Established neighborhoods give onto fields stripped of soil and trees in preparation for development. Bungalows built on country lots forty years ago are now surrounded by new town houses laid out on small lots with reduced street widths. Occasional fragments of rural heritage survive: barns, sheds, stands of trees.
On the same street, there can be houses which are finished and occupied, while next door pink insulation covers house frames still waiting for windows. Furnished and curtained living rooms look onto digging equipment still excavating for foundations.
“When you’re on the frontier of development you have to accept that you live in a community that’s being built around you,” says Steve Desroches, deputy-mayor of the City of Ottawa and councillor for Gloucester-South Nepean.
Together, Desroches and Barrhaven councillor Jan Harder represent the south urban community, among the most booming in Canada. Covering almost 15,000 acres, it lies south of the Greenbelt and straddles the Rideau River in the former cities of Nepean and Gloucester.
According to the City of Ottawa, the area accounted for more than 50 per cent of Ottawa’s population growth over the last five years, reaching about 95,000 residents in 2012. That’s roughly 10 per cent of the total city population.
In the next 20 years, the number of people is expected to almost double to 180,000.
“The city is now growing primarily to the south,” says Carleton University architecture professor Ben Gianni. “It’s the equivalent of what Kanata and Orleans were a few decades ago.”
Yet the expansion is “out of sight, out of mind,” says Gianni. “Unless you live out there, you are not aware of how much construction is going on. “
The Gloucester-South Nepean ward experienced the city’s largest recent increase in population. According to the 2011 census, it grew almost 55 per cent from 26,895 in 2006 to 41,620 in 2011.
The ward includes Riverside South and Leitrim as well as a portion of Barrhaven. It is bounded by Strandherd Road and Leitrim Road to the north; Rideau Road and Earl Armstrong Road to the south; Woodroffe Avenue, Greenbank Road and Jockvale Road to the west and Bank Street to the east.
During the same period, the population of Barrhaven ward grew from 36,815 in 2006 to 46,475 in 2011 — an increase of more than 26 per cent.
Barrhaven’s boundaries follow Fallowfield Road to the north; Cambrian Road and Strandherd Road to the south; Highway 416 to the west; Woodroffe Avenue and Jockvale Road to the east.
“There are still people that have never been to Barrhaven,” says Harder. “They call it Far-haven. We are no longer a bedroom community. We have evolved and grown.”
In the 1970s, the former regional municipality of Ottawa Carleton designated Kanata, Orleans and the “south urban community” as places for Ottawa to grow. They called them satellite cities.
The first houses in Riverside South were completed in 1996. In Barrhaven, housing activity accelerated in 2001, after the local economy recovered from the slowdown of the 1990s.
In Leitrim, services had to be extended down Bank Street before urban development could start. The first houses in the subdivision of Findlay Creek Village were completed in 2003.
“Development south of the city was both predictable and inevitable,” says Gianni, noting the area is close to employment centres such the RCMP headquarters (located in the former JDS Uniphase complex in Barrhaven), Carleton University, Algonquin College, Confederation Heights, the old Nortel Campus and Kanata.
It is also near the Ottawa International Airport. “Most cities spawn edge cities adjacent to the airport,” he says.
David Wise, the City of Ottawa’s program manager, development review, notes that about 20,000 people a year move to the region. Some are new immigrants, others migrate from other parts of Canada.
“Ottawa is an attractive place to live, work and retire,” says Wise. “They have to be accommodated.”
Desroches often hears people say they don’t see themselves living in the suburbs. “But when get married and want to raise a family they just can’t afford to live in the core and they quickly find themselves looking in the suburbs.
“That’s part of the Canadian dream, to own your own home,” he says. “One of the things that stands out is the youthfulness of the communities. You have a lot of young families, many just starting out.”
The built landscape is starting to reflect Barrhaven’s growing diversity. The South Nepean Muslim Community (SNMC) is building a $4.5-million community and prayer centre topped with domes on Woodroffe Avenue, between Longfields and Claridge Drives.
The SNMC estimates there are about 10,000 Muslims in the south end, up from about 1,000 in the year 2000.
“There’s this perception that it’s uncontrolled sprawl; that suburbs are contributing to the environmental demise of our city,” says Desroches.
“This is growth that we have planned,” he says. “We are working to build sustainable communities with employment, with retail and residential. We are not building the traditional sprawling bedroom community.”
A 165,000-square foot recreation complex opens next fall in Barrhaven South. The city recently approved a new 100-hectare business park in Barrhaven at Highway 416. The owners hope to start building an auto mall and retail plaza in 2015. The South Merivale Business Park is expected to grow, and employment lands have been set aside south of the Jock River.
The city’s official plan projects 70,000 jobs by the year 2021 in the area.
Infrastructure is still the biggest issue. North-south routes such as Greenbank Road, Woodroffe Avenue, Limebank Road and Prince of Wales Drive are bumper-to-bumper during rush hour. Buses are jammed. Park and rides are full. Schools sprout portables as soon as they’re built.
It would have served both Riverside South and Barrhaven. When the north-south light rail project was cancelled in 2006, bus rapid transit was extended to Barrhaven instead.
“Unfortunately, it does not serve Riverside South, nor does it serve the RCMP employment center along Prince of Wales,” points out Gianni.
“For better or worse, the development is happening without the benefit of efficient transit,” he says.
“While the lack of rail-based transit has not affected the desirability of the area, it has certainly affected its form and density. By extension, it has affected how people commute to and from the area.”
Since 2008, millions have been spent on roads and transit, including the Strandherd-Armstrong Bridge, which opens next year, the extension of the Southwest Transitway and three new park and rides. Segments of Limebank and Earl Armstrong Roads have been widened and a new Strandherd Drive built between Woodroffe Avenue and Prince of Wales.
Other road projects are scheduled. Wise says development charges pay for anywhere from 20 to 95 per cent of new infrastructure.
Driving along the new roads, one sees a surprising number of townhouses, stacked townhouses and semi-detached houses. Lot sizes tend to be smaller than in subdivisions developed even 10 years earlier. A grid street-pattern occasionally replaces the more familiar curving and winding pattern of suburban streets.
The thrust of the city’s official plan is for greater density in suburbs as well as the core. For example, the new Half Moon Bay subdivision in Barrhaven is developed at 34 units per hectare, compared to the 20 to 22 units per hectare of older parts of Barrhaven.
“That’s part of affordability and to to avoid expanding out into countryside further, ” says Dana Collings, program manager, community planning and urban design at the City of Ottawa.
The official plan seeks to place walkable cores linked to transit in the midst of new development.
“For urban planning we have concentrated the retail and business districts into town centres and we’ve avoided creating a Merivale Road which is just a long strip of stores,” explains Desroches.
The large shopping centres that exist do little for local identity. In contrast, lovely parks and recreation areas along the banks of the Rideau River make sense of names like Riverside South and Chapman Mills.
Natural attributes such as parks, paths, wetlands and storm-water ponds, give the neighbourhoods their character, says Desroches.
The city’s 2013 development report highlighted the continuing trend of people moving to “urban areas” outside the greenbelt. An estimated 33.5 per cent of the city’s 935,255 population, at the end of 2012, lived in these developing communities and a further 9.9 per cent in rural areas. This contrasts with 56.6 per cent living within the Greenbelt.