Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Greater Sudbury at a Crossroads, Part 4: Towards a Green City

What kind of City do we want to inhabit in the future? If you ask that question to 20 different people, you’re likely to get 20 slightly different answers. However, studies have shown that generally speaking, there are really two different and competing visions which shape our perception and desires about a City of Tomorrow.

The first vision looks backwards in time to a romanticized notion of suburbia. Parents can feel safe with the kids playing outside in the large backyards of single-family homes built in low-density subdivisions (which are still quite close to employment, recreation and shopping opportunities). For many of us, this is the sort of City in which we grew up, or continue to inhabit. Indeed, had I been asked this question 20 years ago, I probably would have described my ideal future city in this way too. I would have based my future hopes and expectations upon an idealized version of my past experiences.

For others, though, the City of Tomorrow is a much more complicated place, mixing the old with the new. Often, this competing vision offers a more vibrant alternative, one with more options for just about everything. Usually, the built form environment is more diverse and perhaps a little more crowded. There is a healthy balance between the familiar and the unknown. Still, for all of that, the vision is pleasing to the senses, and exciting to think about.

This vision looks ahead towards a romanticized notion of what an ideal City could be if we started building what some have called a Green City. It’s romanticized, of course, because we often don’t envision how the sunk costs of yesterday’s poor decisions might effect the shape of the City itself. As much as we might want to build and inhabit a truly Green City, there is no denying that Suburbia, both as a built form and as an aspirational construct, is a constraint.

Complete Communities

Complete communities are those which can best support public transit, cycling and walking. They are characterized by mixed uses and have compact development at higher densities. They are the most economically viable form of development currently available to us, costing taxpayers less per capita to maintain than suburban and exurban sprawl. Aside from Greater Sudbury’s downtown, there are few areas within the greater City which can lay claim to being “complete” (and even the downtown is hampered by hard-edged geographic barriers like rock faces and rail road tracks, and a lack of housing opportunities; however, things are starting to change).

Our resources are only going to get scarcer over time. With only modest growth expected over the next 20 years, existing taxpayers will be the ones on the hook to shoulder the majority of the City’s public expenses (whereas other communities might experience more of a winfall through development charges, something which Greater Sudbury would be wise to embrace to a more significant degree than has happened in the past). The intensification and redevelopment of existing urban areas which does not require the extension of servicing or the creation of new transportation routes should therefore be a priority for new development.


For too long we have relied on greenfield sites on the fringes of our communities for inefficient and economically ineffective low-density development. Largely, rationale has consisted of the notion that the market has demanded this form of development, but increasingly that’s not the case, if it ever was. To a large degree, the suburban development form has been shaped by the developers themselves, due to costs. In short, it has always been (and continues to be) less expensive to build single family dwellings on large lots in suburban subdivisions. Many of the real costs of suburban development (such as road maintenance and service delivery) are actually paid for by municipal taxes, and not directly by developers/homeowners. In these situations, profits are privatized while costs are socialized.

But there is obviously some truth to the idea that the market plays a role when it comes to determining where people will live. If the demand wasn’t there, people wouldn’t be buying these homes. Housing demands, however, have started to shift, especially as our population ages, and as recognition of our changed economic circumstance takes hold. It is no longer affordable for people living on fixed incomes, or families with less purchasing power, to continue to live in a suburban setting, particularly when motorized transportation costs are high, and alternative transportation options are low or non-existent.

And municipalities are discovering that it’s no longer economic to continue to ask taxpayers to further subsidize residents of sprawling low density subdivisions. The argument that property taxes derived from new subdivisions will more than pay for subdivision upkeep over time has been discredited. Instead, many municipalities have begun promoting more intense, economically sustainable forms of development in preference to suburbia. Development does not always pay for itself, and this is particularly true for suburban and rural residential development.

