Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Funding Ottawa's transit plans, part one: The Greenbelt

Very interesting exploration today in the Ottawa Business Journal about the future of the City of Ottawa, and the constant debate between municipal and federal interests. The article focuses on the NCC, and public consultations to review the Greenbelt Master Plan. The most interesting part of the story, however, explored the possibility of selling some of the Greenbelt's acreage:
Some well-known developers had recently mused about selling parts of the undeveloped urban territory. Bill Teron, who helped build Kanata, suggested publicly late last year that selling some 6,000 acres (or $3-billion worth) of Greenbelt land would help prevent suburban sprawl around Ottawa, and that the profits earned in selling some of the land could be used to fund an improved and expanded rapid public transit system.
Obviously these facts have to be swallowed with a grain of salt. Both the Ottawa Business Journal and Teron are representatives of business interests, who obviously stand to benefit greatly from the development of the Greenbelt. If citizens benefit as well, however, would it be such a bad thing for a few business leaders to get a little more money?

The possibility of selling some 6,000 acres--roughly 12 per cent of the whole Greenbelt--still seems intriguing, however, and is an opportunity which should be explored. An influx of $3B would greatly offset the costs of the city's newest transit plans (which run at between $3.16B and $3.87B depending on which of the four is chosen). There's also the fact that both Mario Tremblay, a spokesman for the NCC, and John Baird, Ontario's regional federal minister, told the Ottawa Business Journal that there's no rhyme or reason to rumours of a Greenbelt sale (not just a minor detail). Plus it's federal land, and transit is a municipal project.

Personally, I think the Greenbelt has largely failed at it's stated goal of curbing urban sprawl and forming a barricade to protect rural areas. In my opinion, the suburbs have simply been pushed farther from the core and lengthening the commute, and rural areas--which Kanata, Stittsville, and Barrhaven used to be--are being gobbled up for new developments. That doesn't mean I think it should be dismantled, only that maybe a little change in it's direction isn't such a bad idea.

The money developers stand to make on such a project should be significant enough for them to make many concessions. Such as abiding to stringent stipulations about environmental sustainability in construction and urban planning of whatever urban or retail centres might be built up. A small village planned with modern concerns in mind could have a higher population density than many of Ottawa's suburbs do now, an extremely valuable possibility with the city's population continuing to grow. Plus, if land is sold along corridors which the city's transit plans already go through, then it's growth in an area already serviced with public-transit infrastructure; which is incredibly advantageous considering all the talk of how difficult it is to have transit trying to catch up in rapidly-growing urban areas like Kanata, Orleans, and Barrhaven.

Money's something that comes along relatively easily, though (knock on wood); green space isn't nearly as easy to come by. The decision to raffle part of the Greenbelt, even only 12 per cent, is not a decision that anyone can take lightly; after all, it gets pretty difficult to reclaim developed land if we decide that we want the Greenbelt back, and it takes a little while to grow back the plants and welcome back the birds, reptiles, and small mammals that call it their home. Giving up any amount of it is something that must be heavily debated by all stakeholders, and any development in the Greenbelt should come with stipulations of environmental care and sustainability.

With that, I encourage everyone to have your take when the NCC review comes knocking. Re-framing the master plan has great opportunities for the city and it's future, but they could come at a great cost.

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