Terry Fowler

City Environmental Policy: Connecting the Dots

By Edmund P. Fowler and Franz Hartmann



Whether or not we fit gracefully into the biosphere is still expressed and often determined locally, even personally. Every day, in fact every minute, social workers, teachers, garbage workers, the police, and many other municipal employees are making decisions that affect the biosphere, both positively and negatively. We shall first give the reader an idea of how one municipal authority is defining and implementing environmental policy. Then we examine the process of governance itself as an appropriate agent for real change, especially when urban sprawl is constantly preempting any kind of long term political culture as a basis for intelligent policy decisions. Finally, we give some specific examples of small scale initiatives which illustrate how much can be done by small groups working together, both within and outside of government. Throughout, the interconnections between other policies analyzed in this book and environmental policy will be stressed.
By way of introduction, it is worth stressing Price’s point that the “environmental crisis” has not gone away. Twice in recent history the early 1970s and the late 1980s concern about humans’ pollution of the biosphere became serious and widespread, only to be engulfed as a public issue by depressions and wars, as Price pointedly remarks. Our assaults on our natural environment (and on each other) have continued to intensify, despite occasional successes such as the phase-out of leaded gas and a rapid drop in the production of CFCs. Global warming and catastrophic weather have grown worse; the ozone layers at both poles are still deteriorating; more and more people are dying from the effects of air pollution; the quality and quantity of water, both in lakes and aquifers, continue to decline; and the loss of fertile soil to chemicals and to erosion has, if anything, accelerated much of the topsoil in North America’s Midwest is now gone (Jackson, 1980).

Confronted with such facts, our eyes tend to glaze over. What can one person do, anyway? Our argument is that there is much one person can do, because environmental issues are woven into every policy issue in this book, as well as into our daily lives. In a real sense, then, it does not matter where we start. Unfortunately, we usually analyze problems by separating them into parts. The chapters of this book are a good example. There are separate treatments of urban infrastructure, tax policy, parks and recreation, housing, and so forth. Each of these policy areas has its own bureaucratic structures, budgets, and academic experts. Yet each of these policies is related to the other, and especially to environmental policy.

Consider housing as an example. We have been building it in a particular way. Much new housing these days (and since World War 2) comes as spreadout suburbs which require the use of cars as well as trucks to deliver people, goods, and services longer distances than in more compact downtowns. Over 50% of our cities’ air pollution (plus much of the water and soil pollution) can be traced to cars and trucks, so urban sprawl is clearly a major cause of damage to the environment and therefore to us. Public health officials tell us that thousands more people are being admitted to hospital and even dying because of this air pollution (see articles by Hancock, Price, and Fowler and Layton in this book).

As Price has already remarked, these sprawling suburbs aggravate cities’ financial problems as well, since the lower densities make dwellings more expensive to service with electricity, sidewalks, education, police and fire protection, sewers, transit, and roads.

In addition, there are interesting social consequences of suburban development. The need for a car and greater housing expenses mean that such housing is out of the financial reach of many people, exacerbating Canada’s social inequities. Moreover, large tracts of homogeneous land use, such as suburban housing developments and large shopping malls, have been found to suffer from greater crime rates, relative to the total number of users (residents, shoppers, workers) of an area (Fowler, 1987).

This suburban development has an important cultural impact on us. Very few older buildings or unmanipulated natural landscapes remain, so that it is no longer possible for us to experience the amazing variety of ways humans can relate to their environment (both natural and built). In fact, much new development is homogeneous and ignores the uniqueness of individual places, making it increasingly difficult to be aware of one’s physical environment. Urban infrastructure highways, bridges, new buildings, public transportation facilities is already overwhelmingly in place, supporting all this kind of development. We are so used to it, and it so influences how we look at the world, that this infrastructure has become a cultural fact.

Thus, the way we build our housing connects to most of the other policy issues covered in this book. This fact has important implications for environmental policy analysis. What follows is an examination of Toronto’s environmental plan, which makes a point of stressing the relevance of many other policies to environmental policy, and which tries to specify what can be done by a government to achieve more sustainable patterns of living in its jurisdiction.



On April 12, 2000 Toronto City Council adopted an environmental plan. Entitled “Clean, Green and Healthy: A Plan for an Environmentally Sustainable Toronto,” the plan was a culmination of two years of work and contained 66 policy recommendations that were designed to benefit simultaneously the environmental, economic, and social health of the new megacity.