Howard Kuntsler, author of “The Geography of Nowhere” and “The Long Emergency” described today’s suburbs as becoming tomorrow’s slums, because he believed that in a low-energy future, only the least economically well-off would choose to live in areas where getting around is difficult. Kuntsler pictured the poor hiking for kilometres from the shambling suburbs into the heart of an intensified city centre to work, shop and potentially sell their wares (agricultural goods grown on what used to be front and back lawns, which would possibly be the only advantage the ‘burbs would have over intensified city cores in a low-energy future).

I’m not sure that I completely agree with Kuntsler’s vision of the future, as I think that some suburbs will continue to be viable, particularly those inhabited by wealthy elites. However, for the most part, our experiment with suburbanization has proven to be a significant sunk cost challenge to creating a healthy and vibrant City which will meet our future needs. I’m not, however, suggesting that we can abandon the suburbs, but I am suggesting that Greater Sudbury’s suburbs will need to change if we are going to position ourselves for economic success.

Champions of Change?

Change, of course, poses a threat to anyone who is directly impacted. What should not be lost, however, is that change can also create opportunities. Those suburban dwellers who worry about decreasing property values as a result of intensification projects in established low-density areas may very well be surprised to discover that studies show, generally speaking, the value of their properties actually tend to increase. Still, it’s hard to make this point when strong emotions are in play.

We saw some of those strong emotions last week, when the residents of Alice Street and environs attended a Planning Committee meeting to oppose the construction of a 11-storey (shortened to 7-storey) residential condominium project fronting on Long Lake Road. The lands in question have long been an area designated for intensification and redevelopment, and the proposal which was submitted to the City was determined to be in keeping with the long-term goals and objectives of the City’s Official Plan. In short, this was the right development in the right location. Yet, Planning Committee voted 4-1 to turn it down.

Why did our decision-makers vote to favour the status quo in that circumstance, despite the clear evidence that the Alice Street condo is exactly the sort of development we need in our future? Well, earlier I wrote about the need for political champions and fostering political will. Right now, when it comes to building a Greater Sudbury which meets the needs of tomorrow, champions and political will are both in short supply in this City.

It’s fair to say that there have been a number of recent development proposals which were recommended by municipal staff as being in keeping with the City’s Official Plan which have been turned down by our elected decision-makers. A medium-density subdivision on Howey Drive near the Carmichael Arena in Minnow Lake which would have seen the creation of 600+ dwellings was refused in the fall of 2011. When a lower-density version returned for consideration this past spring, it too was refused. While it may be that environmental considerations hadn’t been fully explored, the fact is that traffic on Howey Drive was cited as the primary reason for refusal.

Roundabout Decisions

Lately, there has also been a lot of talk about building more roundabouts to facilitate the flow of motorized vehicular traffic. Indeed, the original proposal for the Minnow Lake subdivision would have seen the creation of a roundabout on Howey Drive in front of the Carmichael Arena. We’ve also been hearing about roundabouts proposed on Maley Drive. Last week, the Minnow Lake CAN held a meeting to discuss access options for a subdivision which included a roundabout proposed for the Second Avenue/Bancroft intersection in the heart of Minnow Lake.

Roundabouts may be good at facilitating the continuing flow of vehicular traffic, but they create significant barriers for pedestrians and safety risks for cyclists. Along high volume corridors, pedestrians tend to rely on signalized intersections or crosswalks to access the other side of a busy street. Since the whole purpose of roundabouts is to facilitate the flow of traffic in all directions by removing stoplights, pedestrians are offered fewer safe opportunities to cross streets.

In short, roundabouts are exactly the worst kind of intersection one could design if the priority is building Complete communities which are walkable and which support alternative forms of transportation. Since Complete communities are what we must strive for to best meet our future needs, it only makes sense that we facilitate development which promotes their creation. And installing roundabouts does the exact opposite!

