By Adelle Farrelly
On January 29, a crowd squeezed into Ottawa City Hall’s Council Chamber to hear Dr. David Mowat, Peel Region’s Medical Officer of Health, speak and to provide feedback on the City’s launch of “Building a Liveable Ottawa 2031″ – a year-long consultation process on planning in which the public is invited to help out. Why did the City bring in a doctor instead of an urban planner? “As Canadians, we’re very proud of our healthcare system and we look at issues through curative eyes, but we need to back up and ask why we got sick in the first place,” said Dr. Mowat at the event. “It’s about how and where we live our lives. Obesity is a normal response to an abnormal environment. We’re not working as hard, physically, we’re living in neighbourhoods designed for cars, and we don’t support active transportation.”
Intensification is the key according to both Dr. Mowat and Councillor Peter Hume, who introduced the doctor and facilitated discussion. Dense, transit-oriented “complete communities” have lower rates of diabetes and heart disease. Compare travelling the same distance in a neighbourhood like Centretown versus a typical suburb: it can take twice as long to get from A to B in the suburb because streets are not laid out in a grid and there are fewer sidewalks and crosswalks. In rural areas, it just isn’t safe to walk along the roads. “Of course people get into their cars and drive,” said Dr. Mowat, “but you burn a litre of gas to get a litre of milk. We thought we were being clever, moving [industrial and residential areas] apart. Now the vast majority of people work in offices, but we still keep workplaces as far as possible from residential areas.” So what to do?
The City is inviting public input, but when it comes to hammering out priorities, much depends on where you live. Why should city-slickers care about what’s going on outside of the core, given the City’s stressing “transit-oriented development,” and why should suburban motorists and rural-dwellers let their taxes fund bike paths and light rail? Doesn’t “intensification” just mean “more congestion”? Here’s what we gleaned from the event and from a conversation with Councillor Hume, who says it’s all about “symbiosis.” “Rather than divide people,” he explains, “we want to respect the context people want to live in, whether it’s an urban area or a rural one.”
For the suburban or rural dweller:
If you commute, your stake in the core’s infrastructure reveals itself whenever traffic slows to a crawl. If you’re far enough out that cycling to work on the City’s planned East-West bikeway (think a highway for bikes built off of the Laurier bike lane) seems unrealistic, you’ll still benefit. The more people cycling, the less congested the roads, and the less need for maintenance, saving tax-payers’ money in the long run. The same goes for light rail, from which you won’t benefit immediately, but is a “building block” on the road to “complete communities,” the City’s dream scenario where you’ll have the same amenities in a place like Barrhaven as you would in, say, Centretown.
Okay, you say, but what about those of us who really live outside the urban core? If you’re in a rural area, smart development in the city affects the management of the resources around you (for example: the local deposits of limestone, sand, and gravel that go into the city’s construction projects) – and the more economically developed the city is as a whole, the more resources can be used to improve infrastructure no matter where you live, including the villages. Don’t forget the health benefits Dr. Mowat touts, either. If clever infrastructure gets more people moving and decreases inactivity-related illness, everyone benefits.
For the urban dweller:
Where you live and what you eat are strongly dependent on a healthy rural community. “We need a stronger urban-rural relationship,” says Hume. “Urban areas depend on strong rural areas.” In addition to protecting the important mineral deposits mentioned above, you’ll benefit from soil mapping and reassessing agricultural resources.
What about the City’s emphasis on limiting residential land use and instead focusing on developing the villages? Greater intensification means more mixed-use development, which means less need to drive 20-plus minutes each way for groceries. The City is considering extending water services to rural areas too, many of which currently rely on private wells. Thriving, idyllic villages mean fewer people forced to commute and thus better able to be active in their neighbourhoods. Not only that, there’s talk of establishing more employment areas (think Tunney’s Pasture) in rural areas. Intensification allows more people to live where they want with less stress, danger to cyclists and pedestrians, and yes, congestion for everyone.
“We’re not working as hard, physically, we’re living in neighbourhoods designed for cars, and we don’t support active transportation.”
For his part, Dr. Mowat is optimistic. “I believe that all of us can work together — and have been — to make our cities more liveable. It’s not just for our generation. Let’s hope we pass [our cities] on improved. The foundation has been laid and the walls are halfway up.”
What do you think the City should be focusing on? Hume says the number one thing you can do is let the City know what you want to see by filling out their online survey and by using #ottcity and #liveableottawa on Twitter. “We’ve invested heavily in social media,” he says. “We want to hear from all kinds of people [not just developers and community organizations].” Get involved by visiting www.ottawa.ca/liveableottawa, check out the 12 issues up for discussion and read about the current plans. If you want to dig even deeper, sign up for one of the City’s Planning Primers. Be ready: more discussion is coming up in March and there will be four more open houses in the near future.