Before outlining some of the key themes and recommendations of Toronto’s environmental plan and in order to understand better the genesis of the plan’s recommendations, let us first examine the political context within which the plan was developed.

On January 1, 1998 the former Metropolitan Toronto and the seven municipalities were forceably amalgamated by the Provincial Government into the new City of Toronto, often called the megacity. The aftermath of the first megacity election, which saw a reduction of elected officials from 106 to 57, not only shifted the political balance to the right, it also shifted political power from the downtown core to the generally more conservative suburbs. The new Mayor, former North York Mayor Mel Lastman, came to power on a Tory-style agenda featuring a tax freeze. And, he could count on a majority of councillors — mostly from the suburbs — to support his neo-liberal agenda.

Economically, Toronto was on the road to “recovery” after the deep recession of the early 1990s: unemployment levels were falling and a local GDP that was increasingly reliant on global markets was rising (Gertler, 2000: fig. 2.2). However, the growing prosperity was unequally shared, for levels of homelessness were rising dramatically (City of Toronto, 2000: 5) and disparities of income were level or increasing (Bourne et al., 2000; see also Haddow’s chapter). In short, after years of wanting to be a world class or global city, Toronto had joined the ranks of cities like New York and Los Angeles by becoming a place attracting significant amounts of international capital that spawned a combination of extreme wealth alongside growing levels of poverty.

The new governance structure of the megacity, the economic recovery that concentrated wealth and entrenched the growing underclass, and a new Council dominated by fiscal conservatives completed the neo-liberal sweep of the political system, which had already transformed both the Federal and Provincial levels.

Within this political economic context, the Toronto environmental movement and other allies struggled to keep environmental issues from falling off the public policy radar screen. After a decade of growing success2, environmental advocates found themselves in a new political terrain which left little room for any environmental initiatives that could not be presented as “good for business.”

Fortunately, the agenda of the new mayor and other power brokers on City Council focused on a tax freeze which did not include a wholesale dismantling of the many positive environmental gains that had been made at the metro or municipal levels. One of the main reasons for this is that the Transition Team, set up by the Provincial Tory Government to create a temporary governance structure for the new megacity, acknowledged the many and difficult environmental issues facing the new city. Indeed, the Transition Team’s key environmental recommendation was to set up an Environmental Task Force that would report to the new City Council on how best to deal with the pressing environmental issues facing the new City.

Even though there was a recognition that environmental issues were important enough to warrant a special task force, this did not translate into an automatic acceptance by the new Council of a green agenda. The neoliberal dominance meant that any environmental initiative that hoped to move forward had to be packaged in way that, at minimum, did not appear to contradict the fundamental tenet of neo-liberalism: the market is supreme and governments are there to facilitate private sector capital accumulation, not impede it through regulation. In other words, while in the past environmentalists could develop political support for initiatives simply by making a case for environmental protection, the new reality required making a “business” case if the initiative was to go beyond being an interesting idea.

In March 1998 the Environmental Task Force (ETF) was established by City Council. Membership included city councillors, senior city staff, representatives from other levels or branches of government, union representatives, environmentalists, businesspeople, and influential citizen members. Jack Layton, long time Toronto city councillor and environmental advocate, was appointed as Task Force chair and four city staff were assigned to help fulfill the ETF’s mandate.

From its beginnings, the ETF’s deliberations reflected two important tensions. The more traditional environmentalists wanted the Task Force to act as a vehicle for entrenching the best environmental protection initiatives from the former municipalities throughout the new megacity. However, other members saw environmental protection as intimately tied to economic prosperity and social health. Some members believed that if the Task Force promoted this “sustainability” approach, it would help overcome the suspicion — or at best apathy — non-environmentalists had towards environmental protection by advocating policies which integrated environmental, social equity and economic concerns.3

Over the next two years, this tension permeated all the work of the Task Force. In the early summer of 1998 the Task Force instigated a process of developing “Quick Start” environmental initiatives, which had the intent of generalizing particular environmental practices from one or more old municipalities across the new megacity and of introducing new, non-contentious environmental protection policies. Various multi-stakeholder working groups were established to develop a short list of Quick Starts to improve the quality of the city’s air, land, water and greenspace. By mid-fall over 50 Quick Starts had been identified, and City staff had begun the process of implementing them.