Building Complete communities does not mean that we have to throw open the door to high-density development. There are often legitimate issues which need to be addressed (or which can not be appropriately mitigated) which may stand in the way of a particular development proposal. Looking back at the Minnow Lake subdivision, two issues in particular were identified by the public and Planning Committee as being problematic to its success, despite the fact that the lands had been set aside for development for decades, as acknowledged in the City’s Official Plan (the “public promise” document).

The Minnow Lake Subdivision: A Case Study

First and foremost, there were concerns made with regards to traffic along Howey Drive. The second issue had everything to do with the development’s proximity to Ramsey Lake, and the perceived unknown effects that it would have on lake water quality. Were these real issues, or just manufactured by residents and others who opposed the subdivision? In my opinion they were clearly real issues, because they hadn’t received the benefit of a complete assessment. In short, the impacts of the development on traffic and lake water quality were unknown at the time when decisions were made.

That’s just my opinion, though. The developer did everything which was required by the process, and provided reports related to traffic and water quality and quantity. Why then do I think it’s fair to say that the anticipated impacts of that development proposal were unknown when it went in front of Planning Committee for a decision?

Well, let’s look at traffic. Yes, a traffic study was prepared and reviewed by the City’s traffic experts, and it was determined that the subdivision’s impacts on traffic would be within acceptable limits. Yet, with other vacant lands having received development approvals in the recent past (3 17-storey towers between Howey and Brady) and with new applications moving forward elsewhere along the corridor proposing connections to Howey/Bancroft not included in the developer’s study (which isn’t to fault the developer, because there was no requirement to do so), the true impacts from traffic generated by new development remain unknown. This was disconcerting to area residents, the Ward Councillors, and ultimately to Planning Committee.

With regards to lake water quality, the Official Plan establishes a regime that promotes looking at water quality and quantity on a watershed basis. The Plan calls for the preparation of a subwatershed plan for Ramsey Lake, in order to map out how lake water quality is being negatively impacted, and how those negative impacts could be mitigated in the future. As one of the City of Greater Sudbury’s primary drinking water sources, it’s fair to say that Ramsey Lake’s water quality is an important issue for a significant number of Greater Sudburians.

Of course, studies were completed by the developer to determine that any impacts on water quality would be within acceptable limits. But again, the real issue here is bigger than any one development proposal. As with traffic on Howey Drive, is it perhaps more appropriate to look at water quality impacts in a comprehensive way, given that Ramsey Lake is a drinking water source?

Is it enough to look at the expected impacts from a specific development in isolation of other proposals, and/or in absence of “big picture” technical information, such as a complete corridor traffic study or a subwatershed study? The Official Plan says, for the most part, that it is ok to look at development proposals in isolation of this bigger-picture frame of reference; as long as the specific technical details are covered off, we can move forward. Of course, residents and others impacted by this fairly narrow approach clearly didn’t agree, and ultimately convinced Planning Committee to prefer their point of view over the Official Plan’s.

The Importance of the Official Plan

With the need to look at development as part of a larger picture in mind, how then can decision-makers move forward towards sound decisions on any one particular proposal? The answer is that decisions should be guided by sensible development policies. In Greater Sudbury, the policy document which is used to guide development is supposed to be the Official Plan. But where does following the Official Plan leave decision-makers when plan policies appear to no longer make sense (traffic on Howey Drive precluding further development), or are not being implemented (as in the case of the Lake Ramsey subwatershed study)?

The Minnow Lake subdivision fell victim to the legitimate uncertainties raised by the public regarding the issues of traffic and water quality impacts. The developer did all that was required to receive a favourable approval (and indeed, municipal staff recommended just that), and the lands were determined by the Official Plan to be suitable to the form of development proposed. Yet Planning Committee refused the applications. Twice. They broke the public promise contained in the Official Plan on which the developer had invested significant resources with the expectation of a promise being kept.

