Residents of Ottawa, Ontario are proud of their city’s vast green space, and this is no coincidence. Green space was written into Ottawa’s city plan in a big way in the 1950s, when the National Capital Greenbelt was established to protect the growth boundaries of the sprawling metropolis. But the plan to curb sprawl was thwarted when independent municipalities on the other side of the Greenbelt absorbed new subdivisions. These became Ottawa’s outer suburbs of Kanata, Barrhaven, and Orléans, which are still separated from the inner city by the Greenbelt’s expanse.
Today the Greenbelt is seen as having exacerbated the state of sprawl and car-dependency. Suburbs that might have been ten minutes from downtown are now further away, increasing commute times and carbon burned. Considering that there is no shortage of urban parks and green parkways in the city, is it still necessary to have a Greenbelt at all? I propose that it is, as long as we recognize the Greenbelt’s real potential in building a sustainable city.
As we push forward into the twenty-first century, the heavy economic and environmental price of our low-density, suburban living model is becoming more evident. In contrast, dense urban areas are being praised for their environmental sustainability. But since cities need productive green spaces to sustain them, the challenge is to envision cities that are dense, green and productive. In other words, we need to ensure that urban green space serves more than an aesthetic or recreational function.
Some people are already taking strides in this direction. Hidden Harvest Ottawa is an organization that recruits volunteers to harvest fruit trees on public and private property in the city, whose produce would otherwise go to waste. In addition to sharing the harvest with local food agencies, the organization sells fruit trees in the hope of increasing the city’s food output.
Amber Westfall is another local innovator who shares her knowledge of the edible and medicinal weeds that grow in Ottawa’s parks and gardens through organized plant walks. By teaching ways of sourcing healthy food locally and sustainably, her organization, The Wild Garden, hopes to encourage a unique relationship of care and stewardship between people and the land.
These examples illustrate the kind of opportunities presented when so much of your city space is “green.” Ottawa’s Greenbelt Master Plan adopted in 2013, suggests that urban planners are keen to exploit some of the Greenbelt’s potential beyond recreation. Sustainable agriculture is identified as one of the key visions for the Greenbelt, and an additional eight hundred hectares of its area will be dedicated to sustainable agricultural practices in the future.
But despite these efforts, the landscape in Ottawa is still typical of that in much of North America. Where residential subdivisions end and the Greenbelt begins, there is little conversation; the two stand side by side like awkward strangers. Given its unique role of managing such a large urban-rural frontier, the City of Ottawa is in a great position to incubate new forms of living that exploit this promising space more responsibly than the suburbia of our recent past.
Are green spaces used effectively in your city? Do you think it is possible to bring together the density of urban areas and productivity of rural areas in one space?
Credits: Images by Nour Aoude. Data linked to sources.