Planning, consultations, open, transparent and accountable. Are these concepts or just words?
In Ottawa, they are just words. Words that elected officials mouth. Words that elected officials make up their own meanings for.
Earlier this week, the city issued a press release advising one and all that, on the very next day, they would hold a public meeting at which they would present their position on high-rises. The public’s input would be accepted at this meeting. City council would then receive the report on May 23. With only two business days between the public meeting and the presentation to city council, on the surface it would appear that staff will have to work hard to build in the comments and feedback from the public.
As it turns out, it won’t take much work at all. My personal experience with these public meetings has been one of frustration with the entire process. Planning staff populate a number of tripod stands with hard copies of their presentation, repeat the talking points (script) that they helped create, stand by patiently while the member of the public makes comments, but do not have a pad of paper handy to write down the comments. The public are encouraged to write their comments down on a piece of paper (supplied by staff). At that point, the box on the checklist that asks if a public consultation took place is checked. Was the consultation effective? No. Was it efficient? Not possible, as in order for something to be efficient, it must first be effective. That is axiomatic.
This is from the administration where the current mayor actually commissioned a staff member to prepare a report on consultations. Either we didn’t get our money’s worth on the consultant’s report, or the report was shelved, unread. So, as it relates to the past and current process of consulting, how is the city doing on open, transparent and accountable? Fail, fail, and fail. At least they are consistent.
Back to planning, specifically as it pertains to high rises. This city faces a number of dilemmas. As the population of the city grows, the new residents need housing. Economists will tell you that for every 10,000 new arrivals, 3,000 new homes must be built. The city administration has stated that we need greater intensification, as the city cannot afford to continue to extend the infrastructure to outer perimeter.
I understand their concerns and agree with the need to constrain the horizontal growth of the city. Very simply put, if we cannot grow out, we must grow up. Intensification is necessary. At issue is the where, how and when, all of which takes us back to consultation.
The placement of a high-rise has a direct impact on the residents of a neighbourhood. It can affect the sunlight they get, the privacy they enjoy in their yards, the traffic volumes on their streets, the water pressure, the storm sewers. The list is almost limitless. The consequence of these changes to the neighbourhood impact the value of their homes. All of this adds to the passion that the residents of a neighbourhood feel (an emotion) when a high-rise is proposed nearby.
What is the reaction from the planning department to these very real concerns felt by the residents? Lectures on how we, as a society, need to change how we live. Lectures on how they, as individuals, have set up their lifestyles to a more minimalist norm, and how we need to imitate them, irrespective of our actual needs. Am I exaggerating? No.
I have seen the bemused looks on the faces of the residents of Centrepointe, as they listened to the unyielding instructions from staff on how we need to change our current lifestyles to accommodate their vision of what Ottawa needs to look like at some time in the future. I have seen the frustration on the faces of the residents as they pointed out that one size does not fit all. That the lifestyle of those who choose to live in a high-rise is different than the lifestyle of those who choose to live in a town home or a single-family dwelling. I have watched as staff refuse to listen when someone asks whether the underlying assumptions are valid, or points out that assuming away reality is not a valid approach to solving a problem.
All of which is to say that, as the current premier said a couple of elections ago, we need to have an adult conversation. A conversation that is respectful, open and transparent. A conversation that has the potential to change the zealot-like positions being presented by planning staff to city council. I suspect that many of the residents of Ottawa are ready to have an adult conversation on the topic of intensification. At issue is whether our municipal employees and elected officials are prepared to participate? Are they even capable of holding an adult conversation?
Ron Benn, a finance executive, has been a member of the Centrepointe Community Association executive for the better part of three decades.
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