15-Minute planning

By Alan Gilmore

The “15-minute neighbourhood” has become a buzzword for contemporary city planners and some politicians. The concept has gained popularity because it sounds scientific and vaguely environmentally friendly.

Core principles of 15-minute planning  

In plain language the core principles of 15-minute city planning are:

  1. Neighbourhood residents have easy access to goods and services, particularly education, groceries, fresh fruit and healthcare.
  2. Every neighbourhood has a variety of housing types of different levels of affordability and size, to enable more people to live closer to where they work.
  3. Residents can breathe clean air and enjoy green spaces.
  4. More people can work close to home or remotely, thanks to the presence of smaller-scale offices, retail, hospitality and co-working spaces.

Shortcomings of the draft Official Plan

In Ottawa, the 15-minute neighbourhood concept has been a top-down, technocratic exercise imposed on inner-city neighbourhoods. It has been applied to portions of the city generally developed prior to 1950, using a pseudo-scientific “sectoral” process that excludes suburbs and areas with representatives on city-planning committees. If it is such a desirable approach, city planners should have applied it to the whole city, carving up Ottawa into 15-minute neighbourhoods.

The concept can be squeezed or stretched depending on the measure used. Does it mean how far in 15 minutes you can walk, or how far you can bike, or how far transit can take you? It is open to wide interpretation. Perhaps the only commonality is its anti-car theme. City planners should show how different definitions could be used on a city-wide basis.

Since its focus is neighbourhoods, planning should be done by neighbourhood groups like community associations, not by city planners.

Initial efforts should focus on areas that deserve improvement based on core principles. Currently, Ottawa city planners have it backwards. They are focused on already functioning 15-minute neighbourhoods like Old Ottawa South and the Glebe. Changing them does not add to the city’s 15-minute neighbourhood inventory. Rather, the City’s plan is a subterfuge for increasing density in the inner city while leaving suburban areas alone and designating new areas for suburban development. This approach doubly benefits developers.

Applying 15-minute neighbourhood principles, areas that might benefit include Russell Heights, Heron Gate and Rideauview. It would greatly improve the quality of life of residents of these neighbourhoods if they had easier access to goods and services, more affordable housing, more green space and the ability to work from or close to home. The chances of the proposed Official Plan benefiting these areas are negligible.

In her September 2021 Glebe Report article, Carolyn Mackenzie points out several problems with the proposed Official Plan. It continues to use permissive language that in the past has generally benefited developers before Ontario planning boards, thus setting up future fights with affected communities and tying the hands of city councillors to overrule city planner approvals, even if they wanted to.

She also points out that the plan uses the availability of water and sewer to support its 15-minute approach to the inner city but does not equally stress the importance of trees, greenspace, local shops, walking and bike paths, which are key components of 15-minute city planning.

I agree that the plan’s approach does not support existing 15-minute neighbourhoods; rather, it destroys them. It calls for four-storey or higher buildings on both sides of main streets, which would destroy the fabric of inner-city neighbourhoods. Picture Sunnyside Avenue with four-storey buildings from Bank Street to Bronson Avenue, isolating the area north of Sunnyside and putting pressure on adjoining areas to be redeveloped – especially if Bank Street from Sunnyside south to the Rideau River were similarly developed. These sections would become tunnels.

This type of development emphasizes intensification without most of the other requirements of 15-minute city planning that now make areas like Old Ottawa South liveable, walkable and child friendly. The proposed plan fosters multi-unit buildings consisting of small condos without front and back yards.

Based on experience in other cities, the proposed Official Plan would encourage developers to buy adjoining properties and populate them with transients who are not invested in the community, thereby breaking down the community house by house and ultimately developing rows of large multi-unit buildings, not a neighbourhood.

If the Official Plan is not rejected, Ottawa will be damaged beyond repair and the 15-minute city will only have 15-minutes of fame.

Alan Gilmore, Ph.D, is a follower of the Jane Jacobs school of urban planning and was a former president (1978-79) of the Old Ottawa South Community Association. He spent most of his career as a senior principal with the Office of the Auditor General of Canada.

The Plan’s approach does not in fact support existing 15-minute neighbourhoods; rather, it destroys them.

The lesson of LeBreton Flats

Previous large-scale planning in Ottawa has led to demolishing thriving inner-city neighbourhoods such as LeBreton Flats. The Flats was destroyed by fire in 1900 but it was quickly rebuilt. However, the National Capital Commission filed a notice of expropriation on April 18, 1962, on 240 landowners, including industrial plants, commercial buildings and what it called “low-standard housing” for about 2,800 residents. The government announced it would spend $70 million to build 10 government buildings in this space by the 1967 centennial year. The expropriation was part of the Jacques Greber plan, “a monument to middle 20th century planning ideals.” It was the perfect area for renewal located on the Ottawa River and facing the Supreme Court and Parliament Hill.

Except for the addition of the War Museum, it has for the most part lain waste. As one observer noted, LeBreton Flats could recover from an act of God but not government. Ironically, a portion of Lorne Avenue, containing housing typical of the Flats before the 1960 demolitions, has been designated a Heritage District by the City of Ottawa.

The LeBreton Flats experience points to a key lesson: Don’t destroy vibrant communities in the name of a new city-planning fad.

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