New council needs vision – here’s hoping they have it

So, the Ottawa municipal election festival is now over. It’s time to congratulate the winners, especially the newcomers to council. More importantly, it’s time to take stock. What has this election accomplished and where do we go from here?

This election was interesting in many respects. The mayoral campaign went on for months and drew an unprecedented number of candidates. This presumably reflected some candidates’ sense of voter rage and a desire to put the big issues facing Ottawa on the table.

But, in the end, there was no crescendo of local election populism. Debates about the future of Lansdowne Park and specific neighbourhood development proposals have been much more heated.

One possible reason for this is that two of the major candidates for mayor, Jim Watson and Larry O’Brien, had transportation and transit platforms in agreement with a decision already made by council — to construct an east-west light rail line with a tunnel downtown. So, as the other mayoral candidates scrambled to get airtime on their transit and transportation plans, this major issue had a certain “back to the future” quality during the campaign.

To be sure, candidates for mayor and council did put issues other than transportation and transit on the table – although to varying degrees. But, in the end, all the campaigns seemed to boil down to “vote for me, not the other guy” with candidates ragging the puck on some of the big issues facing our city over the next four years and beyond.

What are these big issues? Are city council and Ottawa ready to deal with them? There are at least four that need to be addressed.

The first concerns the shape of our city. Words were spilt during the campaign regarding the need to re-examine the current approach to urban intensification and growth. Larry O’Brien spoke of a new suburban node. But can the new mayor and council carry off a fundamental debate on our future development path, or will we see the new Ottawa take form as a result of a series of decisions aided, for better or worse, by the Ontario Municipal Board?

The stakes are very high for Ottawa residents and the development industry. It might be constructive for the new council to focus as much on urban design as on land use as we move forward. Many think of Vancouver as an urban intensification success story. That is because there has been a very intentional focus on integrating highrise with other forms of development and greenspace, with the involvement of urban design experts and the public.

Ottawa has started to take some baby steps down this path with its urban design panel. But can city council embrace good design as a cornerstone of intensification or will we see Ottawa skies darkened with architectural mediocrity?

The big issues of transportation and transit are related to urban design. But they remain important enough to stand on their own and this election did not put closure on them in any way. Indeed, the focus on whether or not to build a 12-kilometre light rail line detracted from the fact that we will be dealing with traffic gridlock in the years ahead.

Light rail and the idea of more safe cycle paths are good but city council still has to do battle with the goliath of auto traffic. OC Transpo was the subject of political and public criticism during the campaign.

A popular antidote to OC Transpo woes seems to be the idea of establishing it as an arms-length agency. Memories are short. This was the model we abandoned only a few years ago in order to make transit decisions, including cost decisions, more accountable. The new council will need to think hard about the supposed tradeoff between “efficiency” and “political interference” in the management of our transit system.

If confronting the future shape of our city is a major challenge for the new mayor and council, so too is ensuring that Ottawa has a healthy social and economic fabric.

By many standards, we are lucky. Ottawa has a relatively stable employment base, perhaps the envy of other Canadian cities. But political complacency because we are the seat of the federal government is no longer an option.

What is the city of Ottawa’s economic development plan? The answer is that we don’t really have one, except to stay the course, perhaps promote more tourism and hope that, among our technology startups, there will emerge a new Cognos, Newbridge or Nortel. Municipal governments should not think of themselves as the kingpins of local economic development. But they can play a catalytic role by convening local public institutions, such as universities and colleges, and private capital.

Our city government can also create positive conditions for economic development through its planning and social policy. The mayor has a central leadership role in this area. But the policies that will foster economic diversity and prosperity will be those of council as a whole. More directly from a social perspective, we face challenges, from the availability of social housing to being a welcoming city to newcomers.

The Community Foundation of Ottawa’s 2010 Vital Signs report should be at the top of every councillor’s reading list. We are falling behind in dealing with issues of social wellbeing and even a fiscally conservative mayor and council need to play a role in dealing with this.

Finally, there is the issue of good governance. It is interesting that proposals for restructuring our city government were part of the campaign discussion. Boroughs, a smaller council? We will see if the new council can reform from within. In my view, the real public appetite is for a more effective council that can confront and deal with the major challenges we face as a city.

That requires leadership and a vision that Ottawa is more than a collection of wards. Let’s hope.

Katherine A.H. Graham is a professor of public policy and administration and senior adviser to the provost at Carleton University.

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