Dreessen: Ottawa can’t build ’15-minute neighborhoods’ without ensuring access to healthy, affordable food

Once a neighborhood is occupied by a certain number of people, the city should be responsible for seeing that a grocery store is present that meets the community’s needs.

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Ottawa’s new Official Plan emphasizes the need to develop 15-minute neighborhoods throughout the city. But what is a 15-minute neighborhood and why is this important?

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A 15-minute neighborhood is exactly what its name implies; it is a neighborhood that allows its residents to have access to their basic daily needs within a 15-minute walk from their homes. Imagine having access to a variety of services, parks, schools, public and active transit, and general groceries all located 15 minutes away from your residence. The benefits are simply too long to list.

Unfortunately, the success of these neighborhoods is directly tied to what are called “food deserts.” An inability to easily access healthy and affordable food plagues many areas of Ottawa and makes 15-minute neighborhoods impossible to achieve.

Food deserts don’t only occur in low-income neighborhoods, where the number of fast-food chains typically exceeds healthy food options. As federal research continues to evolve, we have learned that income is not the only contributing factor. Throughout Canada and the United States, food deserts are also a consequence of poor city planning.

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Once a neighborhood is developed or occupied by a certain number of people, the city should have a responsibility to ensure that a grocery store is present that meets the community’s needs. Whether an area is occupied by low-, middle-, or high-income earners is irrelevant and should not determine access to healthy, affordable food.

Can governments eliminate food deserts when large grocers and mom-and-pop food shops are all privately owned? It may be difficult, but it’s not impossible. The government can, for instance, offer incentives for the development of small shops and grocery stores to be built in food desert areas. It can improve public transit to healthy and affordable food options. The town of Baldwin, Florida, takes matters into its own hands and built government-operated grocery stores.

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There are options, some more realistic and attainable than others, but all should be considered to help end food deserts and successfully create 15-minute neighborhoods.

Residents of Ottawa’s Little Italy community know all too well what it’s like not having easy access to a grocery store. For more than 15 years, Little Italy has been classified as a food desert, with occupants relying on smaller specialty food shops to meet their daily needs. The COVID-19 pandemic, however, meant Sala San Marco couldn’t host large banquets; the owners converted the space into a full-service grocery store, saving their business while continuing to serve their community.

At the other end of the spectrum, residents of the Carlington area live within 15 minutes of a large grocery store, but walking there poses safety risks. To get to the Food Basics at the Hampton Park Plaza, residents must cross the intersection at Carling and Highway 417, one of the worst in the city. This signifies that simply creating 15-minute neighborhoods with a grocery store isn’t enough; the area must be walkable and accessible.

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Everyone deserves equal access to healthy, affordable food. Unfortunately, COVID-19 has made this more difficult by further widening the gap between the haves and the have-nots. That is why now is the time to act.

A gradual phasing in of 15-minute neighborhoods over the years to come might be great, but existing food deserts in Ottawa must be resolved now. We must start to think of food as more than a commodity to be traded.

Like housing, access to affordable, healthy, basic groceries should be a human right. We will never achieve the equitable city we aspire to if we don’t make it a priority to ensure everyone has access to healthy and affordable food within their community.

Toon Dreessen is an architect and president of Ottawa-based Architects DCA and is past president of the Ontario Association of Architects.

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