Monday, January 22, 2007

Act Local

From the reactions to my last post, as well as comments elsewhere in the blogshpere, there seems to be an ideas that some party, alone at the Federal Level, can miraculously pass its policies and platforms and make us meet our Kyoto targets. Or reduce, even stop Global Warming.

Nothing can be further from the truth. There is no magic bullet. The only way to both protect the environment and to maintain a vibrant economy is to act at multiple levels of government and to take matters into our own hands.

First we must understand the problem and then act. First we Act Local.

According to the government's own numbers,19% of GHG come from road tranasportation - cars, trucks, mini-vans. Part of that comes from a shift to SUV and min-vans, but a greater part has been the shift to poor urban planning, as documented by Jane Jacobs in both "The Death and Life of Great American Cities" and "The Dark Age Ahead" - we have become car-centric rather than community centric. This can be seen as Jacob's mantra and her greatest legacy.

Let me give you and example.

I live in Barrhaven, a suburb in the southwest corner of Ottawa. Ottawa in general and Barrhaven in particular, have experienced incredible - some would say insane - growth since 2000. Our community has at least doubled in size since then and is the fastest growing part of Ottawa. New housing developments are springing up regularly and quickly, as are new shopping centres and malls.

The problem is, however, not the pace or size of the growth, but how it is being done. Almost every single home is built with 2 car garages, on long winding streets with no sidewalks (read Jacob's entire chapter on the importance of sidewalks to see why this distinction is important. You are not meant to walk here. To do anything you must drive. To go grocery shopping, even when you can see the grocery store, you must drive. To get to the bus, many people must drive to the park-and-ride. To get the kids to school, may people must either drive their children or arrange busing, once reserved for farm kids. Stores and houses are separated by large ring roads and highways, with the stores rimming large, open parking lots. this means to even get from one store in the mall to another, one must drive. Much of the items sold in these malls are not locally produced, but trucked in from places like Montreal, Toronto and Vacnouver (where they were offloaded from ships or planes...)

Contrast this (for urban planning purposes) to the Glebe. The Glebe is a neighbourhood much like the Annex in Toronto (where Jacob's herself lived until her death). Every home has a decent yard and almost all services, including most shopping, is within walking distance. The stores are small and locally owned and the neighbourhood thrives.

The difference is in the zoning. The Glebe and areas like it are zoned for mixed usage, while the new suburbs are zoned single use - either business or residential. Why? Because it suits the needs of Big Box stores and outlets and of the the home developers, not the needs of the people who live there. They can make bigger profits from store rentals and densely packed homes sold, without having to worry about the infrastructure - we pay for sewers, streets and what passes as public transportation to these places with our taxes.

This has been the blight of most urban centers for over 40 years. Lets fix it.


1. Vote for city councilors that support the idea of mixed zoning, to allow neighbourhoods to grow based on the ability to walk rather than drive. Or contact your current councilors (if no election is looming) and ask them to introduce this into your community. Smaller, neighbourhood businesses are almost always locally owned and operated and rely on locally produced items as much as possible (or can be encouraged to develop local supply replacement, another of Jacob's favorite remedies). We reduce our dependence on cars to drive to a store (or any other activity), our dependence on trucks to bring in commodities from great distances and keep the local economy strong.

2. Buy local as much as possible. Not really possible for things like bananas or coffee, but there are a lot of things - furniture, foods, services - that you can keep locally. Again, reduce the need for trucking or flying these things across country.

3. Support and fight for real mass transit solutions. Not new roads, but real public transport alternatives.

4. If your city council won't do these things (because they are beholden or friendly with the developers), do them yourself - create local, cooperative car-pooling or busing, open up local stores illegally if you have to.

These are but a few small steps that, when everyone does them, can have an impact.

For what it is worth, when I lived in Toronto's Annex community, I did not own, nor did I need, a car. Nearly every thing I needed - from groceries, to restaurants, to various services - existed in the community, an easy walk from my home. I now find myself in a situation where I may need a 2nd car, because of the things mentioned above. No amount of tax credits or rises in the price of gas will eliminate that. I want to walk to the store or the rink, I just can't.

If we have to reduce our consumption of gas, and reduce our need to drive, we need to make these local changes i the way we live. They can be done not only relatively cheaply, but they will make our cities and communities better places to live.

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At 12:51 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Rational Reasons, meet magic bullet. Magic bullet, meet Rational Reasons[1]:

Saving the Planet One Scientist at a Time
Good article just out in Rolling Stone about a dirt-cheap, sure-fire way to cool the planet if we ever decide the Earth is getting too warm for our liking: atmospheric particles. Turns out there’s little doubt we could cool the planet substantially for about $100 million a year - less than the price of a good-sized wind farm.

The author of the piece thinks this is nuts, but it’s unclear to me exactly why. There’s little doubt that it would work. There’s little reason to fear secondary, unanticipated consequences. And it’s a lot cheaper than the alternatives.

The real objection for many, I think, is that a substantial segment of the enviro community wants to fundamentally remake human civilization and the global economy. Conventional greenhouse gas emission controls offer up that possiblity. A half-dozen 747s sprinkling particulates across the arctic skies does not.

