This universal economic principle was evident at COP27, the latest version of the United Nations climate change conference which concluded on Friday in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt. It included a long list of competing claims for that money fee for climate damage, loss of biodiversity And reduce the use of fossil fuels.
As governments at all levels see the wisest use of tax revenues to avoid a global climate catastrophe, there is growing evidence that urban development – Canada’s way of building its cities to accommodate an expanding population — is the cornerstone of long-term climate policy.
And while despondent critics fear the ongoing automobile-centric urban sprawl cannot be stopped, there are new glimmers of hope as a growing wave of low-carbon, high-density, fuel-efficient urban construction fiscally friendly and is showing 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, an outspoken critic of car-centric urban development who grew up in suburban London, Ont . Until he got his driver’s license at age 16, he said, he was trapped in what he calls a “car-dependent hellscape.”
Our conversation took place over email, in part because the Slaughter Not Just Bikes YouTube channel, a tongue-in-cheek and sometimes hilarious collection of sophisticated videos on urban design which has received millions of views keeps him busy, but also because he’s in a different time zone. A famous Canadian export, he is a refugee from Canada’s urban sprawl.
“I basically don’t think Canadian cities are going to change materially in my lifetime, which is exactly why we gave up on Canada,” Slaughter said in our exchange last week. “This is literally why our family left Canada to live permanently in the Netherlands.”
The shock value of that desperate comment is typical, but it’s belied by his oeuvre which includes hits like Because I hate Houstona attack on the widening of Wonderland Road in his hometown (“Fake London” as he describes it to his international audience) and what some considered an unfair criticism of Mississauga, Ontario’s half-billion dollar BRT system.
While written and shot in a humorous and snide style, Slaughter’s well-researched and well-produced videos, often in association with the Strong Towns USA non-profitprovides an accessible lesson in what’s not working in North American cities and, using his 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 enormous, there are signs that the seed that Slaughter and others have planted is beginning to take root. This is especially true in Canada’s largest 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 single family houses with everyone at the helm,” Gordon said by phone last week as the COP27 conference drew to a close.
He said the inner cities of Vancouver, Montreal and Toronto have done a much better job than cities in the United States, where government funding structures have created a downtown “downtown” blight that is unfamiliar in bustling and expensive urban cores of Canada.
For nearly 60 years, Canadians have envisioned the perfect Leave it to Beaver lifestyle like “a single-family home where you can drive anywhere on uncongested roads,” Gordon said, but like a giant Tetris game containing too many tiles, the continued suburban sprawl results in traffic jams.
Gordon’s research shows the pattern of suburban sprawl persists in medium-sized cities and outside urban cores partly because they have not yet reached saturation point, but also because the model, including existing provincial taxpayer subsidies, offers lucrative short-term profits for developers.
But as the work of global Edmonton-based design and engineering giant Stantec and others has shown, sprawl can lead to the bankruptcy of municipal government in the long run.
The suburbs do not pay
It’s a difficult lesson learned by a number of US cities that have simply run out of money to pay for crucial infrastructure repairs.
What Stantec’s research for the city of Halifax, beautifully illustrated by graphs produced by urban design group Urban3, showed is that relatively crowded walkable central parts of a city produce huge tax revenues, while low-rise suburban areas densities translate into a net fee cost.
“Many of our services are delivered on the linear foot, so the further outward you expand, the more pipes you have to travel, the further your buses have to go, the further your garbage delivery has to go,” said Kate Greene, Halifax director of regional planning.
What the tax productivity data shows is that “homes for the rich” with large lots and plenty of room for cars, which were subsidized when the neighborhood was developed, continue to be subsidized throughout their long existence. Suburban single-family homes on large lots just don’t cover the city bills for things like fixing all that asphalt and removing all that snow.
And in Halifax, developing into a relatively compact, walkable, climate-friendly city and avoiding sprawl has become an integral part of all planning decisions right up to the mayor’s office.
“Our city is committed to economically and environmentally sustainable growth,” Halifax Mayor Mike Savage said in an email last week. And it’s not just hot air, outside experts like Gordon say Savage made it happen.
In the City of Guelph, the only Canadian municipality Urban3 analyzed, City Senior Urban Designer David de Groot said the analysis was a revelation. What he showed was that even the poorest areas of the inner city provided far greater municipal revenues than the sprawling fringes where the city had spent its development resources.
WATCH | View the cost of development as cities expand:
The city has a beautiful and well-preserved historic center on a river that once fed its mills, and de Groot said that since his first Urban3 study in 2014, Guelph has encouraged the development of low-rise and mid-rise buildings in the core that the it has made an ever more vibrant downtown place to live, work and visit.
“For its long-term sustainability, adding more people to downtown has been a key direction for the city,” said de Groot.
And today’s development decisions have effects that far outweigh the bottom line of developers.
Tax efficiency equals green
“Land-use planning has influenced the tax efficiency of communities and the energy efficiency of communities for decades, perhaps centuries,” said Kate Daley, Designated Environmental Sustainability Expert for the Waterloo Region.
The Ontario regional municipality stretches from the historic city of Galt north along the path of the Grand River, straddling Highway 401, and includes two of Canada’s most prestigious universities and much rural farmland, but it has adopted a development strategy that not be entirely out of place in Slaughter’s Europe.
As part of its goal to preserve farmland and green spaces, all connected by a central transit rail corridor where the LRT ‘The Ion’ runs, the region agreed last year on a plan called Transform WR build a “15-minute city”, where everything is accessible on foot, by bicycle or by public transport. The strategy, the exact opposite of automotive sprawl, aims to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 80% by 2050.
Daley wrote to book thesis in 2017 describing what it was about the Waterloo region – its people and their government – that enabled it to overcome popular dissent and the Ontario Municipal Board to “embrace smart growth policies” and new green growth.
Now that she’s a regional employee, Daley said that kind of talk is off limits.
But he says the move to halt sprawl has been a community-building exercise and has allowed the region to roll out strategies that will affect larger cities where car addiction is hampering green innovation.
“Understanding how to use future development, and especially intensification, to fit existing neighborhoods into 15-minute neighborhoods,” Daley said, “that, I would say, is the biggest challenge.”