Powerful pandemic leaves only modest mark on City’s budget and official plan

By Sarah Anson-Cartwright. This article originally appeared in the Feb 2021 edition of the New Edinburgh News.

The pandemic’s impacts on people and businesses are dramatic and well documented. Beyond the sad loss of lives, in Ottawa the most vulnerable, racialized, and low-income citizens have been disproportionately and adversely affected. And the city’s self-declared housing and homelessness emergency has only worsened with COVID-19-related public health measures.

Almost one year on, it is worth asking if the pandemic’s impacts on our lives and work have shaped city council’s policies or decisions. More specifically, is the city adapting to the pandemic beyond temporary, necessary measures, and is it striving to become a more resilient and inclusive place to live?

Two sources offer a view into how the powers that be at City Hall see Ottawa in a post-pandemic era. These two sources – the 2021 budget and the draft new Official Plan – give some clues as to whether Mayor Jim Watson and senior city staff are taking the lessons of the past year into account. The signals to date are mixed and modest.

Budget priorities, not pivots

The budget for 2021 was passed in early December 2020 and reflects the short-term set of priorities. In line with the mayor’s dictum, property-tax increases were limited to three per cent amid a large, expected deficit.

Pre-pandemic, Ottawa had a housing and homelessness crisis. It has grown worse since the pandemic’s start, with an average of 150 homeless people sleeping outdoors rather than in shelters, up from 90 people typically, according to a report to the Community and Protective Services Committee of Council last October.

While the budget included the city’s highest investment in affordable housing as a result of federal government funding ($32 million of a total $47 million), there was an additional $25 million for roads in an envelope for roads and other infrastructure totaling $171 million.

Roads received a higher budget, yet council refused to freeze OCTranspo fares during a period when the existing riders are facing hardships. 

A previously scheduled $13.2 million increase to the budget of the Ottawa Police Services Board was approved in a year when there were strong calls for changes to policing, including how they answer mental-health calls and deal with people of colour in our city. “The conversation has shifted with the Ottawa Policy Services Board,” a resident said, despite the budget decision.

Planning for growth

In late November, the city shared the draft new Official Plan which will guide Ottawa’s growth over the next 25 years and be voted on by council later this year. 

The plan’s goal is for Ottawa to be the most liveable mid-sized city in North America. The word “liveable” has taken on new significance during the pandemic. Many have spent more time staying close to home and exploring their local neighbourhoods, as well as seeking outdoor exercise and physical distancing opportunities in greenspaces.

In line with this experience, the Official Plan includes a policy intention to “encourage the development of healthy, walkable, 15-minute neighbourhoods,” cited as helping to “create the conditions for future pandemic resiliency.”    

There are dozens of references to 15-minute neighbourhoods which the city describes as “places where, no matter your age or ability, you can meet most of your daily needs within a 15-minute walk and can choose to live car-light or car-free.”

While there are aspirations in the Official Plan, there is also a wealth of complex technical detail. This plan changes some terminology (e.g. mainstreets are renamed corridors) and the policy areas (the plan will comprise six “transect areas” rather than the current two: urban and rural).

As one resident observed: “It feels like an exercise in obfuscation.”

The city posted the draft new Official Plan online, but citizens have expressed frustration with difficulties accessing the large and varied documents, including detailed colour maps and secondary plans. The City did not make printed copies available to the public, except for initially seven copies (now 11 copies in total) on loan via the Ottawa Public Library. 

“It is felt that communities have not been given enough time to review a massive document,” said one resident.

While the Official Plan and the 2021 budget offer modest nods to the challenges arising from the pandemic, city council continues to hew to the mayor’s agenda and decisions. Council’s Planning Committee often overturns the city’s own rules, allowing for exceptions. It is a committee where six of the nine members have received 63–99 per cent of their campaign donations from developers, according to grassroots organization Horizon Ottawa.

Citizens’ input into the new Official Plan is still necessary despite these issues. This current council will face the electorate in 2022, whereas the Official Plan will be the City’s planning bible until 2046.

The new Official Plan is huge; however, the City is offering a simplified form of feedback. For each of 21 topics within the plan, there is a one-pager and a related feedback form. Feedback forms are due Feb. 17. Visit engage.ottawa.ca/the-new-official-plan

Sarah Anson-Cartwright lives in New Edinburgh and works in public affairs.