While traditional environmental protection was being promoted through the Quick Starts, economic and social sustainability became a key concept driving the Task Force as it developed options for a new governance structure to deal with environmental issues. An increasing number of Task Force members accepted that the only way to ensure environmental issues were taken into account effectively within the new city was to infuse an environmental ethic throughout all decision making processes. The only way to ensure this, in turn, was through a sustainability approach which necessitated considering –simultaneously– environmental, economic and social equity issues in all decisions.

As mentioned above, the sustainability approach is potentially compatible with the neoliberal ideology, because both sets of ideas accept the fact that environmental initiatives can be economically practical. However, for some this compatibility is not acceptable. In fact, many activists (sometimes called red-green) have also called for the integration of environmental and economic issues, but by arguing that sustainability can only be achieved through the transformation of existing economic relations (Hartmann, 1999). In sum, the sustainability approach paradoxically seems to allow both reinforcement and transformation of our economic system. An example is given below of how this paradox can be explained .
After months of consultation with city staff, with councillors, and with the public, the Task Force recommended a governance structure that supported the sustainability approach. The key institutional recommendation was the establishment of a Sustainability Roundtable to be made up of City Councillors, senior staff, citizen members and an equal number of representatives from the environmental, business and social equity sectors. The primary mandate of the new Roundtable is to recommend to City Council actions which will promote sustainability throughout the city government. City Council adopted the Task Force’s new governance structure in December 1999 and the Roundtable met for the first time in the summer of 2000.4 The idea is to subject every possible decision, taken by every agency and committee in the City, to sustainability criteria.

Not surprisingly, sustainability also became an important principle in shaping the entire Environmental Plan, not just the portion about governance. In some ways, the City’s first-ever Environmental Plan is as much a sustainability plan as an environmental plan. The first part of the plan contains more conventional recommendations aimed at improving the health of the city’s air, land and water (see Price’s chapter). The latter part of the plan contains a number of recommendations that promote sustainability in the transportation, energy use and economic development sectors and thus operationalizes some of the more general points made by Price in the previous chapter.

How a city organizes the transportation of goods and people has a huge impact on the natural environment: a car-dependent urban form leads to much higher levels of resource use, air pollution and contaminated lands than a transit-dependent urban form. And, as an increasing number of North American cities facing traffic congestion are realizing, the transportation infrastructure plays an important role in determining the economic health of the city.

The Environmental Plan recommendations dealing with transportation effectively argue that the City of Toronto can reap huge environmental and economic benefits by simultaneously developing a transportation system premised on minimizing the movement of goods and people and relying more on public transit, walking and cycling, and relying less on cars. Air and water quality will improve, and Toronto will become a better place to do business thanks to less congestion and increased mobility (See Fowler and Layton, this volume).

This sustainability approach also underlies the recommendations dealing with the City’s energy use policies. As the plan states: “energy use is a vital part of our urban lives…We use energy to heat and light our homes and offices, operate our factories, power our vehicles, and run our appliances.” (Environmental Task Force, 2000:57) Every part of the current energy use cycle has an adverse effect on the environment. For example, the mining of fossil fuels such as coal devastates local ecosystems. The burning of coal to make electricity causes smog and acid rain and contributes to global climate change (see Price’s discussion).

Therefore, the Environmental Plan recommends that the City “adopt, as a long range goal, the development of a Sustainable Energy Infrastructure for Toronto that supports the efficient production, transmission and use of energy from renewable resources.” (Environmental Task Force, 2000:58).

Key ingredients of this sustainable energy infrastructure are energy efficient buildings, district heating and cooling systems which use energy efficiently, renewable or green power production such as windpower and photovoltaics; and co-generation facilities, which serve users with different energy needs (say, higher or lower temperatures) from the same energy source.

The environmental benefits of a sustainable energy approach will lead to improved local air quality, less acid rain, and a reduction in Toronto’s greenhouse gas production. The economic benefits of a sustainable energy approach are numerous. For example, reducing energy use through energy retrofit projects in municipal buildings saves the City money in reduced energy bills. It also means municipal tax dollars will be directed to creating local construction retrofit jobs as opposed to purchasing fossil fuels from outside the region. In addition, spending City tax dollars on green power could bring about a transformation in the energy market away from fossil fuels. Having the biggest energy consumer in the Greater Toronto Area (the city of Toronto) demand clean and green power will be an important factor in spurring the development of new green power sources, such as co-generation, wind power and photovoltaics. This, in turn, should help lower the cost of renewable or green power, making it financially more viable for other consumers to switch away from fossil fuels and to get energy from various independent suppliers. In this way, the high concentration of energy capital in a few hands would be attenuated. This fact illustrates the paradox referred to above: sustainable practices can transform economic relations without necessarily getting rid of the market system (Korten, 1999).

