Thursday, May 31, 2012

Greater Sudbury at a Crossroads, Part 1: Looking Backwards and Moving Forwards

The City of Greater Sudbury finds itself at a crossroads. The time is now ripe to tackle difficult, but important and interesting questions about the nature of our City, and what we want it to become in the future. With a number of trends underway locally and globally which will bring change to our City, planning for a suitable direction forward is more important now than it ever has been.

Modest Population Growth Projected

Two reports were released this week which identified some of the changes which Greater Sudbury can expect to see over the next few years and decades. The first report, the “Growth and Settlement Background Report and Issues Paper” (City of Greater Sudbury, May 28 2012), was produced by the City as part of the background materials for the 5-year review of the City’s Official Plan. The Official Plan is a land use policy document which guides development, and has been likened to a promise made to the public by the municipality that growth and development will occur in a particular manner.

Amongst other findings, the Growth and Settlement Background Report concludes that Greater Sudbury will experience modest growth over the next two decades, with a population rising from the existing 160,274 (in 2011) to 170,680 people in the year 2032. Coupled with a declining household size, we can expect the need for an additional 4,400 dwellings over the next 20 years.

The policies of the updated Official Plan will largely assist in determining where these new people will live, and specifically where new dwellings will be created.

Satisfactory Economic Outlook

The second study, “Sudbury: Mining for Economic Growth” (BMO Capital Markets Economics, May 31 2012), predicts a rosy picture of Greater Sudbury’s prospects for job creation in the short-term (well, “rosy” when compared to provincial averages). BMO is forecasting the City’s unemployment rate to continue to trend downwards (to 6% in 2016 from 7.2% in 2011), and that if existing global and regional economic conditions continue, as many as 4,000 new jobs may be added to the City by the end of 2016.

BMO believes that many of these new jobs will be in the well-paying mining sector (including mining supply and mining technology), based on a number of initiatives which are currently underway in the City (Vale’s $10 billion investment is cited), and due to estimates for continuing strong resource demands. Spin-off jobs from resource sector investment, particularly in construction, are also anticipated.
However, this good news about growth comes with a bit of a warning. While BMO indicates that housing affordability remains relatively attractive in Greater Sudbury, the Sudbury Star reports that BMO has likened growth here to what happened in Calgary 10 years ago, and warns that the City’s housing infrastructure in particular couldn’t keep up with demand (see: “Boom goes Sudbury”, The Sudbury Star, May 31, 2012). This drove up real estate prices, affecting affordability.

Rising Energy Costs

Global trends, too, will play an important role in Greater Sudbury’s development, particularly those trends related to energy pricing. We can continue to expect to see energy costs rise, although a recession might temporarily disrupt the upward pace of energy prices, similar to what we witnessed in 2008-09. There can be no denying, however, that oil prices will increase over time, due to the added costs related to processing/refining and transport of non-conventional oil sources. As a result, we can all individually expect to consume much less energy in the future.

Increasing Inequality

The growing gap between the rich and poor will likely continue in the future, unless significant policy changes are made at the federal and provincial levels of government. Increasingly, the middle class is losing ground in terms of real wages and purchasing power. Although interest rates have remained low for some time now, the impacts of inflation and rising food prices continue to pose a threat to all but the most well-off Canadians. While the 1% get richer, the 99% will continue to lose ground, relatively speaking.

Personal debt loads also continue to be very high, especially for young people entering the workforce. The percentage of income used to serviced household debt has risen over time, and will continue to trend upward. With more seniors now working past the traditional retirement age of 65, entry into the workplace will continue to be increasingly delayed for youth. Youth will need to compensate by taking on lower-paying and part-time jobs, in order to service rising debt. The impacts are already being felt by youth, as increasingly youth are choosing to reside at home, and delay making significant decisions regarding vehicle and home ownership, marriage and starting families.

Planning for Future Economic Prosperity

Taken together, these trends will have an impact on the wants and needs of Greater Sudburians. That’s why it’s so important that we plan for a City which will meet our changing future needs, rather than to continue to do things as they have always been done. Greater Sudbury’s economic prosperity will be determined by how successful we are at planning for and creating communities which meet our anticipated future needs. A city which provides opportunities for people and businesses to thrive in a low-carbon economy will be a better place for all of its residents.

How, then, do we move forward? The first step is to understand the impacts which local, regional and global trends will have upon current and future residents. The second step is to plan to meet those needs. The third step, and probably the most difficult one, is to implement the plan. This requires political leadership and political will, which aren’t to be confused.

Political leaders must act as champions for a new vision of the City. Our elected officials and other key individuals in positions of power and influence must be advocates for a new way forward. However, champions can only do so much if the political will of the electorate is focused elsewhere. Therefore, there must be a broad understanding that changes are necessary, and that we are moving forward, together, to address our anticipated future needs.

In my next few posts, I’ll examine what changes we should be thinking about making to our City based on local, regional and global trends. I’ll be looking at ideas of leadership and political will a little more closely, particularly with regards to achieving the outcome of creating a City strongly positioned to take on the challenges of tomorrow. And finally, I’ll be looking at why creating complete communities makes the most economic sense for Greater Sudbury taxpayers.

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

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