A Cleaner Environment: If Ontario Won’t Help, Please Just Get Out Of The Way
By Terri Chu
Every time someone mentions a great municipal infrastructure project on the other side of the pond (usually a really progressive nation like Germany or Sweden), I mutter some lame excuse for why Canadians can’t have equally nice things.
“Our population density is too low,” I might say. Perhaps I will opine “We have so many cheap resources, there's no economic incentive.”
Small towns in Sweden have reduced their carbon output by having things like district energy systems, energy from waste facilities and stringent building codes.
So why can’t we have nice things? I’ve come to conclusion that the overriding factor in municipalities getting nice things is sheer willpower.
Municipalities like Guelph had incredible mayoral leadership to make its district energy system a reality. It costs a lot, no doubt, but they are securing the long-term energy future of the town. Guelph did it despite the legislative hurdles it had to go through provincially. Its residents were on board with the idea of building for the future (that is, until they weren’t.)
Toronto on the other hand, despite its high density development (often in large swathes, think the Dupont corridor), doesn’t even bother.
Yes, it will cost developers more to put in environmentally friendly building infrastructure to plan for the future, but why can’t the city demand this?
When this question was raised recently, city staff simply said they didn’t have the power to compel developments to do this. They do! If's in Section 37 of the provincial planning act.
They just have to be creative. Money tradeoffs could be made. In the case of both Guelph and Markham, civic leadership just forced the issue.
Other towns with great progressive staff and laggard civic leadership often run into hurdles. I’ve consulted with municipalities where the staff was pushing on a rope to get council on board. Those projects rarely went ahead.
That, sadly, is the situation that Toronto faces. Lots of great staff that understand the challenges a megacity faces, but a municipal government unable to function because of said megacity politics. So anything above and beyond Ontario’s outdated building codes are an automatic no go.
It is hard to blame Toronto, given the already difficult situation of an amalgamated council.
But on top of that, Ontario municipalities suffer from a relentless Ontario Municipal Board (OMB) that is committed to protecting developers like the delicate flowers that they are. God forbid cities force developers to spend a dime extra to ensure long-term energy solutions and the lowering of environmental footprints.
While Sweden has eliminated many a garbage truck by deploying underground vacuum tubes to collect waste, Toronto is still trying to figure out how to get around provincial laws to get even slightly higher efficiency buildings - or buildings that don’t have falling glass for that matter.
In the absence of strong civic leadership (some have argued that is impossible since the amalgamation of Toronto), it is time for the province to recognize it needs to stop hog tying municipalities (and in particular its biggest city, which is barely functioning as it is) when it comes to planning for its own energy future. It is municipalities that have far more influence over carbon reduction than the province does. Whether a city invests in more roads or more subways has a lot more direct impact than building windmills.
It is possible for Ontario to have nice things too. As a wise person once said “Lead, follow, or get out of the way”. If the province won’t take a proactive approach to helping municipalities, please stop getting in the way of the progressive ones.
Axing the OMB would go a very long way to accomplishing this.
Terri Chu is an engineer and activist who writes on environmental issues.