This potential of the Environmental Plan to transform the market is found in many of its recommendations. Through its capacities both to develop policy and to purchase goods and services, the City of Toronto fundamentally affects the local economy and how the economy harms or helps the natural environment. This relationship is most explicitly addressed in the recommendations dealing with economic development. The Environmental Plan recommends that the City use both its policy-making and spending powers to promote environmentally sustainable urban development, energy efficiency in the industrial sector, the development of green industry, local food production, and construction and renovation waste. Most of these recommendations focus on actions the City can take to assist local economic actors making money from business practices which are less environmentally destructive.

For example, the plan calls on the city to promote urban development premised on “reurbanisation of the City to increase the population and employment opportunities and set aggressive targets in the Official Plan; pursue a strategy of ‘strategic reinvestment’ that encourages compact urban growth and directs growth to those areas of the City where infrastructure capacity already exists.” (Environmental Task Force, 2000: 66). Thus, by using the Official Plan to guide private sector development, the City might help create an urban form and urban economy that, over time, becomes less destructive to the natural environment (see Price’s section on land use planning).

In summary, the City of Toronto’s Environmental Plan not only assumes that all our day-to-day actions have an impact on the natural environment, it also sets out a number of actions that chart a course towards an urban form and economy premised on sustaining economic, environmental and social health simultaneously.
In the midst of a City Council dominated by people caught up in a neoliberal agenda of tax cuts and economic growth at any cost, in the midst of increasing disparity of wealth amongst Torontonians, and in the midst of a worsening of environmental conditions in Toronto, the Environmental Plan suggests an alternative: a particular type of economic growth that is both financially frugal and also sensitive to environmental and social concerns. By adopting the Environmental Plan, City Council has accepted, at least in principle, the existence of another path that, if followed, will lead to a much healthier, happier, environmentally benign and vibrant economic future for Torontonians. The Toronto plan also shows how many tools local governments have at their disposal to make a difference in environmental policy (Paehlke, 1994).


The Toronto Environmental Plan does us a great service in showing just how pervasive environmental issues are, as well as suggesting tangible steps governments can take to make urban development ecologically more sensible.

It is important to remember, however, that in the past and today — government policies are still financing ecologically damaging development, whether it involves subsidizing oil and gas exploration, building more roads, or allowing unsustainable suburban subdivisions to spread farther and farther from the city core. Governments, in other words, are part of the problem, as Price makes clear.

There are many reasons for our governments’ failure to deal firmly with the ecological crisis, a failure that goes deeper than how good or bad their “policies” are and is not even related to the mix in government of those who are genuinely concerned about the environment, those who are opportunistic in handling the issue, and those who simply see sustainability as an extremely low priority.

One reason has to do with scale. Ecological damage always occurs in specific places. As mentioned in the introductory chapter, large governments (many of which are “local”) by definition have difficulty dealing with such places. Provincial and federal governments are responsible for policies that have contributed mightily to the uncontrolled spread of suburbs (Fowler, 1992); we are not as sanguine as Price about the potential of higher level agencies for grappling effectively with the ecological crisis. Most governments are simply too big to be intimately acquainted with environmental degradation, and indeed with other problems, in each neighbourhood, or even in each industrial subdivision or retail district. Some government employees, such as inspectors, teachers, police, and social workers, sometimes called street level bureaucrats (Lipsky, 1976), can become quite knowledgeable about specific localities; but street level bureaucrats don’t really talk to each other, and their specific knowledge is difficult to translate into effective policy for the entire government. General principles can inform a policy, of course, as we shall see below, but policies are useless without supportive local action. Smaller governments could help us deal more effectively with our environmental crisis.

