Wednesday, 21 Feb 2001

OTTAWA, Ontario

Well, wouldn’t you know it! I spent much of the day preparing visuals for the Urban Forum lecture series, but technical difficulties kept me from being able to show them. Fortunately, all was not lost. This last-minute problem meant that I had to do some quick thinking, and in the end, made the discussion more congenial (less stats, more success stories). I have often seen it happen to other
s using the laptop and LCD projector, and knew that it was likely to happen to me eventually. It was an excellent learning experience, that’s for sure!

The image that would not show up for my presentation.

The Urban Forum is a public lecture series attended by urban planners, active community members, and interested public, so it was a great opportunity to focus on the relationship between climate change and local government. More than 50 percent of Canada’s greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions are influenced by municipal decisions and policies. Emissions come from energy use in buildings, passenger and freight transportation, solid waste management, water use and treatment, with the most difficult — but crucial — long-term issue being land use and urban form. We talked about all of these issues, but land use and transportation are close to my heart, so I will give them some attention here.

Transportation produces the largest share of GHG emissions in communities, and it is inextricably linked with the way that we choose to develop our communities. Low-density suburbs are built on the premise of cheap, abundant land and energy. They depend on lengthy distribution systems and require people to drive further and more often. Urban sprawl has a huge impact on natural spaces and continues to consume undeveloped land rapidly, destroying wetlands and productive farmland at an astronomical rate. Urban sprawl also translates into an inefficient and costly use of resources.

The not-so-open road.

Compared to other dwelling types, the detached houses that populate these suburbs consume the most energy per unit of floor space, use the largest share of land, and require the most energy for transportation. This translates directly into more GHG emissions. At the same time, sprawling suburbs require more municipal infrastructure, such as water, sewer, and road systems, which results in higher costs for municipalities. For example, a resident of suburban Kanata, Ontario (now a suburb of the newly amalgamated City of Ottawa), requires 6.45 meters of road infrastructure compared to only 3.79 meters in central Ottawa. The Greater Vancouver Regional District in British Columbia estimates that the average car in Canada is subsidized by about $2,700 per year for such costs as roads, free parking, accidents, and pollution. Transport Canada estimates that fuel taxes and license fees fell $5.5 billion short of covering the cost of our roads in 1996.

The good news is that much can be done to improve the situation, given the political will at the local level to make it happen. These issues were at the forefront of discussion at the Urban Forum and are particularly important in Ottawa at this time, as the city undergoes its amalgamation process with surrounding communities. People at the Urban Forum seemed to agree that this is an important opportunity to try and put environmental and social considerations into the Community Plan, ensuring that these issues are considered alongside economics in local decision-making. Lively discussion followed the panel presentations and continued after the end of the session.

I didn’t end up leaving until about 10:30 p.m. I was wondering what to do to unwind as I walked home when I saw my friend, Paul, who was leaving me a note. He had tickets for us to see Sarah Harmer, a popular musician (sold out for two nights in Ottawa anyway). And when we got there, I also ran into some “environmentalist” friends! What a great way to end the day.