ChangeCamp Ottawa: Regional Sustainability: Federal, Provincial, and Municipal responsibilities

There were many tantalizing sessions on governance at ChangeCamp Ottawa, and a few on bright green themes. Here are edited highlights from Ann Coffey's session on regional sustainability. Comments from the session participants are indented.

Ann Coffey: Ottawa's main export is waste. We import our own oxygen. We import our water. Everything that flows in, we import. When we're done with them, they go into a hole in the ground. Our pollution killed about 504 people prematurely last year.

But the problem is: the city is not listening. So I'd like your thoughts. What should they listen to?

Here were some of the initial responses to Coffey's question:

  • Just Food has a great deal of information on where you can source food locally.
  • There ought to be an interactive website from the city where people could post solutions for re-use.
  • Recycling is confusing. The information should be clearer and larger. The numbers should be bigger.
  • Biodegradable bags in the compost bins would mean less waste going to the landfill.

Coffey noted that while it's even better not to have bags at all, it's hard to arrange biodegradables even under the best of circumstances:

If you look in the bins out there [referring to the main conference space at City Hall], the cups should have been made of pressed corn, or maybe not even been there. We can't even do that at an environment unconference.

Many places have pay for garbage. You might think that if they had to pay people would simply take their trash elsewhere.

They've done studies. People cannot sustain bringing their trash somewhere else, and eventually they will pay for the garbage.

User pay is important, but you also need incentives. People who do their own composting, or manage to put out very small amounts of waste can be rebated for their economy with their waste. Why am I going to compost, and someone else is going to put out a tupperware container of garbage each week. Why don't those people get rebated?

There was a report in the Ottawa Citizen a few weeks ago that went something like:

Homeowners in central Ottawa pay approximately $1,000 more in property taxes than the cost of city services. Suburban homeowners (eg outside the Greenbelt) pay $600-700 less in property taxes than the cost of their city services.

This is because central Ottawa has much higher density and already has its infrastructure. The suburbs are tens of kilometres away and all their services (sewer, drinking water, roads, road maintenance, waste collection, etc.) has to go much further afield—hence the much higher cost. Central Ottawa is in fact subsidizing the suburbs so the developers and suburbanites are on welfare!

People want to see Ottawa as the green capital. If people achieve common cause around that, it can change a lot culturally.

One participant responded:

There have been, over the years, several attempts to re-imagine Ottawa. One of them was Village Chaudiere. We had a core, and then we had a buffer zone, and then the transition zone. Which was the model of the biosphere reserves.

Another notion was: why not declare the people who live in this area as the "Ottawa" nation?

Another one that I'm just becoming aware of is Ecocities. In Mark's presentation this morning he talked about not trying to move from the mass, but to aggregate what is already there. Use the mass, and use the power of networking. And use that to develop an ecocity. If we were to do that, we would be one of the first recognized Ecocities.

The attempt to re-imagine goes on constantly. I went out to Hintonberg the other day. It's absolutely amazing the sense of community. We need things that give us something new, and out of that sense of community we can produce change.

What if you declared Ottawa an environmentally sensitive area? If you declared Ottawa to be an environmentally sensitive area, how would that change the way we plan? Because Ottawa is an environmentally sensitive area.

We've got to have something that is going to kick off a different kind of planning. How are we going to be environmentally and socially responsible on our planet?

As soon as we started out on this recession, all of the leaders have been getting together. If you take that same language, we have decades of losing species, and natural cycles and processes.

Let's draw it.

Say you've got neighbourhoods. Your neighbourhood fits into a city. And that extends out to fit into the planet.


Biodiversity contains processes that support life. Really, biodiversity is the bottom line, and community and economy are a subset. So biodiversity should be the bottom line. Community health and economic health are dependent on the health of the planet.

But then we have these human constructs. We have this city that has this human habitat. Because we've been spewing into the air, it's been affecting our communities, our health, our quality of life. If you don't have a healthy biosphere, you're never going to have that.

We're thinking in little bits. The left hand doesn't seem to know what the right hand is doing. How are we going to survive? How can we can do all of these little things so that we could grow our own food, so we have a manufacturing base—how can we plan for that?

There are whole cities that are working to go off the grid. How can we plan so we can be self-sufficient, and don't have to import everything in from outside?

  • It may not be something that it's possible to plan for!

Ann Coffey: If we cannot plan for it - why do we plan for not it? Why can't we plan not to do certain things?

Several people responded with ideas:

  • There are bike sharing systems where you don't have a problem of owning a bike, like Velib.
  • We need closed loop bicycle paths, which don't intersect with cars.
  • We also need bicycle commuter routes, which don't intersect with pedestrians.

One participant disagreed, saying that Ottawa was an old city, and had fewer opportunities for bicycle routes.