However, smaller governments are doing much damage as well. Throughout this book, for instance, evidence is presented that sprawl, with its attendant dependence on the car, can be blamed for bad air, dirty water, disappearing farmlands—a serious threat to our species’ health. It is probably the one environmental problem, if such a phrase is meaningful. Yet municipalities of all sizes on the fringes of Canada’s larger cities are perpetuating urban sprawl. Leo’s chapter in this volume gives some specific examples of this process.

Here lies a second reason why governments are part of the environmental problem. The process of urban sprawl is responsible for the absence of a defined political communities with a history of public concern and intelligent discourse about sensible development policies. Subdivisions are being authorized so fast and municipal boundaries are so permeable that no local or regional authority on the fringes of cities has the political selfconsciousness to take responsibility for truly sustainable growth. And provinces not only lack the political will to impose policies to stop sprawl, they also subsidize it in numerous ways (Blais, 1995; Fowler, 1992:14856). A number of Chambers of Commerce and other business groups across the U.S. and Canada are realizing that sprawl is actually bad for business (Leo, 1998). Aside from its enormous economic costs, often borne by the taxpayer (Blais, 1995), it also seems to make city regions less competitive.

One rare attempt to curb sprawl through consistent policy is Portland, Oregon’s Regional Growth Management (RGM) Plan. It seems to have been responsible for increasing the density of Portland proper, which is a plus: however, sprawl has certainly continued in the Portland region (Leo, 1998; Jackson, 2000). Many other proposals have been put forward elsewhere advocating regional tax incentives and disincentives, as well as zoning restrictions which prohibit further spread of subdivisions or require certain minimum densities (GTA Task Force, 1996:12436). Zoning, though, is place-specific; it must be implemented by people who know the locality. Thus, the principle of higher density development could be adopted as a general policy, but its application depends on a fortuitous confluence of political forces with longstanding identity with an allegiance to a particular region as was the case in Portland.
In the Greater Vancouver Regional District (GVRD), a concerted, participatory effort by member municipalities produced the Liveable Region Strategic Plan in 1995, which represented (amazingly) something of a consensus among Vancouver’s suburbs on a process to concentrate development in certain centres and to keep other lands forever free from development (Smith, 1998; Raad and Kenworthy 1998; Fowler and Layton, this volume).

As promising as this sounds, one of the largest suburbs — Surrey — withdrew its commitment to the plan in August, 1997 (Simpson, 1997). Raad and Kenworthy argue that the original consensus was superficial “because the regional authorities lack any effective legal mechanisms to ensure plan implementation”(1998:20). In fact, the viability of the whole project was undermined by provincial unwillingness to fund the public transit needed to support the land use policies. The political process at both local and provincial levels, then, works against the carrying out of perfectly sensible, rational general principles (see Introduction to this book). The proof of the pudding is that decades of pronouncements and even policies versus urban sprawl have produced few tangible results.

An excellent example of how sprawl’s political fragmentation sabotages rational environmental planning is the present controversy over suburban development of the Oak Ridges Moraine, a 160 kilometre-long pile of gravelly hills north of Toronto, marked by lakes and woodlands, and the source of 65 rivers and streams flowing into Lake Ontario. Those who wish to protect the moraine stress that it crosses the boundaries of five regional governments as well as 26 local municipalities, all with land use planning functions. A commission to control development across the entire area is now being proposed — evidence that small scale local structures may not be able by themselves to protect the integrity of this natural feature (Moloney, 2000). The women and men who staff these local structures, nevertheless, know what is going on at the ground level, which is a necessary condition for formulation of sensible regional environmental policy. However, it is not a sufficient condition, since many small governments – especially suburban governments — suffer from tunnel vision, or feel that they benefit from new subdivision development, as suggested above.

The third reason governments have difficulty coping with human destructiveness to the rest of Nature relates to what has been elsewhere called the policy mindset (Fowler, 1996). Leaving aside the fact that policies are often meant to be purely symbolic and thus ineffectual, policies that mediate our (inescapable) connection to the rest of the biosphere are plagued by our habit of taking a solution set that works in one place at one time and applying it everywhere (Jones and Bachelor, 1993). Sometimes this works, but sometimes it doesn’t.

