By Ryan McGreal
Published March 30, 2008
(Update - The Spectator has published a much shorter, more consise version of this piece.)
Some years ago in a lecture, David Suzuki said (I'm paraphrasing from memory) "Go look in your garage. If there's an SUV in there, you can't tell me you give a damn about the environment."
An uncompromising assessment - harsh, even; but he's right. If you drive a vehicle that consumes three or four times more gas per litre than it needs to, changing a few incandescent bulbs for fluorescents is just window dressing.
I've been mindful of Suzuki's statement since reading Saturday's editorial in the Hamilton Spectator, which concerns Earth Hour:
Turning off the lights and some appliances in cities around the world will not do the environment any lasting good. Changing our day-to-day behaviour is much more important than flicking a switch for an hour - and that's going to be much more difficult. ...
If we want to significantly reduce our society's massive and insatiable demand for energy and the size of our "carbon footprint," we have to be prepared to be inconvenienced - relative to our current wasteful ways - for the long term. It's not going to be easy or fun.
That's a gutsy sentiment, and it seems to reflect a more environmentally conscious direction for the paper's editorial board. It is certainly to be commended.
Still, while act like we give a damn about the environment, I find myself wondering what lurks in the garage.Can we claim to give a damn about the environment after having just opened a new expressway that not only tore through a UN World Biosphere Reserve but also opened up over a billion dollars in low density, suburban, car-dependent development out on the fringes of the city?
The Spectator editorial board still adamantly supports the Red Hill Valley Parkway, even though it is demonstrably harmful to the city's carbon footprint.
Among our polical leaders, kingmakers and other influential citizens, the highway is a sacred cow - immune to criticism, exempt from evidence, beyond the reasoning that applies to other decisions.
You may be wondering why I even bother to dredge up Red Hill, since it's such a deeply divisive, acrimonious issue - an a done deal in any case.
The reason is that the stubborn exceptionalism that rammed Red Hill past all arguments and evidence to the contrary is now busy doing the same thing or another destructive transport mode that will shape our city for decades to come.
I'm talking about the urban boundary expansion to create "employment lands" around the Airport, a plan that has relentlesssly sidestepped all manner of empirical analysis and democratic accountability since its inception.
The original study that recommended creating aerotropolis specifically justified the idea on the basis of cultivating airport-centred development: logistics, warehousing, and the various value-add multipliers that accrue to any concentration of economic activity.
John Kasarda, the economist who articulated the aerotropolis model, makes this abundantly clear in what he calls the "three As: accessibility, accessibility, accessibility."
The argument in Hamilton was always that we needed to grow the airport activity and develop the employment lands around the airport to take advantage of that virtuous cycle in airport related economic development.
In fact, we're betting the house on it. According to our employment studies, nearlly all the new jobs in Hamilton will be in airport-related industries around the airport.
The idea looks great in a consultant's report, but there are some serious problems not covered in the studies that recommend the aerotropolis.
The first is that airport related development needs growth in air transport to flourish, and air transport is only cost effective as long as fuel is abundant and cheap.
It has been for the past century, with prices falling steadily in real terms. That is now changing, as the global rate of oil production peaks and starts to decline. The price of oil has quintupled in less than a decade and is still on the rise.
In addition to being the most energy intensive mode, air transport is also the most greenhouse gas (GHG) intensive. Even if the industry manages to survive peak oil, all the lightbulb and beer-fridge replacements in the world won't amount to much if we offset our carbon reductions by ramping up our air traffic.
To halt and eventually reverse global warming, the world needs to reduce its GHG production by 70 to 80 percent. There is simply no way to achieve that ambitious target without radically reducing GHG output from all of its sources.
To paraphrase David Suzuki, If there are highways and airports in your city development plans, you can't tell me you give a damn about the environment.
Unfortunately, our fiery environmental evangelism is no match for the aerotropolis golden calf. It, too, is immune to criticism and inevitable in its deployment.
When Hamilton chose among a number of possible models for its long term development, every single option included the airport boundary expansion.
Hamilton tried to change its official plan to expand the urban boundary without first conducting studies and public consultation on whether and by how much to expand the boundary. A settlement between the Ontario Government / Hamiltonians for Progressive Development and the city mandates that the studies and consultations must take place first.
When Hemson Consulting was hired to do an employment lands study, it did not consider likely changes to the energy situation or take climate change into account, it fatalistically defined "employment lands" as, in the author's words, "what occurs in business parks" and it concluded that all of Hamilton's growth in employment will be business park employment - warehousing, logistics, light industrial manufacturing. Office employment? IT entrepreneurship? Small-scale industrial and skilled trades? Forget about it.
