Battle lines drawn over Ottawa's suburban sprawl

For the first time in years, city council will debate whether to encroach on more surrounding farmland to accommodate the 400,000 new people expected to call Ottawa home over the next quarter-century.

Debate begins over whether to expand urban boundary or hold the line

Ottawa city council is set to debate whether to extend the urban boundary to allow more homes to be built on what's now rural land. (Kate Porter/CBC)

Andy Lee likes the smell of a new house.

That clean, "just built" whiff still lingers inside the grey brick home he and his parents moved into last summer on the very edge of suburban Ottawa.

"I heard LRT is coming in a few years, so if I get a job downtown, it's more convenient for me. That's why I chose this location," Lee explained.

Lee recently left his job and moved to Ottawa from Toronto, where he didn't see a future for himself — not with the steep rents. He's not alone.

Andy Lee left his job in Toronto and moved into a new home on Ottawa's suburban edge last year. (Francis Ferland/CBC)

According to the city's own middle-of-the-road estimate, Ottawa's population will grow by 400,000, through migration and births, to 1.4 million by 2046. That will create a need for 200,000 new homes. 

But where will they all go?

Moving the line

There's an invisible line encircling Ottawa called the urban boundary. It effectively divides town from country, and builders can only build new neighbourhoods inside the line.

Every once in a while, the line is moved. Council tried to tweak it back in 2009 by adding 230 hectares, but after builders appealed, the city was forced to add another 1,100 hectares for development.

Given the projected population growth, city staff are now contemplating whether the city should again let out its belt, and by how much. Their recommendations are expected to be made public Friday, and the debate will start in earnest at a virtual meeting of the committees responsible for city planning on May 11.

The Ontario government requires that the city maintain a prescribed stock of developable land. The difference this time is that city council gets the final say. There can be no appeals by builders or community groups.

Ottawa's urban boundary will be debated at a virtual meeting of the committees responsible for city planning on May 11. (CBC)

Holding the line

People who follow city business know this is a big deal, and some are gearing up for a fight.

Ecology Ottawa has collected more than 3,000 signatures on a petition calling on the city to "hold the line" and leave the urban boundary unchanged. 

"We think it's a once-in-a-generation opportunity to halt urban sprawl," said Emilie Grénier, who leads the environmental group's campaigns to fight climate change. "What the councillors will decide ... will really have an implication for many years to come."

Emilie Grénier of Ecology Ottawa is urging residents to sign a petition calling on city council to keep the urban boundary where it is. (Kate Porter/CBC)

Ecology Ottawa, the Greenspace Alliance, the Federation of Citizens' Associations and other groups held workshops before the pandemic began, showing how the city can add all those new homes and apartments within Ottawa's existing urban footprint.

They've arranged a virtual rally May 8, and the city promises to give them a way to take part in the May 11 online meeting.

The groups argue the city will only live up to its promises to tackle climate change and dramatically cut greenhouse gas emissions if people live in denser neighbourhoods where everything they need is within a 15-minute walk.

Bedroom communities

But the organization that represents most home builders says holding the line on the urban boundary would only cause further environmental harm because many people will still want their dream home at the right price, and will go farther to get it, even if that means crossing the line altogether.

"If you limit people's housing choices within the City of Ottawa, you're only going to push them outside. So you push them to Rockland, to Kemptville, out to Arnprior, and that's the real damage — that's real sprawl there," said Jason Burggraaf of the Greater Ottawa Home Builders' Association.

Carleton Place, Ont., for instance, is growing quickly.

The town, about eight kilometres past Ottawa's western boundary, currently contains some 4,670 dwellings, 380 new units added in 2018 alone — a giant leap from the 60-75 added in previous years.

Developers don't think accommodating 400,000 people within the current urban boundary is even feasible.

"If we jam them all into existing neighbourhoods, we're talking major towers in every ward across the city," Burggraaf said. "Not everyone wants to live in those apartments."

Coun. Scott Moffatt, who represents both rural and suburban areas of the city, is determined to keep Ottawa's fertile farmland from being handed over to suburban development. (Kate Porter/CBC)

The great divide

The city now faces difficult choices if it expands, according to Rideau-Goulbourn Coun. Scott Moffatt, who represents both rural residents and suburbanites in Barrhaven.

To witness that great divide between town and country, look no further than Hope Side Road, where stacked townhouses in Kanata's Bridlewood neighbourhood stare across at tidy rows of corn in a farmer's field.

"I would never fail more as a councillor than if I let that become housing," Moffat said pointing at the field, which he claims to be some of the best remaining farmland in Ottawa.

The suburbs are quickly encroaching on Ottawa's agricultural land, wetlands and rural villages. Moffatt knows the city needs to expand, but not without careful planning, and not onto such sensitive land.

In his mind, there's no question city council will have to lay the groundwork for a future city that packs far more people per hectare than it does today.

The city will need to allow higher towers along the LRT, more 12-unit apartments and more units on smaller lots, not just in neighbourhoods like Westboro or at Dow's Lake, but all over Ottawa — including its outer edges.

"Are we ready for that? Are our communities ready for that? It's a huge conversation," Moffatt said.


Kate Porter


Kate Porter covers municipal affairs for CBC Ottawa. Over the past two decades, she has also produced in-depth reports for radio, web and TV, regularly presented the radio news, and covered the arts beat.

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