[1] This is not to say we should be polluting up our planet. But global warming is overrated (not least by the heavily debunked Stern Report). The local food concept? Good way to kill off the developing world as they lose markets for their products (we'll set aside Canada/US/Europe subsidies for agricultural because left/right both agree with those, god knows why).

Fix our car culture? As much as I hate it myself (and by the way what madman would move out of the Annex? I'd only rate Kensington Market above in terms of places to live in Canada [yes, I'm counting Montreal. Yes, I've lived there]) we're stuck with cars. You'd have to go back in time to stop Don Mills and other emerging trends. Be thankful our cities retain 2-4 times the density of most American ones and hence have urban cores that are doing well. People, for whatever reason I utterly fail to comprehend, like 2 cars and single houses and miles of the same house, and the nearest store being miles away. I think it's insanity, myself, but there you have it.

At 1:40 PM, Blogger Mike said...

Interesting, but that still seems in the realm or sci-fi to me. You are quite literally saying we should sprinkle the earth with magic cooling dust. Excuse me while I remain skeptical.

"he local food concept? Good way to kill off the developing world as they lose markets for their products (we'll set aside Canada/US/Europe subsidies for agricultural because left/right both agree with those, god knows why)."

Hello Vulgar Libertarian! Guess what, local import replacement works in the 3rd world too. Check out Kevin Carson's link in my blog roll for all kinds of examples...Maybe it means that the 3rd world won;t be available to be exploited by large corporations anymore, but I digress.

I agree we are stuck with cars but I am not, as you imply, to "substantially remake human civilization and the global economy", but to reduce our use of cars through low-impact, sensible solutions. I don't expect our car culture to disappear, but if I could get done the things I would like to get done with many fewer trips, that would be a good thing. And it would reduce greenhouse gases.

Care to provide a link to where the Stern Report has been debunked?

At 2:09 PM, Blogger Unknown said...

Where magic cooling dust = basic atmospheric particles along the lines of what a volcano would do, yes.

Sorry. My words are before the links and under the footnote. In-between is the article I linked to. I don't particularly think anyone wants to remake human civilization (except the fringe, on both sides). Doesn't invalidate the argument if the Cato Institute likes to slam their statist foes.

Classical liberal I am, which is quite different from libertarianism (despite what they might say). An interesting link on local food in the third world. I maintain that cutting all subsidies to agricultural in the developed world (see New Zealand) and eliminating tariff borders would have a broader based and more positive effect. Well. That and various 'development' agencies like the World Bank actually being competent.

My biases, so you won't be resorting to name-calling (I kid, but us classical liberals dislike being lumped in with libertarians), centre around economically classical liberal policies from someone who is otherwise the very model of Bill Davis's Red Tories. Think, maybe, the free-market (Orange) wing of the UK's Liberal Democrats. Or the New Zealand Labour Party from 84 to 89 when Roger Douglas was the finance minister.

Ok. Here and and and and (longer version, pre-order there) and and probably more.

Some of these people dispute methodology. Some the science. Some accept the science, but point out that Stern overestimates. Some dispute the economics. Overall though the Stern Report is at least deeply flawed.

And just so no one thinks I'm hiding, or any such silly thing, I logged in with my google account.

At 2:11 PM, Blogger Unknown said...

Whoops. Apparently it only offers a link to my (non-existant) blogger account. So my email is wednesday.keller[at]

Or use my last name, as I prefer. Huh. Off to rummage in badly designed google preferences, I suppose—just wish they'd hire a UI designer from Apple.

At 2:49 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Sure, cool down the planet for only $100,000,000 and then what happens??

Law of Unintended Consequences at work:

At 12:35 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...


Good post. Agree with most everything. Three problems with changing urban planning.

1) some designs were approved 10-15 years ago and are still valid. Requires legal challenge.
2) Even when mixed use urban plan approved by local council they get overridden by OMB. OMB has the authority to override municipal official plans and order them changed.
3) Existing Urban design still a source of problems, how do we fix? Bulldoze and start over?

Urban design issues are real. I do not dispute that. But we are seriously handicapped in changing future designs (due to all powerful OMB) and dealing with existing designs.

At 12:51 PM, Blogger Mike said...


Good points...I was going to touch on the OMB in a future post, since it is at the provincial level.

Basically what I am saying is that we allow our neighborhoods to be retrofitted. All a council has to do is change the zoning (provided the OMB doesn't interfere...) and allow the market (GASP!!!!) to take over.

For instance, Toronto formerly had an affordable housing program that took vacant lots, or otherwise unused residential land and converted it to housing that big developers couldn't be bothered to do. Apply this same idea to local mixed use.

For instance, near my old street in Barrhanven, next to a school and on a main route was an empty, feral lot. Lots of weeds and the occasional junk. Not big enough for a housing development or for a developer to do anything with. Why not simply zone it mixed commercial and allow some entrepreneurs to build a corner store or a restaurant? A local daycare centre? Another kind of retail?

Why not ensure that as part of future street maintenance, sidewalks are installed....

Sometimes we allow homeowners and neighbourhood associations to direct this. Allow subsidiarity.

I'll hopefully have another post about the developer's best friend, the OMB soon.

There are


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