To illustrate this point, consider what is called the New Urbanism (see article by Leo in this book). This is a movement made up of architects and builders who acknowledge the social and environmental stupidity of large, homogeneous residentia1 subdivisions, which require suburbanites to travel many miles by car to get to work or to shop at huge shopping malls. Taking their cue from older, more compact central city neighbourhoods or small towns with mixed land use (so work and shopping are often within walking or cycling distance), the New Urbanists are building new suburban developments which have higher densities; houses which are designed for people who work at home; a mixture of dwellings and commercial uses; and restrictions on car use, including narrower streets and pedestrian zones. The problem is that these new enclaves are still suburbs whose survival is tied to postwar sprawl’s infrastructure of arterial roads and expressways, and its distribution system of consumer goods and municipal services. The New Urbanism developments, in other words, are plopped down onto some pasture, far from the downtown context which produced the real thing. The complex web of social and economic relationships which make a dense, physically diverse city neighbourhood work, which connect it to other such neighbourhoods, and which render these neighbourhoods ecologically sensible is absent. So the New Urbanism is a generalized policy solution – one size fits all — applied to particular places.

In fact, environmental “policy” itself is a problematic term. We carry around in our heads a model which sees the environment as something surrounding us, yet separate from us, in a way that allows us to damage it, restore it, care for it. In this model, “environmental policy” makes a certain amount of sense. We forget, however, that our relation to that environment is considerably more intimate: like all species, we can and do modify it, but we also eat it, drink it, breathe it, and absorb it through our skin and through our senses. And the environment eats us as well. We are of this planet.

This symbiosis extends to our built environment. It is instructive to ponder the many different ways our behaviour and movements are determined by the places we ourselves have constructed. At an obvious level, office space is not used for taking a shower or having Christmas dinner (usually!). Less obviously, there are parts of the city and suburbs we feel uncomfortable in, without necessarily knowing why. Subconsciously, we tend not to notice, for example, that we have built cities where it is unlikely for workers to go home for lunch, which is commonplace in Europe (Nelson, 1980). Because it, too, is like the air we breathe, the built environment has many effects which go unnoticed (Fowler, 1992).

Thus even though, to many of us, it is clear that humans have been behaving badly and trashing the environment (and therefore ourselves), our preferences, biases, values, and personalities have already been at least partially shaped by those surroundings, whether human-made or “natural.” Any policy we formulate will be similarly shaped. This fact should explain partially the behaviour of individual suburban governments that continue to build sprawl. It should also persuade us to be modest about what we plan for since we do not exercise independent judgement.

Nevertheless, we must act. The above considerations suggest that environmental policymaking should be an interactive process in every sense of the term give and take among all those involved, and constant awareness of different kinds of feedback from the biosphere. Nothing should be taken for granted, especially the outcome. In other words, environmental policymaking should involve a process different from our usual procedures, which tend to treat goals and objectives and outcomes as a given and to see the real problem as how to get there. Not surprisingly, many environmental plans are now talking about “moving targets” — modifying expectations and rules while the policy is being implemented.

Once we acknowledge the intimacy of our link with the biosphere (the rest of which does not seem to have to make environmental policy), then our own policymaking can become more creative by clarifying our general intentions, and then by experimenting on a small scale with what seem to be good ideas. Those who are impatient with this incremental approach should be reminded that evolution, while incremental, is also profoundly radical, while revolutions tend to replace one kind of tyrant with another. In this vein, rather than trying to buck the authority of immense public works departments staffed with traditionally-trained engineers, urban planners and politicians often design smaller projects which show just what can be done. Many books on greening the city have appeared, and it is remarkable how many of them are full of examples of this seemingly piecemeal approach, but as we shall see it is anything but piecemeal. For further reading, a short bibliography is provided at the end of the chapter.


One of the simplest and clearest places to start is with flat roof planting, one of the TEP’s Quick Starts. If one were to fly over most Canadian downtowns, one would see many thousands of square metres of asphalt and rubber flat roofing. By contrast, in Switzerland and in some cities in Germany, all new flat roofs are required to be constructed so as to sustain soil and greenery. In some cases, only perfunctory landscaping is added, but on many other buildings urban agriculture has taken root, so to speak. Not only is food produced, but the buildings are warmer in winters and cooler in summer; and the presence of more foliage adds importantly to the quality of life outside the buildings – less noise, cleaner air, for instance (Roseland, 1998:44-5).

Flat roofs are a perfect example of how practical environmental policy in cities can be, since it has so many kinds of benefits, from the ambience of the neighbourhood to savings on energy costs and the growing of our own food.

