Canadians thinking about their household finances know that there are always more ideas for how to spend money than there are money to spend.
This universal economic principle was on full display at COP27, the latest iteration of the UN climate change conference that ended Friday in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt. A long list of competing demands for that money included compensation for climatic damage, Loss of biodiversity and reduce the use of fossil fuels.
As governments at all levels consider the wisest use of tax revenues to avert a global climate catastrophe, there is growing evidence that urban development – the way Canada builds its cities to adapt a growing population — is the cornerstone of long-term climate policy.
And while dispirited critics worry that the car-centric urban sprawl still underway cannot be stopped, there are new glimmers of hope as a growing wave of low-carbon urban construction, high-density, fiscally efficient and people-friendly shows signs of spreading. .
“If we care about climate change, we need to make it easier to walk, cycle or use public transport. Period,” said Jason Slaughter, a vigorous critic of car-centric urban development, who grew up in the suburbs of London, Ontario. Until he got his driver’s license at the age of 16, he said, he was trapped in what he calls a “car-dependent hell”.
Our conversation took place over email, in part because Slaughter’s YouTube channel, Not Just Bikes, a tongue-in-cheek and sometimes hilarious collection of sophisticated urban design videos which has received millions of views keeps him busy, but also because he is in a different time zone. A famous Canadian export, he is a refugee from Canada’s urban sprawl.
“I don’t fundamentally believe that Canadian cities will change materially in my lifetime, which is exactly why we gave up on Canada,” Slaughter said during our exchange last week. “That’s literally why our family left Canada to live in the Netherlands, permanently.”
The shock value of this desperate commentary is typical, but it’s belied by his opus which includes hits like why i hate houstona attack on Wonderland Road widening in his hometown (“Fake London” as he describes it to his international audience) and what some saw as unfair criticism of Mississauga, Ontario’s half-billion dollar BRT system.
Although written and delivered in a funny and dismissive style, Slaughter’s well-researched and well-produced videos, often in association with the Strong Towns nonprofit in the United Statesprovide an accessible lesson in what isn’t working in North American cities and, using its current home in the Netherlands as a counterexample, how North American cities need to change.
Tetris with too many squares
And while the task of transforming the Titanic that is the current development model is daunting, there are signs that the seed that Slaughter and others have planted is beginning to take root. That’s especially true in Canada’s biggest cities, simply out of necessity, said David Gordon, an urban planning specialist at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ont.
“You can’t build a big city out of individual houses with everyone driving,” Gordon said on the phone last week as the COP27 conference drew to a close.
He said the urban centers of Vancouver, Montreal and Toronto have done a much better job than American cities, where government funding structures have created an unfamiliar downtown ‘downtown’ scourge. to the dynamic and expensive urban cores of Canada.
For about 60 years, Canadians have imagined the perfect leave it to the beaver lifestyle like “a detached house where you can drive anywhere on uncongested streets,” Gordon said, but like a giant Tetris game with too many spaces, the continued suburban sprawl leads to traffic jams.
Gordon’s research shows the pattern of suburban sprawl persists in medium-sized cities and outside of urban cores partly because they have not yet reached saturation point, but also because the model, including subsidies from existing provincial taxpayers, offers lucrative short-term profits to developers .
But as the work of Edmonton-based global design and engineering giant Stantec and others has shown, in the longer term, sprawl can bankrupt municipal government.
The suburbs don’t pay
It’s a hard lesson learned by a number of American cities that simply don’t have the money left to pay for crucial infrastructure repairs.
What Stantec’s research for the city of Halifax has shown, wonderfully illustrated by graphics produced by urban design group Urban3, is that relatively crowded pedestrianized downtown parts of a city produce huge tax revenue, while low-density suburban areas incur a net tax cost.
“A lot of our services are delivered by the linear foot, so the further out you go, the more pipes you have to run, the farther your buses have to go, the farther your waste delivery has to go,” said Kate Greene. , director of regional planning for Halifax.
What the tax productivity data shows is that “rich housing” with large lots and lots of space for cars, which were subsidized when the neighborhood grew, continues to be subsidized throughout. throughout their long existence. Suburban single-family homes on large lots just don’t cover municipal expenses like fixing all that asphalt and plowing all that snow.
And in Halifax, becoming a relatively compact, walkable, climate-friendly city and avoiding sprawl has become integrated into all planning decisions right up to the mayor’s office.
“Our city is committed to economic and environmentally sustainable growth,” Halifax Mayor Mike Savage said in an email last week. And it’s not all hot air, outside experts like Gordon say Savage made it possible.
In the city of Guelph, the only Canadian municipality to be analyzed by Urban3, the city’s lead urban designer, David de Groot, said the analysis was eye-opening. What he showed was that even the poorer areas of the urban center provided far more municipal revenue than the sprawling outskirts where the city had spent its development resources.
WATCH | Visualize the cost of development as cities expand:
The city has a beautiful and well-preserved downtown on a river that once powered its mills, and de Groot said that since its first Urban3 study in 2014, Guelph has encouraged low- and mid-rise development in the city center, which has made it an increasingly dynamic place to live, work and visit.
“For its long-term sustainability, adding more people downtown was a critical direction for the city,” de Groot said.
And today’s development decisions have effects that last far longer than developer profits.
Tax efficiency = green
“Land use planning affects community fiscal efficiency and community energy efficiency for decades, if not centuries,” said Kate Daley, Region of Waterloo’s Designated Expert in Environmental Sustainability.
The Ontario Regional Municipality stretches from the historic town of Galt north along the Grand River Road, straddles Highway 401 and includes two of Canada’s most prestigious universities as well as plenty of rural farmland – but it has adopted a development strategy that does not quite fit into Slaughter’s Europe.
As part of its goal to preserve farmland and green space, all linked by a central transit rail corridor running “The Ion” LRT, the region reached consensus last year on a plan called Transform WR build a “city in 15 minutes”, where everything is accessible on foot, by bike or by public transport. The strategy, the exact opposite of car-centric sprawl, aims to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 80% by 2050.
Daley wrote a end of book dissertation in 2017 describing what was in Waterloo Region – its people and its government – that allowed it to overcome popular dissent and the Ontario Municipal Board to “enact smart growth policies” and new green growth.
Now that she’s a regional employee, Daley said that kind of conversation is off limits.
But she says the decision to block sprawl was an exercise in community building and allowed the region to launch strategies that will appeal to larger cities where car dependency stands in the way of green innovation.
“Understanding how to use future development and especially intensification, to turn existing neighborhoods into 15-minute neighborhoods,” Daley said, “is, I would say, the biggest challenge.”
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