Balancing the Urban Boundary Discussion

Climate change, affordability and the future in focus as Ottawa grows by 400K by 2046

Ottawa is growing. Our city is changing. We need to adapt and plan for the future. To do this we need to have a genuine conversation about our future because it’s important! So, we thought it would be useful to:

  • Layout a quick overview of some facts

  • Propose a framework for debate

  • Present an opinion

Quick Overview

At the request of Ottawa City Council, City Staff have presented The Residential Growth Management Strategy - a blueprint for adapting to Ottawa’s population growth over a 28 year period (2018-2046), as part of Ottawa’s upcoming new Official Plan.

Learn more about the new Official Plan process here.

Driving this strategy are policy objectives, some mandated by the province of Ontario:

  • Provide a minimum residential supply that has an appropriate range and mix of housing

  • Look to opportunities to satisfy market demand through intensification

  • Redevelopment and already designated areas first

  • Locating growth to efficiently use existing infrastructure

  • Reducing greenhouse gas emissions

  • Improving air quality

Additionally, the City of Ottawa’s new Official Plan directives (adopted by council in Dec 2019 which will guide the draft Official Plan expected Fall 2020) include directions to:

  • Achieve the majority (more than 50%) of growth through intensification

  • Growing the city around its rapid transit system

  • Reduce Ottawa’s greenhouse gas emissions by 100 per cent by 2050

The Residential Growth Strategy presents Council with three growth options:

  • The Status Quo scenario: maintains the current Official Plan intensification target increase but offers no further policy intervention on achieving the majority of growth through intensification.

  • The No Expansion scenario: accelerates intensification target increases rapidly so that greenfield development only occurs on existing designated greenfield lands.

  • The Balanced scenario: achieves the majority of growth through intensification through target increases that are more realistic, still results in growing around the rapid transit system and remains in line with greenhouse gas emission reduction objectives.

City staff are recommending the Balanced scenario, which would see the majority of growth accommodated by intensification requiring the city, its residents, communities, leaders, and builders to adapt to this proposed scenario.

In observing conversations among city councillors and civil society, we saw an opportunity to provide a more constructive framework for this discussion. One that tries to start by finding common ground and asking “how.”

A framework for contemplating the Balanced scenario to accommodate Ottawa’s growth:

The conversation needs to shift from "should we expand the urban boundary" to "how do we want to provide good, affordable, environmentally conscious housing for a growing city". 

Right now it seems like the discussion is asking people to pick a side (growth through intensification or growth through expanding the city limits), which makes it hard to have a real conversation. If we start with where everyone agrees instead of picking sides we could get into a more nuanced discussion.

i.e. We all agree that we want to have good quality, affordable housing options in the core of our city. 

Group 1 argues that the best way to do this is to focus on building downtown and increase the number of units to keep prices low. 

Group 2 argues that without expanding the urban boundary, the increasing cost of urban land will make it impossible to keep prices low downtown. 

Discussion topic: What's the right balance between expansion and intensification to provide good housing for the most people?


We all agree that increased car traffic is bad for the environment and our city. 

Group 1 argues that extending the urban boundary will mean more people commuting by car as people move further from transit. 

Group 2 argues that the people living in the new neighbourhoods would be commuters anyways, and would in fact be moving closer to downtown (rather than Carleton Place, etc). 

Discussion topic: How might we extend/improve our public transit system to serve more people outside the core as our city grows?

Beyond that proposed framework above, here are some of my personal thoughts on this discussion:

Full disclosure: at this stage, I personally support expanding the urban boundary (that could totally change), but I think we should focus further conversations around how to do that sustainably and with smart-planning. Also worth noting that not everyone at Jackpine shares this view.

Ottawa City Councillor, Jeff Leiper wrote an interesting blog piece about this in February - see here

I can't speak for Councillor Leiper, and by no means do I think this captures the entire conversation but what I think he's saying is:

Yes I agree, intensification is better than expanding outwards, but we are not being clear about what intensification actually means for wards like Kichesippi… it means building here. 

(I tend to agree with Councillor Leiper that intensification is better than expanding outwards - even though I may support expansion at this stage).

When we consider intensifying inside of existing communities like Westboro; how many more people can it absorb with existing soft infrastructure like parks, and schools? 

I know in my neighbourhood of Centretown there would be many intense discussions around adding 3 or 6 unit buildings on 50ft lots in areas like the Golden Triangle. 

Are our urban and suburban councillors prepared for the implications of new R4 zoning across their wards that would see proposals for 6-unit, 3-storey buildings on streets with mainly single family homes? 

Intensification is happening, will continue to happen and should happen - I am just asking how much are your communities willing to adapt to?

If leadership to intensify + a persuasive approach to public engagement was evident I might be compelled to support a hold the line position because that would make intensification targets of 70% seem doable - but at this time, I have a hard time seeing how we get there. At this time a more harmonious approach to growth seems to be via expansion and an intensification target lower than 70%.

Language like the missing middle is fine, I would love to live in Paris! ... but I think we need to consider whether single-family home owners in the core are ready to accept this in the context of Ottawa. 

There is also a demonstrable demographic divide with respect to age and ethnicity among those who own these single family homes in the core and those who don't, with a few, minor exceptions. Whether there is an admission or not, it is factually correct that this group would stand to benefit substantially from a wholesale rezoning of downtown to R4. 

Are Single family housing prices in urban areas going to shoot through the roof in this context? What does this do for affordability? Would everything be re-developable in theory?

Using another community as an example, let's look at Kanata. Filling in gaps in Kanata is not sprawl. Kanata is there, it exists, it has employment, residents, the city's biggest entertainment facility. My personal bias aside (as a "downtown liberal elite"), Kanata is in fact a thriving, existing community. 

We need to have a conversation around the differences between urban expansion and sprawl. This is not happening writ-large as far as I can tell. 

Finally, as the owner of a growing small business here in Ottawa I have to think about the city's future as it relates to my business. If I grow to 25-30 employees (or more!), I will need to pay all those folks enough to live here - if they can't live here, they can't work for my company - extrapolate that to major critical employers like Shopify and the impact becomes much larger.

To sustainably expand here are some, not all, questions I have in mind:

  • How can we design new communities to have more main streets like we see in areas like Kemptville?

  • How can we incentivize use of transit through service, design, and proximity?

  • How can we have an arts and culture strategy to make developments in areas that are currently greenfield more vibrant and exciting? For example, the Stratford Festival happens in a town with 31,000 people living in it. It generates $135 million dollars in revenue for the town and is responsible for more than 300 jobs!

  • What building and materials technologies can be deployed in these new communities to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, need for repair/replacement etc?

  • How can we work with the natural environment instead of against it, incorporating more plant life, maintaining mature trees, and keeping existing animal, insect and bird habitats safe?

  • How can new subdivisions be designed more efficiently to allow for higher density than traditional subdivisions?

  • Are there design models and approaches that could make greenfield community development more innovative with a more blended mix of housing types that integrate transit in a cost-efficient manner? Is there a sustainable alternative to the archetype of exurban / suburban subdivision development?

  • What role should personal choice play in housing types? Do future home owners (over the next 25 years) want to live in a semi, row, or apartment?

Would love to hear other people’s thoughts and keep evolving our perspectives on this crucial decision.