Food production is so alien to our image of cities that one might be forgiven for being startled at the suggestion that for most of urban history citydwellers have grown their own food. Jane Jacobs argues that, contrary to the usual hypothesis, humans domesticated plants and animals first in towns (which grew up around trading activities), not in the countryside, on the basis of archaeological evidence from a Turkish settlement of several thousand inhabitants which existed over 9000 years ago (1969). According to Bruce Stokes, “In ancient times, urban Greeks planted quick-growing seeds of lettuce, wheat, and barley in earthenware containers. The Romans often had windowsill and balcony gardens.” (1981:77) Lewis Mumford reports that towns and cities in medieval Europe were filled with gardens, and that livestock – especially pigs – roamed the streets around their owners’ houses (1938:37,46). Even more to the point, contemporary Hong Kong grows 45% of its own vegetables. Almost a third of Nairobi’s inhabitants grow their own food, producing on average about 30 kilograms of vegetables and legumes each year (Freeman, 1991:129). And many thousands of Western Europeans and North Americans grow food in big cities, in back yards, front yards, window boxes, and community gardens (Stokes, 1981:78-81).

From the point of view of urban environmental policy, it is important to note that most – though not all– of this prodigious amount of food is consumed by the growers. In other words, urban agriculture is not included in conventional measures of economic activity. Indeed, a number of dedicated people have found that farming in cities is only marginally viable as a commercial enterprise (Baker, 2000). However, this fact only underscores its significance for sustainable cities. Here is why. Industrial agriculture, by replacing labour with petrochemicals and by externalizing the excessive ecological costs of its operations, can market produce, meat and fish at unrealistically low prices (Hawken, Lovins, and Lovins, 1999:190-212). The direct environmental benefits of urban food production lie, in part, in the elimination of those costs, which are almost invisible to the average citydweller, but which cause great damage to the biosphere in general and to human health in particular: thousands of tons of pesticides and herbicides that permeate our water and soil; extensive pollution from thousands of diesel engines transporting our food from California, Mexico, and Florida; and the loss of millions of tons of topsoil due to unsustainable industrial farming methods.

Indirect environmental benefits involve the consciousness arising from direct and visceral contact with the soil and from participation in the mystery of vegetative growth, which includes a deeper understanding of the cycles and rhythms of one’s own bioregion. Also, there are dozens of community gardens and public gardening plots in every Canadian city, all of which knit together the social fabric of neighbourhoods in powerful ways which are out of reach of conventional social policy (Stokes, 1981:77-80). If Hong Kong can do it, Canadian cities surely can. And climate is not a barrier: John and Nancy Todd have grown abundant vegetables and raised fish year-round in greenhouses with almost no auxiliary heat in Prince Edward Island where winter temperatures frequently drop below minus 20 degrees centigrade (Todd and Todd, 1994).
Canadian cities are in desperate need of managing their garbage more sensibly; as Price shows in the previous article in this book, our huge amounts of urban waste are also a threat to our health. Here, the individual example of Halifax is inspiring. A few years ago, Nova Scotia enacted a general law requiring all municipalities to eliminate organic waste from their horribly smelly landfill sites within three years, using whatever methods were necessary. Interestingly, this law was the brainchild of the newly elected premier, John Savage, who had been medical officer of health for Dartmouth, Halifax’s twin city across the harbour. A task force in Halifax got to work and produced a system with four collections: all organic waste; fibre (paper, cardboard); recyclable containers (plastic, aluminum, and glass); and unsorted garbage, for which a user’s fee is charged. The organic waste is composted, the fibre and containers recycled, and the unsorted garbage is sent to a sorting plant where it is divided into twelve categories. The sorting plant is free of unpleasant odours, because the organic waste has already been removed. Some of the sorted waste is able to be sold, while the rest is sent to landfill; but not before it has gone through an aerobic composter, which reduces it to something resembling fluff (Layton, 2000). This is a maritime province, but the seagulls are gone from the landfill sites, which receive, now, less than 40% of Halifax’s curbside garbage.

Edmonton, with a facility opened early in 2000, is composting and recycling 70% of that city’s residential waste, although the cost per tonne is nearly double that of Toronto’s. Perhaps, however, both citizens and city officials are no longer using up front cost as the only measure of success in dealing with garbage (Henton, 2000).