When the city picked a Community Liaison Committee to facilitate the consultation process, they stacked the deck with people who support and in some cases stand to benefit personally from the boundary expansion. The group is supposed to follow a consensus model of decision making, but the city defines "consensus" to mean only that everyone "had the opportunity to express my views and/or feelings", not that everyone agrees with the group's direction.
After defining "employment lands" as large, single-storey industrial buildings, the city conducted another study concluding that there are not enough brownfield sites to provide a significant share of the total need for employment lands.
All of this smacks of post-hoc rationalizing. The city has decided, that come hell or high water, it will service employment lands around the airport, and then commissioned studies that make such a conclusion inevitable.
When the peak oil argument first came to light a couple of years ago, many aerotropolis defenders backpedaled from the original justification, arguing that the employment doesn't necessarily have to be airport related.
Of course, if it's not airport related, there's no reason it needs to be located near the airport.
The Hemson and other studies argue that we need the large greenfield sites to accommodate large industrial business parks. This is simply an abstraction of the same airport development argument: we need the large industrial business parks for employment based on access to the airport (and highways).
Again, if the employment is not airport related, there's no reason it needs to take place in large industrial business parks.
Another argument is that Hamilton is only following provincial mandates, which "require municipalities to protect the employment land base and ensure an adequate supply for the future".
Again, this is a smokescreen. For the most part, the province is a mirror that reflects our own values back at us. The urban boundary expansion may be "consistent" with the provincial plan, but only insofar as the province bowed to pressure and set the minimum urban intensification rate at 40 percent - a rate that Hamilton's GRIDS plan meets only technically.
Whether we "need" 3,000 or 4,000 acres of employment lands depends entirely on what questions we ask.
If we ask, "Where can we find large, contiguous blobs of undeveloped land to build industrial parks?", then of course we're going to choose the airport lands.
However, this shallow, leading question obscures the deeper question we should be asking, the question Richard Gilbert tried to persuade us to ask in his report Hamilton: The Electric City: "What kind of city do we want?"
Do we really want low-skill, low-value jobs in logistics and warehousing, based on transportation modes that produce the most air pollution and greenhouse gases and are the most susceptible to peak oil?
That's what the employment studies are saying. In fact they assume that such jobs are the only growth possibility, largely through a pernicious circular reasoning that starts with the assumption that growth will be around the airport and ends up exactly where it started.
In other words, we need the airport lands because we're aiming for airport related development, and we're aiming for airport related development because we've identified the airport lands for our employment growth.
Other cities have asked the question, "What kind of city do we want?" and reached much different answers.
They've decided that they want high-skill, high-value jobs in research, innovation, information technology, entrepreneurship, and sustainable development.
They've set firm urban boundaries, stipulated that 100 percent of new growth will take place inside the urban fold, and decided that unused and underused urban lands will be the optimal sites for the kind of jobs they decided to seek.
They've reinvested in their urban centres, investing in pedestrian and cycling infrastructure, convenient modern transit, density, diversity, streetlife, nightlife, the arts, and so on.
Guess what? Those cities are developing their economies rapidly, attracting creative professionals, creating high quality jobs, spurring new industries, growing their tax assessments, and dramatically increasing their quality of life.
They're reducing commuting distances, reducing per capita car use, reducing per capita energy consumption, reducing per capita pollution and greenhouse gas emissions, and achieving economic success while doing it.
As those cities become more and more desirable places to live, they attract more and more of the very bright, ambitious, creative people who are making their economic and cultural transformations happen.
So what do we want to see when we look in the garage? The Spectator editorial continues:
Earth Hour has been dismissed by critics as an empty gesture, a feel-good exercise that lets participants feel righteous without having to do anything significant. They point out vehicle use is actually increasing, the bottled water phenomenon is an environmental disaster in the making, and the move to replace oil with ethanol is taking corn, literally, out of poor people's mouths.
But we'd push back: It's because these problems exist that Earth Hour is a worthwhile effort. It is a gesture, but one that aims to change consciousness - and if it does that even a little, it will be valuable.
Are we prepared to "change consciousness" enough to recognize that our obsession with highways and airports is utterly incompatible with our professed goal of a clean, healthy, vibrant city?
Will we lift the veil of invulnerability from our sacred cows? Will we avert our longing eyes from our golden calves? Will we take an unflinching look into the garage and be honest with ourselves about what we see there?
Do we, after all, give a damn about the environment?
Only time will tell. So far, things don't look good.
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