It’s a good thing, I think, that the City’s Official Plan is now being reviewed, as it’s clear to me that the policies of the Plan aren’t doing all that they could and should be doing to guide development. Indeed, I believe that to a not insignificant degree, the promise which the City’s Official Plan has made to the City (residents and developers) is becoming harder to keep by elected officials because the promise itself is, in many cases, wrong. In many respects, the City’s Official Plan is more of a snap-shot of the past, and where it does look ahead, it offers largely a status-quo-supporting vision of the future. It is not a comprehensive framework for building the Green City of Tomorrow.

I sincerely hope that the 5-year review of the Plan will produce a more useful document which will assist with guiding decision-makers to make decisions which lead to the creation of a more Complete and Green Greater Sudbury. To do so, though, the Plan will have to recognize that not all locations which have been historically set aside for development remain viable today. Hard decisions should be made regarding development opportunities. But if we truly want to outcomes which deliver the best benefits, those decisions are going to have to be made. Decisions which promote development at all costs usually have hidden costs attached which are picked up by taxpayers.

Breaking Promises

Of course, the Official Plan could have all the best policies in the world, but if decision-makers continue to ignore those policies and break their public promise, the Plan itself isn’t going to matter much. That’s not the way decisions are supposed to be made with regards to development, but all too often it’s the way they are made in reality (and not just in Greater Sudbury).
However, to provide a Greater Sudbury example, there is an outright prohibition for new development to occur within floodplains. Yet application after application which would see development in floodplains receives approval. Based on an analysis of long-term trends, we know that we can expect more frequent and stronger flooding events to occur in the future. Why, for goodness sakes, armed with this knowledge, do we continue to allow development in floodplains? Particularly when taxpayers are going to be the ones to pick up at least a part of the tab to rebuild infrastructure harmed by flooding?

Why do our elected officials continue to break sensible promises about not allowing development in floodplains?

Seizing the Day

Greater Sudbury is truly at a crossroads. Trends have been identified at local, regional and global levels which will impact the shape of our City, the lives of residents, and the economic prosperity of our businesses and industry. The decisions which are made today will have lasting effects on us and on our children. We can choose to continue to make decisions in an ad hoc manner, favouring the existing status quo. Or we can begin to make decisions as if the future really mattered to us, and strive to create a more Complete and Green City, better equipped to meet the needs of tomorrow.
It’s important to do things right the first time, as decisions lead to the investment of sunk costs which, once made, can be very difficult and expensive to un-make. Decisions should be guided by comprehensive planning which requires the assessment of all anticipated impacts as a starting point. Decision-makers need to become champions of a Green City and begin the process of building political will amongst the electorate. Elected officials will need to be assisted in this task by other community leaders and advocates. Public opinion can shift over time, especially if concerted efforts are made to do so.

Budgetary priorities must shift in order to keep pace with the changing needs of the community. The prioritization of motorized vehicular traffic must take a back seat to building complete communities for people instead of cars. The needs of transit riders, cyclists and pedestrians should increasingly become the focus of decision-making. Decisions, once made, should be implemented, and promises made to the public should be kept.

We’ve already made some good efforts to find a sustainable way forward. The City’s Downtown Master Plan and Brownfields Community Improvement Plan represent innovative and cost-effective ways to altering our built environment in line with Green City ideals. Bringing the Laurentian University School of Architecture to the City’s downtown core will add to growing vibrancy of the heart of our City. Housing initiatives in Chelmsford and other outlying areas which allow seniors to continue to live in their home communities while receiving appropriate services present opportunities for residents to age in place.

We need to continue building upon the successes we’ve achieved so as to maintain the momentum forward. Armed with the knowledge that tomorrow will not be like yesterday, the way forward is clear. And the time to plan for a low-energy future is clearly at hand.

(opinions expressed are my own, and should not be interpreted as being consistent with those of the Green Party of Canada)

1 comment:

joenkate said...

Thanks again for another wonderfully thoughtful essay Steve! It's quite the public service :)