The urban boundary debate is vitally important, so should it happen online?

The upcoming debate about whether to expand the urban boundary is one of the city's big issues this term. But instead of delaying it, the city's testing out a never-before-attempted democratic process. Should they?

Monday's virtual committee meeting a test of untried process at city hall

Councillors will meet virtually starting Monday, and hear as many as 150 public delegations, to discuss whether to expand the urban boundary. (Kate Porter/CBC)

There have been many firsts in Ottawa's municipal arena during these COVID-19 days, from virtual council meetings to Zoom news conferences to online community open houses. 

On Friday, the latest "first" came from Ecology Ottawa and a number of other groups, which held an online rally to call for holding the urban boundary steady. 

As far as rallies go, it lacked chanted slogans and crowds waving placards. But while it didn't have the visual and audible impact an offline rally might, it did attract more than 500 people. Who can remember the last time an in-person rally attracted that many people to city hall?

The rally is in advance of one of the most important firsts ever at city hall — a major policy debate Monday that will occur online, with public delegations phoning in their comments.

An online rally led by Ecology Ottawa to hold the urban boundary lacked the slogan-chanting of rallies held in person. (Provided by Ecology Ottawa)

The once-in-a-decade issue is the urban boundary expansion, a policy decision that will literally affect the growth of this city for decades to come. 

The crux of the argument is this: the city says we need to add 181,000 homes to the city in the next 25 years or so.

The hold-the-liners want those new homes to be accommodated in existing neighbourhoods and on empty land already approved for residential development.

The city's planners — and Mayor Jim Watson — don't believe residents or builders are prepared for the sort of change communities would undergo if the boundary remained steady. Instead, they're advocating to add up to 1,650 hectares to Ottawa's urban edges.

More than 23,000 new homes would be built in these newly urbanized areas.

And home builders have suggested that even 1,650 hectares won't be enough to absorb Ottawa's growing population, which the city forecasts at 1.4 million by 2046.

Add in serious questions about housing affordability — there are many points of contention about how, or even if, border expansion affects house prices — plus rising infrastructure costs in a spreading city, some communities' unwillingness to accept dramatic change, and whether expanding the urban boundary squares with the city's declaration of a climate emergency, and you've got yourself one messy policy debate.

Ottawa Mayor Jim Watson argues that the online format of the urban-boundary meeting may make it easier for people to participate. ( Jean Delisle/CBC)

Different way to do democracy

It's hard to imagine, then, why anyone thought the urban boundary debate would be the ideal test-case for something the city has never tried in its history.

Everyone is figuring out how to live with the COVID-19 pandemic, including city hall, where councillors have met for three virtual council meetings so far. 

They went fine, but the public isn't allowed to participate at council the way they are at committee. When council voted in late March to allow virtual committee meetings, it directed staff to figure out how to let the public speak, starting with the one on the urban boundary.

The rules for the virtual meeting will be more stringent than in-person meetings. If you want to give your five-minute deputation, you have to register online by 9 a.m. Monday, before the meeting starts. In so-called normal times, members of the public could keep signing up to speak right through the meeting, until councillors began debating.

And if you can't or are not inclined to register online, you could have done so by phone or email —but that deadline was Friday evening.

The mayor argued on CBC's Ottawa Morning this week that sharing one's opinions virtually actually makes it "easier for the public to participate in the process, simply because you don't have to go and get daycare, you don't have to pay for parking or come down to city hall."

He may have a point: as of Friday evening, a whopping 150 people had signed up to speak — and that's on top of the 150 who've already sent in written comments. The last time we saw that kind of action at city hall was for the Salvation Army debate, which spanned three exceedingly long days. 

The three-tower plan for 900 Albert St. was one of many contentious intensification files. Some argue that communities aren't ready for the kind of development that would have to occur if the border wasn't expanded. (Trinity Development Group)

Could have been delayed

Coun. Shawn Menard, who's been calling for the urban boundary to remain steady, said at Friday's rally: "This vote really shouldn't be happening at this moment."

He argued more time is needed to question many of the assumptions made in the staff recommendations, from the financial implications of expanding the boundary to the declaration that the public wouldn't accept intensification.

But perhaps another reason the vote shouldn't happen is because it's a major policy decision being made in the most unusual times most of us have lived through. 

Yes, there's been a year of consultations.  And the city says more than 45,000 people "have been reached." The report's been out for three weeks — longer than is legally required — but during a time when we are preoccupied with a dramatic and stressful pandemic.

The city has argued that the urban boundary question must be decided soon because it paves the way for other major policies that follow, including the official plan and transportation master plan updates. But city manager Steve Kanellakos mentioned recently the transportation plan work may have to be put off anyway, due to COVID-19 related constraints facing staff. 

So what's the rush?

In fact, there is no legal reason this decision needs to be made now. Council put off a byelection for months, so it could certainly have given the public a bit more time to adjust to the COVID-19 reality, to start paying attention to issues other than handwashing and physical distancing.

At the very least, it could have chosen a less vital issue with which to experiment with an untested democratic process.


Joanne Chianello

City affairs analyst

Joanne Chianello was CBC Ottawa's city affairs analyst.