In Paris, you can’t throw a stone without hitting a bakery or a café. In Rome, tiny neighbourhood grocery stores sell ripe fruit and household staples. In Montreal’s urban quarters, independent dépanneurs sell bread, milk, and a bit of fresh produce. But in Ottawa’s downtown core, one often has to walk 30 minutes to procure a day or two’s worth of groceries.
Instead of a walkable, convenient lifestyle offering a diversity of services, Ottawa instead offers sprawl.
“I don’t see it as a deliberate obsession with actual sprawling. I think sprawling is a result of careless planning more than anything else,” says Rick MacEwen of Watson MacEwen Teramura Architects, who has long advocated for density and sustainable design. “It’s also the result of a preoccupation with inexpensive convenience and a car-centric view.”
Urban sprawl is what happens when a city grows beyond its original borders. In nearly every Canadian city, that has led to low-density housing on the urban periphery. When those new areas become too busy for residents’ tastes, the city sprawls again. This is the legacy Ottawa faces as it struggles to control housing affordability and address environmental degradation caused by car culture.
To change things, Ottawa has to combat the conditions that careless planning created: an over-reliance on cars, and few incentives to do better.
Research led by planning professor David Gordon at Queen’s University demonstrates that in every one of the country’s large metro regions at least 80 percent of residents live in the suburbs. This way of life grew out of the postwar era, when cars made it easy for white, middle-class people to have their nuclear families away from the perils of urban life.
“I’m an army brat,” geography and planning history professor Gordon tells me. “My family came back from our overseas assignment in 1970, and bought a house in Beacon Hill just inside the Greenbelt. My father was able to get on the Queensway and drive across the city to see relatives in the west end, and he thought this was just the most tremendous thing ever, right? To be able to afford a single-family detached home in a leafy green suburb, and to be able to get around on an expressway with very little congestion.”
This model was heavily subsidized by the federal government. Some may thank — or blame — Jacques Gréber for how Ottawa looks today. Gréber was a French planner who in 1950 drafted his vision for the city: public plazas and grand boulevards à la Champs Élysées; the relocation of the train station; the removal of streetcars; and the extension of parkways around the city. The jewel of his plan, the Greenbelt, was meant to draw a line hemming in sprawl.
However, his population projections were flat-out wrong. The city grew much faster than Gréber anticipated, almost immediately challenging the Greenbelt’s limits. Local taste for low-density housing didn’t help matters. Ultimately, only the highways and suburbs of Gréber’s plan were realized. In 2016, more than 220,000 people in Ottawa drove to and from work each day, a third of them clocking trips longer than 30 minutes. As Alain Miguelez, currently the VP of capital planning and chief planner at the National Capital Commission, once told the Ottawa Citizen, the Greenbelt and the parkway system unintentionally made Ottawa less livable: “The only enjoyment you have of it is through your windshield as you speed by in your car at 80 km/h. So it extends the distance of the city and makes it impossible to walk. It introduces a barrier that forces you to use a car.”
In 2021, the city proposed the Gold Belt to cinch in the sprawl, aiming to use agricultural land and undeveloped areas as natural boundaries. The proposal was promptly met with protest and has since disappeared from Ottawa’s forthcoming new official plan, according to David Wise, the city’s manager of policy planning. “It was much more of a visual exercise than it was an actual meaningful policy exercise,” says Wise.
David Gordon says Gréber’s plan had envisioned satellite towns far outside the Greenbelt. Instead, Ottawa got privately-developed bedroom communities on the edges of the Greenbelt. “Gloucester, Nepean, Kanata, Cumberland, and Gatineau planned town centres for decades and did little to implement them, other than allow developers to build power centres and shopping malls,” Gordon says. The municipal merger of 2001 allowed the city to control development and equalize services and funding, but did little to add vibrancy to these communities.
The LRT and the city’s plan for 15-minute neighbourhoods are supposed to help fix that. Wise says it’s clear that density is the ticket to reaching the city’s intensification targets by 2046: “Density is how you get to these 15-minute neighbourhoods. In order to do that, we are going to have to […] look very, very hard at those lands that are zoned only R1 and R2, and they are going to have to expand their permissions.”
If Ottawa hopes to tackle its affordable housing crisis, it needs density, diversification, and car sharing. Transforming sprawl with smart, thoughtful design will be the defining challenge of the next city administration.