Dear Premier Dalton McGuinty,
Please do not give Hamilton any urban development money right now. This is our money and we fear they're only going to waste it on more roads and more sprawl. They do not appear to be honouring their commitments to transit development, sustainable growth, and protection of the Greenbelt.
If you cannot unseat our City Council for dereliction of duty, then at least save us the expense of paying for their mistakes twice. Thank you.
A little harsh? Perhaps. But there's plenty to worry about in Hamilton's Growth Related Integrated Development Strategy (GRIDS) initative. It's always a bad sign when a municipal government refers to its thirty-year plan to constrain sprawl and built a sustainable city as a "balanced growth strategy" - the "balance" tends inexorably to tilt toward the status quo.
In the Hammer, the status quo is low-density sprawl with all that the term implies - huge clusters of houses in windy streets, sequestered from adjacent big box stores, and all built on top of what was previously the best farmland in the world.
GRIDS makes all the right noises about its "integrated planning approach" and "triple bottom line evaluation," but dig beneath the surface and it starts to look like a lot of big talk. Of the 100,000 increase in population expected by 2031, GRIDS envisions locating 60,000 people outside the current urban boundary. This is an embarrassment.
No overachievers here: Hamilton is doing the bare minimum to meet the provincial requirement for "at least 40 per cent of new growth through infill and intensification [emphasis added]" in its Places to Grow strategy. If the GRIDS planners were truly committed to "principles of sustainability as an integrated decision-making model," they would be aiming toward 100 percent growth within the urban boundary.
Explaining why they can't accommodate all or most growth within the current boundary, the GRIDS planners pull out the usual excuses. The GRIDS growth options review argues that building entirely within the current urban boundary would:
Severely restrict housing choice. Actually, it will lead to more housing choice than just McMansions and townhouse condos. We'll get singles, rows, stacked town houses, mid-rise condos, high-rise condos, lofts, live/work units, and maybe even some tall, narrow, neo-Victorian houses with full front porches and small setback.
Not improve access to community life. Their argument is that "new communities can be designed to improve community life" but it's hard to "include the extent of transit and social service in new communities that already exist in the more established areas of the city." This defies logic. Putting more people within close proximity of existing transit, social services, and community activities makes it easy for the people to access the services, and improves the unit cost of currently underused services, like transit and city schools.
Not protect ecological systems. They argue that "very high density could result in a greater use of those environmental areas within the city boundaries." This isn't a good thing?
Not support Aerotropolis. This should be considered a good thing, since the whole aerotropolis plan is an economic black hole far from the centre of town.
Potentially harm rural settlement villages. Apparently, our "rural settlement villages" benefit from being paved over with low-density McMansions and highways.
Cause traffic problems if not planned properly. Higher density development, done properly, is proven time and time again to reduce traffic problems by making walking, cycling, and transit as viable options instead of driving everywhere.
One thing notably missing from the options review was an objective. Beyond deciding how many new citizens we have to cram into our boundaries, what are the real objectives of our growth? Where's the focus on improved quality of life due to walkability and accessibility of services, green spaces, clean air, transportation choices? Also, what about the economics of development? Where are the objectives highlighting the reduced costs of condensed development? These should be the real goals of our growth strategy.
Who's running this show, anyway? How does our planning process work? Do we have the required knowledge and skills and processes to execute a good plan? Several decisions appear to cast doubt on this. City Council especially appears to have great difficulty understanding the nuances of "smart growth." Have they read the draft policy papers? How can we deal with this? Training should be provided and lots of case studies utlized.
The city brags about its "Building a Strong Foundation" (BASF) consultation model, noting that it was used to involve broad public input in developing Hamilton's Vision 2020 plan - which City Council promptly ignored. Oops. If Hamilton is serious about making GRIDS work, it needs to integrate all three necessary elements: real public participation in developing the plan, good research and expertise in sustainable urban development, and effective training for City Council so they understand the issues.
So far, things aren't looking too hopeful.
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