February 04, 2011

[Urban Geography] Ottawa’s Spatial Crisis

The City of Ottawa is suffering from what I suppose we could call a ‘spatial crisis’. Yet the crisis is largely a manifestation of human decisions. The problem is partly of our own making – and as such, the solutions will partly have to come from us too.
What are the problems?
For one, getting around is a major problem in Ottawa. Traffic is a nightmare. Aside from the city’s world-renowned ‘transitway’ (special highways for buses only), getting around on public transit is extremely costly, inconvenient, and slow. The almost complete lack of incentives to take public transit has lead to an extreme overuse and reliance upon automobiles, which has the numerous consequences of further congestion, emissions of greenhouse gases and air pollutants, traffic fatalities (a leading cause of death in Canada), inactive people, and continued dependence on a valuable but non-renewable resource (putting upward pressure on its price).
Another problem is sprawl. Ironically, the city’s (also world-renowned) greenbelt was designed for the very purposes of limiting sprawl. Jacques Greber – a ‘landscape architect’ who proposed many of the city’s ‘natural’ recreation areas now owned and managed by the National Capital Commission (NCC) – proposed the greenbelt in the 1950s and soon after land was expropriated for the urban containment project. Today, the greenbelt plays a very important (and beneficial) role in Ottawa, as a) an area of outdoor recreation; b) a source of some local agricultural production; and c) in a very limited sense – a protectorate for the functioning of certain ecosystemic processes (such as the conversion of carbon dioxide to oxygen and the provision of habitat areas for various species). The irony, however, is that the greenbelt (or more specifically the way in which city plans have unfolded around the greenbelt) has actually served to exacerbate the level of damage resulting from transportation and sprawl problems.
But traffic and sprawl and their socio-ecological consequences are just a taste of the problems that we can expect to come. Given the realities of climate change and peak oil, the procurement of healthy food, for example, is bound to become a challenge for the average citizen of Ottawa if these regional spatial patterns continue unchanged.
Originally, the city was contained to the area within the greenbelt. In 2001, however, the region of Ottawa-Carleton, including the municipalities of Nepean, Kanata, Gloucester, Vanier, Cumberland, and the townships of West Carleton, Goulburn, Rideau and Osgoode were all amalgamated into the City of Ottawa. Although this political transformation theoretically had the potential to offer the new city council the ability to block urban sprawl and focus on increasing density in the core and maintaing regional agricultural lands for such purposes, the opposite has occurred. It became the prerogative of councilors to provide transportation infrastructure to connect those areas outside the greenbelt with those on the inside – but rather than focusing on building public transit infrastructure, the city chose instead to prioritize automobile travel. Railway lines were ripped out or abandoned, and multi-lane highways from the city core to areas in the West (ie. Kanata) and East (ie. Orleans) facilitated the suburban lifestyle, with its required commute from the place of living in the ‘outskirts’ to the place of working in the ‘city centre’…
And who wouldn’t want to live in a large five-bedroom, five-bathroom house with a fenced-in backyard and a double-car garage and access to a nearby park and all for less because the house is located an hour’s drive from your place of work and, after all, in real estate, location, location, location is everything!?
So it was that the rural areas of the Ottawa-Carleton region, which had for many decades produced much of the food consumed by those inside the greenbelt, were re-zoned along residential purposes. The agricultural lands were razed –literally flattened, bulldozed, erased – and converted into new communities where thousands of similar-looking pre-fabricated houses were placed along winding dead-end streets. The suburbs were filled, and for the most part the localized economies of former independent municipalities were integrated (and thus became dependent on) the jobs, services, and sources of goods procurement found in the urban core (reversing the traditional dependence of the core upon the periphery for agricultural products).
The people we elected into office allowed this to happen, but the influences of global capitalism played a role too: The opening of borders, the construction of global trade networks and free trade agreements, the intensification of large-scale industrial agriculture, the extraction of global supplies of hydrocarbons, and the belief in the neoliberal imperative for economic growth have temporarily facilitated this process. While it has been hard to get around, it has nevertheless still been possible to do so; and while the food of Ottawa’s citizens now comes from other climates, the main barrier to putting food on the table has thus far been one’s income, not one’s physical distance to the source of production. The high output of agricultural products from industrial farms put downward pressure on many crop prices, which in turn put pressure on small scale farmers to either go big, or get out of the business altogether.
Yet here’s the rub – while this entire structure relies on cheap fossil fuels, global supplies are beyond their peak (which happened in 2006 according to the conservative estimates of the International Energy Agency), meaning the age of cheap oil is over. What's worse, the very fossil fuels we've been consuming in ever larger quantities each year up until now have definitively to altered the biogeochemical processes of the Earth, forcing us to adapt to new weather patterns and ecosystemic realities. Numerous popular intellectuals from both the left and the right have made the point in some way or another, from George Monbiot to Al Gore to David Suzuki. Bill McKibben put it starkly, when he noted that “the entire industrial food system essentially insures that your food is marinated in crude oil before you eat it.” Or as Toronto filmmaker Gregory Greene has implied in his film The End of Suburbia, the reality of peak oil and gas means that the cost of fossil fuels can be expected to skyrocket, and thus getting around and feeding oneself (not only because of the transportation of food, but also the reliance upon natural gas for the production of agricultural fertilizers) are going to become increasingly difficult for the average citizen as a result.
The spatial configuration of the Ottawa area has been continually transformed since the beginning of this planet's history. Long before human settlement, natural climatic changes, tectonic shifts and celestial movements caused changes in the land and its surrounding conditions. Undoubtedly, the indigenous peoples who lived and subsisted for thousands of years in what is now known as the region of ‘Ottawa’ (so named after the Algonquian ‘Odawa’ nation that lived here at the time of European colonization) also influenced the space around them. Yet it has been settlers and their descendents who in the last sixty years have overseen a radical and high-paced transition of the spatial reality of the city to its present configuration – a set-up which shows signs of extreme vulnerability to the expected changes in climate and the declining global supply of oil and gas. Those of us who make decisions affecting Ottawa’s spatiality – including not just city councillors and civil servants but us everyday common citizens as well – arguably have a responsibility to take the future seriously, and that means thinking about the ways we shape and produce the spaces around us.


  1. In terms of city planning issues I definitely agree with the article. In contrast to its benefits, the greenbelt definitely promotes sprawl, and the increased need for infrastrucuture (roads sewers etc) are tremendously costly to implement and maintain. Not to mention the issues that may arise if the f&*$ing gas continues to soar and people of barrhaven, riverside south, kemptville etc (generally lower income class) are stuck without the proper public transit infrastructure to efficiently get to work... (certainly as it currently stands).

    Yet builders build because many people have not yet awoken and are still interested in living in suburbia. And the city grants building permits becasue they want the cash (from the builders). Its funny - the city puts a microscope to any urban intensification project, and evaluates far less approval criteria for the master suburbian projects, so hence the cycle continues.

    I would move the central exp farm for one (a drive there everyday and think to myself wtf), and also start tapping into some of the greenbelt. There is definitely a big picture problem yet the city always only tries to find micro-solutions.

  2. Thanks Anonymous.

    The NCC is currently undergoing public consultations regarding the Greenbelt Plan. Check it out: