Working Together to Build Better and Smarter Suburbs
How do you build better suburbs? When it comes to Ottawa, the answer lies in the right mix of leadership, collaboration and compromise. Healthy doses of all three are behind Ottawa’s Building Better and Smarter Suburbs initiative.
Sparked by the leadership of Ottawa City Councillor Jan Harder, other suburban Councillors, city planners, homebuilders, school boards representatives and community groups are working together to design and build better and smarter suburbs.
Suburban wards are the fastest growing and most diverse communities acting as the frontlines of the changing face of Ottawa. Residents from these communities were concerned about the design and livability of their neighbourhoods, their parks and their streets. These concerns often focused on the paucity of trees, the explosion of on-street parking and the impact these were having on the quality of life in their communities.
In response to the concerns from community residents about the design of our suburbs, suburban Councillors worked with Ottawa’s Planning and Growth Management Department to launch the Building Better Suburbs initiative.
How did we get here?
Over the last 15 years, Ottawa’s new suburban communities have been changing. They’ve been getting more compact or denser – lot sizes have been shrinking while the size of the homes has not. This trend is the result of two forces coming together and building on one another. The City of Ottawa’s intensification policy mandated an increase in the housing density of our suburbs. In conjunction with this, the homebuilding industry moved towards building more compact communities in response to rapidly rising land prices. With intensification, land prices have increased by over 75 per cent since 2003 and the density of Ottawa’s suburbs has increased by 20 per cent.
At the same time as lot sizes were getting smaller, homebuyers did not change their preference for home sizes. The result is big homes and townhomes on smaller lots with less lot left over for driveways, sidewalks and trees. The challenge facing Ottawa’s homebuilders has been to accommodate the competing space demands of trees, utilities, sidewalks, driveways, parks on smaller and smaller parcels of land. Our building rules and regulations specify setbacks, or space allowances, for trees, sidewalks, utilities, and sidewalks. Homebuilders have made it work, but, in some instances, the result has been suburbs with few trees in front of homes, cars parked on roads and across sidewalks and less land for parks.
Here’s a case in point. Many of Ottawa’s suburbs are built on clay soil. In times of extreme drought there is a risk that trees planted in clay soil will absorb the surrounding groundwater. This may cause the surrounding soil to shrink and the building’s foundations to shift and/or crack. When a home’s foundations shift or crack, the homeowner will look to their builder and the city for help and legal recourse.
To reduce its liability in the communities with clay soil, the City created a regulation prohibiting tree planting within the public road allowances on each lot. When you add this rule to the smaller lot sizes and a building code that prohibits tree planting within seven meters of a house, the result is communities with few trees on boulevards or front lawns.
Working together to build a more livable Ottawa
On May 28, 2014, Ottawa’s City Council approved the Building Better and Smarter Suburbs Vision and Principles to guide the work of all City departments and provide flexible options for improving community design and livability.
Since then homebuilders, city planning staff, schools, community residents, utility providers and suburban Councillors, have collaborated on a set of guidelines that will lead to better and smarter suburbs. What can we expect from these new guidelines?
For residents of Ottawa’s new suburbs, the results will be tree lined streets, an increase in public spaces and more cars parked in driveways instead of on the street.
For homebuilders, it means a harmonized set of rules governing the development of our suburbs, making it easier to respond to the needs of the 5000 families buying new homes in Ottawa each year. It also means happier customers.
For our elected officials, it means constituents satisfied in the knowledge that their councilors are actively working in response to their issues, demonstrating the kind of leadership required in the age of the social license to operate.
For the City of Ottawa, it means a new model of collaboration where communities come together under the leadership of our Councillors and the support of the City’s Planning Department and staff.
Ottawa’s Building Better Smarter Suburbs initiative is a progressive approach to community building. Ottawa’s homebuilders hope that this is the start of a more collaborative approach to development and growth management under Councillor Harder’s recent leadership of the city’s powerful Planning Committee.