virtually overnight. Without a clear set of zoning rules that implement intensification, which Ottawa completely lacks, city planners essentially negotiate the rezoning of each individual property behind closed doors. It is too easy for this process to be corrupted, including by Councillors who rely on developers for much or most of their campaign funds, ignoring planning principles for politics.
What should be done? At the very least, two changes should be made. First, intensification policy needs to be based on evidence, not wishful thinking. The City should provide metrics that go beyond numbers of new units, and should have to show explicitly that there is a significant beneficial effect on sprawl, car usage, and infrastructure costs. Second, the City must stop implementing intensification lot-by-lot, through negotiations done behind closed doors. There instead has to be an overall rational plan, implemented by zoning that was decided upon transparently. Unless the way Ottawa is intensifying is improved and rationalized, it risks being yet another failed planning legacy, and it risks being rejected by the electorate.