(Photo: Residents attending an Official Plan Workshop in Stittsville in October, 2019.)

To those who wish to delay the adoption of our new Official Plan (OP) by two or three years, I have to ask: have you read our current Official Plan? If a city’s official plan is the vehicle that gets it from the present moment to the future, then our current plan is an old used car with a dangling muffler, peeling paint, and an empty tank of gas (for the cyclists out there, it’s an 18-speed bike with only three speeds that work, worn-out brakes, and a popped tube).

Some background: Our last official plan was adopted by council just about 18 years ago (a baby at the time, it would now be just finishing high school). The document was called “Ottawa 20/20,” which represented the year it was originally supposed to take us to. It was the first official plan after amalgamation, which meant its main task was to herd together a bunch of plans from a group of former municipalities (a list of which would take up most of my word count). It’s now 2021 and Ottawa is a very different place. We simply can’t rely on the plan we have to take us any further because it isn’t built for the job. The patchwork of frequent amendments speaks well to that.

What does the Official Plan do? On a high level, it guides the growth and development of Ottawa. The principles in the OP inform Secondary Plans, which are more specific and prescriptive (things like the Transportation Master Plan or Secondary Plans for neighbourhoods), as well as the Zoning By-Law. It is, in two words, a visioning document: outlining what we want Ottawa to be and what it will take to get there.

The reason given by some groups regarding the need for delay is a lack of consultation. The consultation for our new OP began in March 2019, the draft plan was released in November 2020, and it’s expected that council will adopt it in Fall 2021. Whether 20 months is enough time for the process is up to you, but there’s no disputing that the consultation over this amount time has involved over 100 community events and engaged over 100,000 residents.  (A public Q&A session earlier this week attracted over 400 participants on Zoom.)

So, the issue then may not be that there wasn’t enough consultation, but rather that residents don’t feel that the consultation mattered: that planners simply forged ahead with whatever they planned on doing in the first place. Of course, the amount that plans should change following feedback is hard to measure, since feedback is never purely homogeneous and there are many competing desires and goals. But there was an announcement last week that staff would be making several changes based on public reaction to the draft, which is certainly a sign that people are listening.

There has been one concern driving the public feedback: growth. And that’s also the main challenge that the new official plan is grappling with. Ottawa’s population is going to grow by 40% over the next 25 years to 1.4 million people. Where are these people going to live? Where are they going to work? Shop? Raise their kids? Spend their leisure time? How are they going to move between these places? Many are concerned that the answers to these questions will change the identity of where they currently live. That’s understandable, and the new OP should take that into account. But it also must account for some serious challenges ahead for our city. That will mean that some neighbourhoods will change.

We can see the pressure cooker Ottawa is in right now: an overheated housing market, an affordable housing crisis, snarled traffic. That’s where we are now. And what about with 400,000 more people? We can’t delay a plan for this growth, or the situation is going to get even worse.

This new OP can also be the foundation for our pandemic recovery.  By the time it gets adopted, we should be in recovery mode and we will likely see a return to very high levels of immigration. We need to be ready if we want to minimize further stress on our real estate market and housing availability.

The challenges facing Ottawa are daunting, but there is also huge opportunity on the horizon. We need a plan to take us there. Let’s get it done.