Sprawl is our 'inconvenient truth'
Increasing densities do not have to compromise livability. Look at Vancouver
From Friday's Globe and Mail
May 18, 2007 at 9:29 AM EDT
The two biggest factors determining our personal greenhouse-gas profiles are where we live, and how we move around. The latest census figures reveal growth in periphery municipalities at three times the rate of central cities. The nature of this development, with its heavy automobile dependence, is changing our global atmosphere.
Ontario's contribution to this problem is visible in sprawling residential developments at the urban fringe, interspersed by commercial centres surrounded by parking lots, all connected by a vast, congested road network. Road-based transportation is Ontario's largest, most rapidly growing source of greenhouse gases. Sprawl is driving this growth.
Local implications are severe. Transportation is a major contributor to air pollution, which the Ontario Medical Association estimates costs the province almost a billion dollars, and 5,800 premature deaths, a year. The Toronto Board of Trade cites regional congestion as the city's No. 1 competitive disadvantage.
The economics of enabling sprawl are equally stupefying. Municipalities are generating less in development fees and property tax than they spend on emergency services and waste removal, and infrastructure costs such as roads, water mains and sewers. An analysis of one area in Southwestern Ontario found $1.40 spent on servicing for every dollar generated in tax revenue.
Urban sprawl is unsustainable - environmentally, socially and economically.
A growth plan for the Golden Horseshoe area of Southern Ontario is a good first step to slow this inertia. However, to implement even its modest goals will require much more clearly crafted policies. To accept responsibility for our impact on the climate and redirect our planning energy toward the sustainable development of cities and communities will involve a more systematic review of provincial and municipal policies across Ontario.
To redress the balance of a system skewed by subsidies of highways and trunk-line infrastructure to one more reflective of cost, development charges should reflect the full cost of providing such infrastructure and services. The notion that the powerful forces that drive sprawl can be arrested by the provinces' recently crafted "municipal empowerment" is a Canute-like expectation - one may wish the sprawl to go away, but it won't happen without action being taken. That means incentives should be granted for development in the existing urban footprint and disincentives applied to the green fields surrounding our cities.
Land use and transportation should be seen as inseparable: Any new development should be within 300 metres of a transit stop; infrastructure investment should explicitly favour public transit, walking and cycling, over single passenger automobiles.
New governance systems should be developed to ensure provincial and regional goals are met and local governments have the resources and flexibility to deliver.
Compact, mixed-use neighbourhoods not only reduce transportation emissions, they can dramatically reduce demand for electricity and heat generation - Ontario's second-fastest-growing source of greenhouse gases. Duplexes, townhouses, low- and mid-rise apartments have the potential for much greater thermal efficiency than single, detached homes. Higher densities than are now current are more conducive for community energy systems. Running on natural gas or renewable energy, they generate heat and power more efficiently than Ontario's dominant energy-supply systems.
The recent Conference Board of Canada report, Sustaining Prosperity, underscores the imperative of "densification" to support a vibrant economy in the global marketplace. Cities that move people and freight efficiently will have a competitive edge for highly mobile jobs, talent and industries. Cities and regions that are not as automobile dependent will also have a distinct advantage in a world with steadily rising oil prices.
It must be emphasized that increasing density does not have to compromise livability. It can, in fact, enhance it. The City of Vancouver's downtown densification efforts were entirely predicated on livability. "Complete neighbourhood" and "pedestrian first" policies guided infill development. Infrastructure investment in walking paths and express buses made alternatives to the car attractive. Extensive playing fields, nature parks, picnic areas and community gardens provide space for recreation and relaxation. With shorter commuting times, there is more time to enjoy these amenities.
The results over the last decade: Vancouver's population rose 50,000 while absolute vehicle numbers froze and vehicle kilometres travelled per year dropped 30 per cent! Trips by transit grew 50 per cent. Bike and pedestrian trips doubled. The City of Vancouver is one of the few jurisdictions in Canada within reach of achieving its Kyoto target. Residents, visitors and international studies agree quality of life has improved.
In mapping out Ontario's new priorities, Premier Dalton McGuinty explained, "What's an 'inconvenient truth' for some can be an unprecedented opportunity for Ontario. Those who ignore climate change will see their economies diminish, but those who lead the fight can reap huge economic benefits." The litmus test for the Premier's insightful analysis will be seen in the climate plan's approach to urban sprawl.
JACK DIAMOND,Architect, member of the
World Wildlife Fund, Canada, board of directors