The Ottawa planning story

Is it possible, in this day and age, for a North American city at the heart of a metro area with a million-and-a-half population, to still be walkable and have a transit ridership share of almost one-quarter of all peak-time trips? And is it realistic for such a city to aim for a 50% non-car mode share by the mid-2030’s?

That city exists. It’s Ottawa, the capital of Canada. Long under the radar, it has been methodically working at a model of urbanism that now allows it to make these claims, and the story of that model has led it to be chosen as the first Canadian city to host the prestigious International Making Cities Livable Conference in May 2018. Ottawa’s city-building approach has also contributed to its high ranking among the world’s most livable cities by a number of surveys including Mercer’s, Deutsche Bank’s, Condé Nast and others.

As Canada’s capital, the city benefitted from a high degree of planning attention from the federal government, especially in the first century after Confederation. As a young and mostly manufacturing-focused city, early efforts to beautify it and give it a dignified look to go with its role as the seat of government gave it a number of monuments, buildings and parks that form part of its present-day offerings.

Early federal plans also endowed the city with generous park and waterfront lands, either set aside or expropriated from manufacturing industry. As a result, Ottawa’s most recognizable images are of its historic Rideau Canal, or the view of Parliament Hill from across the Ottawa River, with those green waterfronts acting as a majestic backdrop. Although these major contributors to liveability haven't yet realized their full potential, they remain key assets for the city and its residents.

After World War II, a Modernist plan, carried out with federal support and funding, added new cultural institutions, created a greenbelt around the city to contain urban growth, and introduced the tower-in-the-park model for decentralized federal office nodes. At the time, no one anticipated that the national capital’s metro area would ever surpass a half-million people, so the low-density model made sense in the minds of planners wishing to apply the principles of the Charter of Athens and looking to reconnect Man with Nature.

Deliberately, this Modernist plan set the city on an early course toward car-centricity, land-use segregation and low-density growth. Under this plan, Ottawa dismantled its streetcar system, embarked on urban renewal projects, converted rail lines into automobile highways and parkways, and de-densified its development patterns.

By the 1970’s, the half-million population mark had been eclipsed, and projections called for 1.4 million by the year 2000. The removal of streetcars started to be noticed through levels of congestion associated with much bigger cities. In 1969, the city asked for federal funds to build a subway, but was turned down because of its size (Montreal had just opened its subway three years earlier and was four times larger in population).

At this critical inflexion point, Ottawa made the decision to adopt a new transit paradigm, one that was later copied by several cities across the world: bus rapid transit. Called “Transitway”, this network of bus-based, dedicated roadways entirely segregated from all other traffic, opened in 1983. This made Ottawa the first North American city, and second in the world after Curitiba (Brazil), to adopt this approach to rapid transit, and it paid off in droves.

The Transitway gave a taste of real rapid transit to a mid-sized city in an era when only the largest metro areas could aspire to real rapid transit. With the Transitway, Ottawa got frequent, fast, reliable rapid transit that bypassed congested highways and actually saved people time. Importantly, for many residents in suburban communities beyond the Greenbelt, the Transitway made more sense than the car: the time savings were real, and the convenience and calm of avoiding rush hour traffic is something that many people quickly discovered.

The Transitway grew to 10 lines and 68 stations by the late 1990’s, expanded to 24-hour service, and remains competently fed by a strong street bus system that features frequent runs on the lines that travel on traditional Mainstreets.

By the late 1990’s, Ottawa was able to have a public conversation about intensification and growth management that included the existence of a real transit alternative for people wishing to live an urban lifestyle. Because people already had a daily-life knowledge of, and experience with, good transit, they largely understood the logic of urban consolidation (infill, intensification, replacement of parking lots with buildings, mixed-use development, etc.). Indeed, they demanded it.

With municipal amalgamation in 2001, Ottawa developed a new Official Plan that was premised on intensification. It designated intensification target areas, to which were added (in 2008) minimum density requirements; it encouraged mid-rise development along its many traditional Mainstreets; it required a minimum density for suburban development; and it set out density and population targets for suburban town centres. The City also established a mandatory Urban Design Review Panel for projects at key locations.

Almost two decades into this new approach, the results are visible. Ottawa has achieved a 23% transit modal share, the highest of any North American city without a subway. Since 2005, the share of new housing starts inside the Greenbelt (in the urban and older suburban neighbourhoods closest to downtown) has increased from 24% to 31%, and the trend is accelerating. In 2015, 40% of new dwellings were built in Intensification Target Areas. This amounts to about 2,000-3,000 units per year – a considerable amount for a city of Ottawa’s size.

These achievements have allowed Ottawa to convert its main east-west BRT line into a rapid rail-based transit line, which will be in a subway through the central area of the city and in dedicated trenches or rights-of-way beyond – and never in mixed traffic. By 2023, Ottawa will have opened two of these light metro lines. The city will continue to rely on BRT and a strong street bus system to feed these light metro lines.

This positions Canada’s capital city as a unique community that has the population base for big city amenities (diverse employment, top health care facilities, strong post-secondary education, a rich arts and culture scene, professional sports, upper-tier shopping, etc.) within an ecosystem that is not as car-dependent as cities of comparable size. And the result is a unique pedestrian vibe that appears today as a hopeless anachronism to many North American cities, but remains alive and well in Ottawa.

As it looks to the future and to how the next million people will be welcomed into the city, Ottawa has set a goal for itself to be the most livable mid-sized city in North America. The 55th International Making Cities Livable will feature focused presentations on the Ottawa planning story, from the big-picture thinking it has nourished as it plans for its next million people, to the details of implementation and regulation that make it a living laboratory of urban livability.