EnvironmentLetters & Opinion

Opinion — Can zoning mitigate climate change?

Bryan Dewalt

The City of Ottawa has begun drafting its new Zoning Bylaw, and Action Sandy Hill is tracking how it responds to climate change and other environmental issues of concern to our neighbourhood.

The Zoning Bylaw is a tool that the City uses to regulate development. The bylaw divides Ottawa into zones, each of which has rules about the permitted land use, the size and dimensions of lots, the form and scale of buildings, and the number of dwelling units they contain. For example, most of the residential area of Sandy Hill is zoned R4, which permits low-rise apartment buildings of up to four storeys. The Zoning Bylaw regulates things that have a direct impact on our local environment, including building height, building footprint, and the amount of space that is devoted to both parking and landscaping. In the long run, many of these seemingly local issues have global implications.

Earlier this year, City planning staff released seven discussion papers, two of which examine how zoning might promote climate change mitigation and adaptation and how it might regulate trees. Staff propose to use the Zoning Bylaw to promote denser “15-minute” neighbourhoods that have a diverse mix of land uses and good access to sustainable transport. Staff are also seeking to reduce the health risks from extreme heat and extreme weather events by finding ways to use zoning to require more “soft landscaping” and permeable surfaces in new developments, to preserve existing large trees, and to ensure sufficient space and soil volume for planting new trees. Zoning might even be used to promote food security by supporting, for example, local food production and by preventing the further loss of farmland.

If done right, “densification” can have a positive environmental impact by reducing energy consumption and protecting open space and natural areas from development. Living in a neighbourhood that has faced development pressure for years, however, we know that densification can also lead to negative impacts, like the loss of shade trees, reduction of open space and paving of yards, more noise, more garbage, more traffic, more air conditioners and more demand for parking (both on-site and on-street). With the higher temperatures and extreme weather that come with climate change, poorly planned development in mature urban neighbourhoods like ours will make urban heating, stormwater runoff and local flooding worse.

Action Sandy Hill has been broadly supportive of the approach City staff have taken in the zoning discussion papers, but as usual, the devil will be in the details (and the enforcement). Good intentions will need to be matched by clearly worded and enforceable rules so that trees take priority over parking, trees removed for new buildings are replaced, and yards are not paved over. They will also have to find ways to encourage development that supports energy-efficient buildings, sustainable transportation, local food security, and local renewable energy generation.

City staff are currently assessing public feedback to the Zoning Bylaw discussion papers and preparing a first draft of the new bylaw. This will be released in the first quarter of 2024. The Zoning Bylaw discussion papers are still accessible at the Engage Ottawa website: engage.ottawa.ca/zoning.  You may read the response of Action Sandy Hill at the ASH website: www.ash-acs.ca. To add your input to the process, send comments to: newzoning@ottawa.ca or nouveauzonage@ottawa.ca.