Wallace, Mackenzie and Hill: Let's include 'walkability' in future plans for Ottawa

People-centred urban design can be observed across Canada in almost any neighbourhood built before 1945. Let's apply it to modern times too.

A man walks past a mural as he shops in the Glebe, one of Ottawa's more walkable neighbourhoods.

The City of Ottawa’s draft Official Plan forecasts that Ottawa’s existing neighbourhoods will increase in population by roughly 50 per cent over the next 25 years. As we await the second draft of the plan, many people are wondering how all the new housing will fit in.

Walkable Ottawa, founded in May 2020, seeks to answer this very question. It advocates for low-rise infill intensification that makes neighbourhoods better; gives more space to people and less to automobiles; more to trees and less to paving; more to walkable amenities and no more at all to big-box stores. This is a vision of added population making our neighbourhoods safer, more interesting and more inclusive.

People-centred urban design can be observed across Canada in almost any neighbourhood built before 1945: Kitsilano in Vancouver, Oak Bay in Victoria, the Old Towns of Montreal and Quebec, and the Glebe in Ottawa. The urban planning principles that gave us these neighbourhoods were largely abandoned in the mid-20th century, as planners made room for booming automobile use.

In the 1990s, two architects named Andres Duany and Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk resuscitated the set of classic urban planning concepts that built North America’s best neighbourhoods, and dubbed it “new urbanism.” It is characterized by narrow, intersecting, tree-lined streets. Buildings and houses have shorter setbacks that face the street, are no more than six storeys tall, and host a mix of uses. This latter aim is usually accomplished by honouring the time-tested combination of small-scale retail on the ground floor, and offices and apartments on the second, third and fourth floor of main streets and town centres.

The result of this design pattern is a streetscape where many residents do not need to use a car for day-to-day errands. All the space that is not dedicated to cars can be used to accommodate wide sidewalks, bike lanes, street trees, and street furniture, all of which make walking easier and more interesting.

Walkable Ottawa is advocating that we apply this concept to our city, proposing infill housing to replace or renovate older single family homes. Neighbourhoods that evolve to include multi-unit buildings with a wide variety of unit types will be prepared to welcome all sorts of different households. Permitting this kind of gentle density would both allow Ottawa to reach intensification targets, and improve access to day-to-day amenities. This will be particularly relevant to members of the aging population, who want to stay in beloved neighbourhoods and maintain access to essential services.

Many of Ottawa’s existing residential subdivisions have the potential to develop into walkable neighbourhoods. Jason Burggraaf, executive director of the Greater Ottawa Home Builders’ Association, said Ottawa builders are up for the challenge of building more multi-family housing that fits neighbourhood context. According to Burggraaf, an Official Plan-proposed collaborative effort between the city and builders to develop a number of pre-approved building footprint options for infill sites could pave the way for faster approvals of multiple urban building typologies and site designs — especially family-friendly, missing middle housing.

Robb Barnes, executive director of Ecology Ottawa, has said: “We know, from former environmental commissioner Dr. Dianne Saxe and others, that land use is the most important climate tool in cities’ toolkits. Building bustling, walkable communities means reducing car-dependency and embedding energy efficient building design inside the city. Walkable communities — of which low-rise infill is a key ingredient — are also healthier and more dynamic places to live. In short, we can tackle the climate crisis while building a better city.”

The second draft of Ottawa’s Official Plan is due out in August. This is an opportunity to implement walkable design throughout Ottawa’s existing neighbourhoods, to gain more trees, less pavement, more neighbours, fewer cars. Let’s build a better Ottawa for the oldest form of transportation: our feet.

Janet Mark Wallace, Carolyn Mackenzie and Rosaline Hill are members of Walkable Ottawa.

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