Around the Nation
A column by Tom Van Dusen
The passion radiated by Moe Garahan from the Zoom screen this week was inspirational, almost palpable.
Executive director of Just Food Ottawa, Moe was participating in an online session which drew more than 100 participants mainly opposed to extending Ottawa urban sprawl to satisfy growing housing needs in addition to filling gaps within the existing urban sector.
Linking her comments to COVID-19, it was Moe who spoke for preserving agriculture in the remarkably agricultural capital which became that way following absorption of neighbouring rural municipalities such as Gloucester and Cumberland.
Organized by Ecology Ottawa and other groups under the Hold the Line campaign, the session was entitled: “The Cost of Urban Sprawl”. Whatever that cost, city council went ahead the next day and by a majority vote took the easy route, the one preferred by developers, to expand as well as infill the urban area providing the expensive infrastructure that goes with it.
Ecology Ottawa was quick to respond, firing off a “profoundly disappointed” missive as soon as council’s decision was known. EO’s Robb Barnes said the decision will define the environmental legacy of most councillors for the remainder of their careers.
Approving further sprawl in North America’s most rural capital city, in the process going against the “groundswell” of public opposition to the approach, shot a large hole in EO’s priority areas of climate action, biodiversity and greenspace protection, and viable transit, Barnes intoned: “It’ll be a monumental challenge to make Ottawa the green capital of Canada.”
Council supported a plan calling for almost 50-50 urban intensification along with urban boundary expansion. However, the emphasis seems to be on expansion with close to 2,500 acres to be tacked on to existing suburbs, the objective being to accommodate an estimated 402,000 new residents.
Just Food’s role is to achieve “vibrant, just and sustainable” food and farming systems in the Ottawa area, extending to buying local throughout Eastern Ontario and West Quebec. Enhancing access to healthy food for all is the mandate.
Reminding fellow Zoom’ers that Ottawa has 1,100 farms within its expanded boundaries, Moe said all farmland parcels large and small must remain intact and not be given over to yet further urban sprawl. And it’s not just about prime land, Class 1 and 2, she emphasized; lower classes of farmland also have valuable uses including grazing livestock.
She complained that developers with firm plans are acquiring farmland with assistance from municipal councils. In addition, land speculators are active in acquiring parcels of farmland in the expectation of future development, buying up agricultural tracts and sitting on them until urban sprawl reaches their holdings. Not only is speculating removing land from production but it’s inflating prices, making it more difficult for younger generations to get into farming.
As did several others on the Zoom session, Moe insisted studies show Ottawa’s residential requirements could be met strictly through intensification without a further farmland grab. Mayor Jim Watson would beg to differ; he has suggested that freezing urban boundaries might be good politics in appeasing opponents, but it’s not good planning because it would prevent the city from possessing adequate development land.
Moe said the arrival of COVID-19 has shown more than ever before the need for local food security. While she was somewhat appeased that council has endorsed a Just Food-backed initiative supporting household food production with free soil and seeds, Moe called on the city to adopt a development plan that protects farmland: “We need to hold the line on urban expansion as part of a food and agriculture strategy that will prevent food delivery disruption.”
Just Food, Ecology Ottawa and its partners have their work cut out for them. Municipal councillors will always be attracted like moths to a flame by bigger is better, by land-starved builders dangling big development dollars and property taxes in their faces… no matter the infrastructure costs to taxpayers and potential harm to the natural and agricultural environment.