Ann Coffey: It doesn't matter how ancient your city is. Bonn and Cologne have made bicycle paths a priority. Those paths are very well used, with traffic circles for bicycles. You have 17 million people cycling in Holland. I tell you, you see no fat kids at all.

How can we create the situation where people can change?

One person in the audience said:

  • You have to start with awareness and education. You need to have public support. If people aren't aware, you can't get anywhere. If you just impose it, you won't get anywhere. You need to work with the people.

Ann Coffey: You have masses of people working on public education. I was on the board of directors of a group called Ecovision. In 1990 the former City of Ottawa released the draft of its new Official Plan for public comment. City staff received only two submissions from the public. Alarmed by the low public response, Ecovision’s chair approached other local groups to encourage them to provide their input. The result was that the city received 189 additional submissions from groups and individuals. The upshot of that was that the city discarded much of content of the document and rewrote their Official Plan. It turned out to be the greenest OP in North America, and a lot of cities in Canada and the US purchased copies of the plan. The Regional Municipality of Ottawa Carleton’s (RMOC’s) plan was far less “green” and they were compelled to rewrite it. Before that time the normal practice was for the RMOC to write its OP, and for all the municipalities within the RMOC to then rewrite their official plans according to RMOC’s. In 1990, Ottawa and not RMOC led the way. Unfortunately, developers opposed the Urban Design Chapter of the OP, and took their objections to the Ontario Municipal Board (OMB). Due to developers’ opposition, this forward-thinking chapter was omitted from Ottawa’s 1990 OP, and the city’s Urban Design Branch was eliminated.

RMOC and many of its municipalities (Gloucester, Kanata, Ottawa, Rockcliffe, etc.) had good public education programmes on such things as water conservation, composting, the 3Rs, xeriscaping, alternatives to pesticides, tree planting, alternative modes of transportation, etc., but these all but disappeared at the time of amalgamation. Since that time, Ottawa has become a city whose citizens have been increasingly discouraged from participating in civic life because neither staff nor council appear to listen. In fact, it is often stated that the city is dysfunctional and run by developers. Meanwhile, as Ottawa has declined, other cities across North America have become environmental leaders taking action on climate change and renewable energy, implementing congestion charges and carbon taxes, planning for public transit and bicycle networks instead of cars, creating green belts to protect biodiversity and ecological functions, protecting wildlife, designing natural drinking water filtering systems, and reducing waste. Education is important, but we do not have time to wait until the public is “educated” before following other cities’ lead.

Another participant responded:

  • The only way you'll change what council does is if you scare them with people. We can reach every person in Ottawa by putting a message out on the internet. Only a percentage will see that, but they'll be able to engage in their own time, with their own skills. Some people know the policy levers to push. Some can push from the federal level down. Some can push from the municipal level up. That's the one factor—you can now get 100,000 people to sign a petition, and get 1000 people to show up at the minister's door. People went to the minister's meetings in Calgary, and it scared him, and he pulled the copyright bill.

You've got the city of Ottawa making planning decisions with homes in one place, and jobs in another. It's taking water. It's taking energy. From a planning perspective, how do we change that around?

One participant suggested:

  • You could get rid of average cost pricing. It's cheaper for people in Centretown to have public services. The people in the centre are subsidizing the suburbs. So add marginal cost pricing for services.

Ann Coffey: The problem with that is that's a provincial decision. The city cannot legally make that change. So what you would need is for people to get together to ask the province to change that.

It's a vicious circle. People in the suburbs drive in. They drive in to the centre and make it disagreeable to live in: pollution, noise, and safety go down. And the centre deteriorates more. And people flee. And the cycle repeats. So you get a situation where a house in a suburbs costs the city 20-25% percent more. They've done studies on that, both here and in the States.

There are some things that are federal, some things that are provincial, and some things that are local.

A decision that is made at the level of the federal government is the building code. Let's say you say you're going to build that house so it's going to last 300 years. At the federal level, you would need to change the building code.

At the provincial level, you would need to change pricing. And at the local level we need to think about how to grow food locally, and generate energy locally. You could, for instance, have water catching, green walls, and houses that don't need outside energy.

We've got some ideas down, but it is a difficult job. We need to encourage the city to think like this so we can plan this way. And that's a difficult job. It's scary. It doesn't even seem to enter into planning. How can you do that? You can keep showing them what New York is doing—Hamilton, New York, Montréal. If Curatiba can do it, if Bogata can do it—why can't Ottawa do it?

Photo: Adam Hill

For more on ChangeCamp Ottawa, see ChangeCamp Ottawa: Open Data and Open Access

Also see Jason Diceman's article on ChangeCamp Toronto: New Interfaces on Government

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