Like Ships in the Night: Silos, Flood Risk, and Housing Development in Ottawa

Ottawa city skyline at sunrise.

The ballooning costs of flooding are changing the politics of urban development, and the City of Ottawa is a good example of how climate change is interrupting business as usual. While at first glance it may appear as though everyone is doing what they believe is right to protect new homes from flooding, some development stakeholders are not working well together, due in large part to conflicting priorities that complicate planning decisions for housing.

The federal government asserts that there is a critical housing shortage while simultaneously warning that climate change is increasing flood risk in many Canadian municipalities. Both the federal government and an influential stakeholder, the insurance industry, want to reduce risk exposure in what the industry claims is a large and growing number of Canadian homes that are at risk of flooding. The two stakeholders are currently struggling with how to deal with homes most at risk. It’s also apparent that home owners – also key stakeholders – are remarkably oblivious to risk.  All of the above factors are further complicated by dated, inconsistent and unreliable flood mapping. When will the promised federal flood maps be made public? Where are the flood zones in Canada? Where are the lines? Will new maps impact where housing is built, how it is priced and how it is insured?


Siloed perspectives

A year ago, the Feds announced a Climate Change Adaptation Strategy which states “Canada must be prepared and reduce risks across all levels of government so that communities can defend themselves against the worst impacts of climate change.” New regulations designed to respond to climate change are pending. But the housing industry is already heavily regulated: The National Building Code (NBC) is 4,400 pages and housing development involves myriad municipal regulations which reference energy efficiency, urban sprawl and now climate change resilience. Regulations unavoidably add time and costs to housing production. Are various government bodies, insurers and the building industry talking with each other about adapting to climate change at the regional level? Seems to us the folks actually planning and building housing might want to be involved in these difficult national conversations. However, there are differing opinions about resilience and disconnected conversations. Isolated efforts are not the same as a systemic and cohesive approach. The result is that stakeholders are not working in synergy. A jurisdictional dispute between municipalities and the Province of Ontario helps to illustrate the disconnect.

Photo by Serge Lavoie from Pexels

Bill 23 and elevated risk of flooding

The Canadian Constitution gives provinces, including the Province of Ontario, power to dictate development policies for most cities. Ontario is unique in Canada though, in that the Province created the Conservation Authorities Act in 1946 with dual mandates to preserve natural resources and protect people from natural hazards including flooding. Regulatory change from the Province under the current regime has resulted in conflicting demands in some Ontario municipalities, including Ottawa. Senior City and Conservation Authority (CA) staff with whom we spoke (our interviewees have been promised confidentiality) disagreed with the direction of the Province’s Bill 23: More Homes Built Faster Act, 2022 which was marketed as a means of overcoming municipal red tape. A specific complaint was that shifting responsibility from CAs to municipalities to manage development in hazardous lands and imposing new growth targets might lead to new housing in flood zones within Ottawa. Apparently, the City must now build new engineering capacity after deferring to CA expertise for decades. City and CA staff also asserted that Bill 23 may enable replacing natural wetlands with new housing thus elevating risk of downstream flooding. These concerns were echoed by many Ontario municipalities which claim that a profound construction labour shortage, as well as rising interest rates and construction material shortages, are of more concern than land shortages or CA “red tape” in slowing housing starts.


Was Bill 23 all about the GTA?

Ottawa developers have mixed opinions about Bill 23. In a city that is determined to reduce sprawling suburban development, developers consider it smart and innovative to convert part of a flood zone into buildable land via engineered landscape changes. Industry stakeholders generally agree that the new legislation will speed approvals for their developments, but one developer was concerned that the Bill would shift responsibility for managing hazard lands from CA experts to the City’s engineers who, in their view, currently lack capacity for these decisions.

The sentiment was echoed by Toronto-area builders who urged Ontario’s government to be cautious with changes to the Conservation Authorities Act. Another developer claimed that Bill 23 arose from fraught relations between CAs and development stakeholders in the Greater Toronto area which led to arguments and lengthy delays of development approvals. In contrast, while this developer noted Ottawa area CA decisions were not always favourable, they said the three Ottawa region CAs were respectful and efficient when dealing with housing developers. This developer claimed to trust the Ottawa region Conservation Authority water experts more than City civil engineers to design flood resilience into new housing developments.

Was Bill 23 a response to the situation in the GTA imposed on the rest of the province’s municipalities? If so, will the diminished powers of the CAs shift flood risk management in new neighbourhoods back to municipalities, or to developers? Remember that this is a turning point in how Canadians respond to risk. While governments and insurers are balking at the ballooning costs of flooding, changes imposed on Ontario municipalities may inadvertently increase flood risk. Incidentally, after concerted public and legal opposition, the Ontario government has walked back changes imposed upon protected conservation lands in the Greenbelt around Toronto. The province has also reversed legislated boundary expansions in Ottawa and other Ontario municipalities. It seems the public is growing more concerned with preserving natural spaces. To date however, it looks like changes to the Conservation Authorities Act will remain in place.

Ottawa city skyline at sunrise in the morning over river.

The researchers’ perspective

Responding to climate change requires all-hands-on-deck. In our Ottawa study it appears that Ontario development stakeholders (three levels of government, developers, insurers and the public) are not on the same boat with regards to climate change adaptation. The stakeholders seem to be operating in silos and, as if looking through different kaleidoscopes, are each seeing different realities. The Ontario government seems especially myopic. Are the changes brought in by Bill 23 taking away expertise and shifting flood risk management to municipalities and developers? And how will the “Greenbelt scandal” alter development planning and approvals especially regarding climate change in the GTA and elsewhere?

What’s emerging from our research is a picture of disjointed communication between stakeholder groups at various levels complicated by inadequate understanding of flood risk. And currently, the conversation at the national level seems to be steered by the insurance industry, a private sector actor with, necessarily, their bottom line in mind. If insurers and the feds will dictate flood risk management, how does it pan out for the Province of Ontario that may be inadvertently enabling development in risky areas? And how are builders, municipalities and homeowners expected to respond to the disconnect? During the Ford government’s ham-fisted approach to opening the greenbelt to development, Canada’s Environment Minister threatened to interfere. We think the feds understand the big picture that combines climate change and a profound housing shortage. Maybe it’s time for the federal government to step into the fray and facilitate negotiations between a complex mix of housing stakeholders during this period of change and uncertainty.

Gary Martin, PhD, is a Research Associate in the Sprott School of Business at Carleton University in Ottawa and consults with homeowners and builders on homes and sustainability.

Ruth McKay, PhD, is a tenured prof Carleton University’s Sprott School of Business. One of her areas of interest is business risks from climate change.


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