This is a good example of how government policy can be really effective; but note that it is piecemeal in that it involves just one policy area. A more holistic approach is to take a small territory of the city and make it more sustainable on many different dimensions. This makes sense, because waste, food production, sewerage, energy use, and public health are all intertwined, as we have noted.

The City of Vancouver is planning the development of 36 ha of downtown land (23 ha is cityowned) so that it will meet a variety of sustainability guidelines. The Southeast False Creek (SEFC) development will be mainly residential, with buildings ranging from 50 to 275 feet in other words, a fair bit of high rise. Simply by building downtown, close to mass transit stops, the plan ensures that inhabitants of SEFC will have a lighter ecological footprint (see Price’s chapter). The guidelines also propose that 25% of roof area carry plant life, 25% of sewage be treated within the neighbourhood, 12.5% of the residents’ produce be grown on site, and the buildings use less than half the nonrenewable energy of other Vancouver high rises and offices (Alexander, 2000; Holland and Smith, n.d.) Actually, energy use could be much lower: an apartment house in Mississauga has been constructed which has achieved a 65% reduction in energy use at the same capital cost, using a sophisticated building envelope and airhandling systems, as well as using its own gaspowered turbine for all its energy needs. (Layton, 2000)

When we combine the above examples with real action on the environmental plan described above, it sounds as if progress is being made towards more sane urban development; yet as we pointed out in our second paragraph, overall, things are not that great. Canada’s greenhouse emissions continue to rise, as do many other indicators of pollution. Suburban development is still spreading uneconomically out from Montreal, Toronto, Calgary, and Vancouver.

Whatever policies we make, they will only be a reaction to a situation that has already gone wrong. Not just our environmental problems, but our whole definition of environmental problems are deeply embedded in cultural practices and beliefs which shape daily choices about work, food, childrearing, housing, and recreation, as well as our acceptance of myths about the high economic costs of living sensibly on the Earth or of decommissioning oversized corporations and governments.

Recognizing this truth, many of the people thinking seriously about greening cities are not just public policymakers. They are people of all kinds who are rethinking our culture’s conditioning about work, styles of life, and attitudes towards Nature. They are acting out their philosophy in their own lives by cutting down on the amount of regular paid work they do and living more simply (Elgin, 1981; Dominguez and Robin, 1992), growing their own food, retrofitting their dwellings and making them more energy efficient even building their own houses. Actually, a remarkable number of Canadians are involved in a housing movement which results in many changes in their lives, a movement called cohousing. This concept of shelter, developed thirty years ago in Scandinavia, has several features. First, it is small, usually from five to forty families. Second, it is a single development, designed collectively by those families. Third, the cluster of dwellings always includes common space, which is multifunctional: a communal kitchen and dining room, meeting rooms, guest rooms, communal washing machines, a workshop, perhaps a community garden or a practice room for teenage rock bands, or a daycare facility. Fourth, there are private dwellings with their own kitchens, living rooms and bedrooms, Fifth, there are explicit attempts to make the project even more ecologically benign through low use of energy and water, minimal waste, and compact design. (Fromm, 1992; McCamant and Durrett, 1988; CoHousing) Finally, in Europe, cohousing usually includes affordable units, often subsidized by governments. Many cohousing projects in North America attempt to do this, but most of our governments seem too shortsighted to help them out. Still, it is important to note that when the people themselves design sustainable housing, they include the concept of social equity.

People who join together to create cohousing are, in a sense, making public policy, but at an extremely local level. They are making decisions on waste management, housing, social services, parks and recreation, energy, land use, and even finance and safety issues. Of course, at such a small scale these policy areas blend together so seamlessly that it’s difficult to see where one leaves off and the other begins. Community gardens, for instance, have been known to increase the safety of neighbourhoods (Fowler, 1996). Cohousing illustrates at a microscale the way housing is part of all the other policy chapters in this book. Essentially, it is a very intelligent form of environmental policy, paying attention not only to buildings, but to spaces between buildings, which in North America are dominated by the car (Gehl, 1987; Alexander et al., 1977: 337)

Sensible urban environmental policy, ultimately, revolves around the intelligent use and creation of diverse places, calling for redefinitions of what we mean by both policy and policymaking. To be effective, though, as we hope to have shown, this policymaking needs to be local:

No one understands how, or even if, sustainable development can be achieved; however, there is a growing consensus that it must be accomplished at the local level if it is ever to be achieved on a global basis (ICLEI, 1996).


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