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Density and Infill: A Solution Hiding in Plain Sight

There are so many raging debates about density and infill in Ottawa these days. But is this really the big problem, the messy situation, the tangled web that it seems? Are dark looming towers and cold apartment blocks the only way forward? Could it be possible that a simple solution, a win for all, is hiding in plain sight?

By assembling a robust model for existing neighbourhoods to transition from car dependence to being fully and delightfully walkable, one surprising result was discovered. It is a wonderfully simple solution to the challenge of increasing our urban density.

This first image represents a typical street in the Alta Vista study area today. Most of the homes are more than 60 years old, but there’s also a recent infill single included.

The draft Official Plan targets this neighbourhood for intensification. Below are two options that meet the intent of the draft Official Plan and could become development patterns in the neighbourhood, built over the next 25 years. (We have not included development patterns that might be made possible as per the draft Official Plan but are unlikely to be built.)

1. Towers could be built near to the transit stop, in Area A (yellow) of the following map.

2. Apartment buildings could be built along Pleasant Park Drive, in Area B (cyan).

Alternatively, Walkable Ottawa proposes that density be spread throughout the neighbourhood in buildings sized to complement the existing homes, but with multiple units in each building. These could be built gradually throughout the area over the same 25 year period. (Number 3 below.)

3. Multi-unit buildings with zoning to limit built size and setbacks, throughout the entire study area. All units would have their own front door. Unit sizes would vary from 1500sq.ft. three bedroom units to 600sq.ft. one bedroom units. But before we go on, let’s have a sanity check here.

Why do we want any density increase at all? Does it benefit the neighbourhood that receives the density?

And that’s perhaps the most important question of all. Let’s make sure the answer is “YES, It will benefit the immediate neighbourhood”. Because this would open up great opportunity; opportunity to reduce Ottawa’s carbon footprint, but also to improve the health and wellbeing of the residents in the neighbourhood.

This equation is really important: Adding density in ways that ‘fit’ the neighbourhood + prohibiting car-centric new shops + promoting small business = new walkable shops in neighbourhoods. Density done right, helps to nourish small shops.

But adding the kind of gentle density shown in image 3 above just won’t happen, can’t happen, cannot be developed by developers… unless it’s in the context of a neighbourhood that is being steadily upgraded with safe walking routes, parks, and other services. Why? Because developers can’t sell a ‘walkable new home model’ in a neighbourhood that isn’t functionally and delightfully walkable, or at least on the way to being walkable.

So this kind of gentle density necessarily brings with it small shops and services to walk to, and neighbourhood upgrades of all kinds necessary to transition the neighbourhood into a complete and delightfully walkable community. Well that surely is a win for all!

Just how much density are we talking here?

Can these little multi-unit projects bring the amount of density that city planners imagine is necessary? Can they bring enough density to populate new small shops and enliven empty sidewalks? How do they compare to towers at transit hubs, or apartment blocks along corridors? Here’s the really good news. Small multi-unit infill development patterns can result in more density than towers and apartment blocks combined.

Here’s some more material from the Alta Vista Workbook:


Area A: Yellow (Towers close to transit)

Area B: Cyan (Apartments along corridors Pleasant Park or Riverside)

Area C: Green - within the green line (the entire study area less the hospital could receive Multi-unit infill)

What density increases do these development pattern examples yield? What is the cumulative effect? The following chart outlines anticipated density increases based on equal rates of land purchase and development over 25 years, in the areas mapped here.

Clearly Option 3 stands out. Multi-unit buildings can be regulated to compliment existing streets and neighbourhoods. They can include a variety of household sizes from single family to multi-gen, and a variety of price points. They are the most affordable homes to construct, to heat and cool, and to maintain. They are the most affordable kinds of development for the City to service, now and throughout their lifetime. They allow residents to share insulation (shared walls, floors, roofs) which is more effective in reducing greenhouse gas emissions than any amount of insulation. And when spread throughout a neighbourhood, they are a key component in the transition to a walking culture. And transitioning entire neighbourhoods to be walkable is absolutely the most significant change we can make to reduce our carbon footprint.

There is still a place for towers and apartment blocks… that’s another discussion. But the bulk of Ottawa’s density challenge can be met with these simple little multi-unit buildings.

It is time for us all to speak up boldly and loudly in support of this development / density solution; the transition to walkable neighbourhoods with small multi-unit infill. It is not in the draft Official Plan, but it should be.


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