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GREENINGS (April 2016): Provide help or stand aside

April 7th, 2016 · No Comments

Relentless OMB stifles creative green projects

“I’ve come to the conclusion that the overriding factor in municipalities getting nice things is sheer willpower.”

By Terri Chu

Every time someone mentions a great municipal infrastructure project on the other side of the pond (usually in a really progressive nation like Germany or Sweden), I mutter some lame excuse as to the reason why Canadians can’t have equally nice things.

“Our population density is too low” I might say. Perhaps I will opine that “we have so many cheap resources, we can’t do it economically”.

Small towns in Sweden have reduced their carbon output by having things like district energy systems, energy from waste facilities, and stringent building codes. Why can’t we have nice things? I’ve come to the conclusion that the overriding factor in municipalities getting nice things is sheer willpower.

Municipalities like Guelph had incredible mayoral leadership to make their 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; the mayor was eventually voted out of office).

The City of Toronto, on the other hand, despite its high density development (often in large swaths; think the Dupont Street corridor), doesn’t even bother. Yes, it will cost developers more to put in 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! They just have to be creative. Section 37 (a provision that lets municipalities trade benefits with developers) money trade-offs could be made, and in the case of Guelph, civic leadership 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 who understand the challenges a mega city faces, and a municipal government unable to function because of said mega city politics. 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. On top of that, Ontario municipalities suffer from a relentless Ontario Municipal Board (OMB) that seems committed to protecting developers like the delicate flowers that they are. God forbid cities force developers to spend an extra dime 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 it is an impossible feat 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. Municipalities 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’s possible for Ontario to have nice things too.

As a wise friend once said, “Lead, follow, or get out of the way.” If the province won’t take a proactive approach in 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 committed to practical environmentalism. This column is dedicated to helping the community to reduce energy and distinguish environmental truths from myths.


Also by Terri Chu:

Don’t fall prey to marketing (March 2016)

Reduce, reuse, then recycle (February 2016)

The power of labelling (January 2016)

Tags: Annex · Life