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Opinion: Cities Hold the Answer as Ontario Pushes Costly Sprawl

The Great One (Wayne Gretzky, not David Suzuki) famously said to “skate to where the puck is going, not where it’s been.” As we ponder how to avoid the worst of the climate crisis in Ontario, this advice is worth considering, especially since the province is MIA on climate action.

Fortunately, the puck is heading towards City Hall and how we design, repair, and (re)build our towns and cities, which has a profound impact on the type and quantity of energy we use. Focusing here could help us speed up the transition towards a post-carbon economy.

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For more than 30 years, the environmental community has assumed “the puck” is heading to Queen’s Park and Parliament Hill, where the money and law-making powers necessary to address the climate crisis reside. So environmentalists have invested heavily in government lobbying and focusing public pressure on these decision-makers.

Sadly, the results are mostly disappointing. Provincial and federal governments continue to pay lip service to climate action while doing little to change the policies and budgets that prop up the carbon economy. At the heart of these failures has been the inability of the environmental movement to mobilize enough people to put pressure on elected officials to overcome the influence of powerful corporate leaders who benefit from fossil fuel extraction.

If we’ve been unable to motivate enough members of the public to advocate for climate action, maybe it’s because we’re not focusing on where the puck is going.

In Ontario, the COVID-19 crisis brought to the forefront people’s concern about where they live. Today’s top-of-mind issues include housing affordability, the lack of missing middle housing, aging in place, and dealing with severe weather events. Many people are focused on repairing and upgrading their homes, neighbourhoods, towns, and cities. And the key decisions about these repairs and upgrades are made through complicated and arcane planning systems at City Hall.

That means the puck is going to local planning meetings where top-of-mind issues are being dealt with.

This is great news for the climate community. Designing, repairing, and (re)building our towns and cities fundamentally impacts the type and quantity of energy we use. Done properly, city planning decisions can dramatically reduce our energy and speed up the transition towards a post-carbon economy. But the wrong decisions can reinforce our carbon dependence by supporting sprawl development that drives high levels of energy use, sucks up lots of public dollars for unnecessary infrastructure, and eats up precious natural lands and farmland that we can’t replace once they’re gone.

In Ontario, most developers are promoting a 21st century version of 20th century sprawl called “tall and sprawl”: tall skyscrapers with tiny apartments built in the middle of towns and cities, with sprawling, single-family homes in car-dependent neighbourhoods built on former farmland and natural areas. 

And they’ve convinced the government to change planning laws to support that model, then build unnecessary, expensive mega-highways that will turbocharge sprawl development on nearby lands. From a climate perspective, it’s a catastrophic approach that favours an energy-intensive carbon economy.

Fortunately, there’s hope. While the province sets overall planning rules, City Hall makes the actual decisions about what gets built and where. That’s why developers are busy lobbying local councils across the province to get “tall and sprawl” built. But they’ve got competition. Local residents, led by neighbourhood associations and housing advocates, are increasingly telling their mayors and councillors they want solutions that create more affordable housing, more housing options, and more liveable communities. And they’re questioning the logic of ”tall and sprawl”.

This creates an incredible opening for anyone in the climate community who’s been paying attention to where the puck is going. Inspired by the heightened levels of community engagement, they’ve joined community groups and local residents in demanding that City Hall say no to “tall and sprawl” and say yes to community-friendly solutions that also happen to be climate-friendly.

Earlier this year, local climate activists in Hamilton worked with other local activists to convince their city council to oppose a call from developers to open up 1,300 hectares of precious farmland and natural areas for new housing development. Instead, Hamilton agreed to focus new development in areas where infrastructure already exists, thereby reducing future energy use and freeing up future public dollars for climate action.

This year, as well, climate campaigners in Waterloo Region joined other community groups to stop a proposal to open up 2,200 hectares of farmland and natural areas for development. Using a combination of community pressure and compelling expert evidence, the groups convinced Waterloo Region Council in August to continue building more housing in existing communities to accommodate expected population growth.

By focusing on where the puck is going, these local climate activists “scored” two goals. They helped get climate-friendly planning policies adopted in two major cities in Ontario. And they’re strengthening relationships with community groups outside the environmental “bubble”, while helping build public support for community solutions that address the climate crisis.

Over the next four years, city halls across Ontario will be making a large number of planning decisions that fundamentally affect how we deal with the climate crisis. Community members and advocates will be there pushing for solutions to affordability and livability. If climate groups “skate to where the puck is going” and fight alongside those local heroes, we may find that we’re building the broad public support we need to finally get Queen’s Park and Parliament Hill to act on the climate crisis.

Franz Hartmann is Coordinator of the Ontario Greenbelt Alliance.