Skip to main content

Embracing the City of Ottawa’s Official Plan with new Geospatial Solutions

The City of Ottawa is building a 3D geospatial foundation for a Digital Twin using Esri's enterprise GIS software. This 3D visualization environment will eventually host a new ecosystem of applications and services driven by the users and clients who will in turn benefit from this living digital copy.

The City of Ottawa is developing a transformational Digital Twin—a 3D model of Ottawa—as a new tool to support the development of the New Zoning Bylaw Consolidation project and the policies of the new Official Plan. The new Official Plan, which will guide how Canada’s capital city is developed over the next three decades, was approved by the Province late 2022. Communicating and monitoring the improvements of the plan to staff, planners, and the public required the city’s traditional 2D mapping and assets to be reimagined into a fully interactive 3D visual environment.

The layered geographic approach

Using the existing enterprise GIS as the foundation for creating a 3D visualization environment, the City’s Geospatial Analytics, Technology & Solutions (GATS) team, began assembling their foundational 3D data with ArcGIS Urban as a structured environment. Urban provided the framework and data model for integrating their existing photogrammetric and LiDAR derived features, the verticalization of corporate  information such as zoning and zoning height, building age of construction, and elevation profile into a streamlined planning system.  

Randal Rodger, Program Manager, GATS, saw the value of leveraging the City’s existing investment in Esri’s ArcGIS to build out this incredibly dynamic 3D visualization and analytical environment. “We needed to help our clients move beyond traditional 2D mapping and provide a new environment to embrace viewing our data in 3D.” The team brought its depth of experience from its acquisition program by incorporating aerial data collection imagery and LiDAR to the environment to feature existing infrastructure and tree canopy. SURE from nFrames, an Esri company, provided new ways to process the aerial mapping and data collection to create a 3D mesh of downtown Ottawa.

“We do our aerial data collection now every year at six-centimeter resolution—high resolution and high overlap, so that we can create this very deep, rich, detailed 3D mesh of the city,” says Jean-François Dionne, one of GATS’ Geospatial Strategist. “ArcGIS has allowed us to reinvent city planning to a point where we’re now in the process of integrating BIM and IoT feeds to get a real live visual of things happening around the city.”

Building capabilities in stages, developing standard operating procedures, and integrating tools and data on a common system have allowed Ottawa to test new tools to enhance its data and get it ready to be deployed City-wide.

Creating new decision-making experiences

A testament to their success shows in the modernization of Ottawa’s new zoning bylaw review process. Canada’s capital – and all the country’s major cities for that matter – face intense pressure to develop new housing and other urban infrastructure. Like other Canadian cities, Ottawa requires thousands of new affordable and other housing units to help address social equity.

“It’s clear that density is the ticket to reaching the city’s intensification targets by 2046. In order to do that, we are going to have to look very, very hard at those lands that are zoned only R1 and R2, and they are going to have to expand their permissions,” says David Wise, the city’s Director of Economic Development and Long-Range Planning. “Ottawa’s mapping and GIS systems need to move beyond the traditional methods and static 2D environment to meet the needs of a fast-moving modern City.”

The GATS team created Zone Builder, a web-based editing and markup tool in ArcGIS. It enables planning staff to review existing zoning and propose changes within the city’s new Zoning Bylaw Consolidation project on the Official Plan. Stakeholders will be able to assess, for example, whether a proposed development’s maximum height is suited to a particular neighborhood in an enhanced collaborative way. Taking this a step further, the review team is now able to visualize developments in 3D to benefit consultation with the public, a capability with increasing importance in light of Ontario’s new Bill 109 to fast-track approvals of new urban development projects.

A collage of images from the Zone Builder app showing screenshots of zoning, land use, close neighbourhoods, units per hectare and the year built.

Figure 1 - Zone Builder

Increasing collaboration for planners and developers

Another example that earmarked the team’s success using ArcGIS is during a proposal review between city planners, the Ontario Land Tribunal (a powerful governing board that adjudicates on matters related to land use planning in the province) and a developer aiming to put up a 26-storey condo complex in an area where that height was not permitted. Its approval would have required a bylaw amendment, thus not in favour to the developer. A different approach would be required.

A graphic on the left side showing a 2D map of a neighbourhood compared with a graphic on the right side showing a 3D map of the same neighbourhood.

Figure 2 - BEFORE on the left: Time consuming 2D mapping and Sketchup models / AFTER on the right: ArcGIS Urban 3D model showing building heights

In just a matter of hours, Jean-François and the city’s planners used ArcGIS Urban to create an alternative model on the land parcel which was within zoning regulations but still offered the developer a reasonable density level and similar space use types. The new model in Urban clearly displayed the number of available occupants, parking spots, jobs created, energy consumption, CO2 emissions, water use, traffic data, and other data. It also lets the team present a down-to-the-ground view of the amended proposal, enabling residents and the Tribunal to get a realistic sense of how the structure would look, feel, and function within the streetscape.

There is a tall building on the left side compared with the building on the right side with fewer storeys and taking up more of the allotted land.

Figure 3 - LEFT: 26-storey condo complex / RIGHT: an amended proposal

Planning for the future

For many, the enhancements brought about by Ottawa’s Digital Twin is creating excitement for the future opportunities in geospatial analysis for transforming city building in Canada’s capital. Indeed, supporting the creation of the Official Plan and monitoring progress over the future years require solutions that can sustain current and long-term plans, yet dynamic to include future technologies, methods, and approaches. Embracing Ottawa’s Official Plan ultimately rests on the experience one goes through to understand how the city is transforming.

For more information on Ottawa’s Geospatial Analytics, Technology and Solutions, visit this link.

Learn more about smart city planning with the Esri Canada team!

About the Author

Desmond Khor works with multi-industry stakeholders to connect stories with opportunities. As a Marketing Manager at Esri Canada, Desmond is helping to build a stronger, more connected community around technology and the business capabilities of location intelligence.

Profile Photo of Desmond Khor