Cities, Sustainability and Civil Society

Speaking to the National Forum on Clean Energy and Industry in the Parliamentary Reading Room,  "C" Block

Speaking to the National Forum on Clean Energy and Industry in the Parliamentary Reading Room, “C” Block, Parliament Hill, Ottawa

Presented to the National Forum on Clean Energy and Industry, 

Session 3:  Sustainable Industries & Urban Centres

(Parliament Hill, Ottawa — Friday, October 3, 2014)

I was invited to speak here as a civil society representative, so will take the opportunity to offer some alternative perspectives to encourage our discussion together.  Before addressing the subject of our session, however, I want to set out a series of statements as a foundation for my comments.  I would be happy to discuss these further afterward, if something catches your attention:

First, climate change is a global issue with specific local causes and implications.  Anyone who still thinks human activity has not seriously damaged planetary ecology simply has not been paying attention.  Travelling off-road in a remote part of Kenya this summer, I noticed Maasai huts along the way were not topped with the traditional conical thatched roof.  When I asked why, my Maasai friend raised one eyebrow and said: “Climate change, of course.  We have not had enough rain for several years to make the long grasses grow.”

Second, sustainability is not primarily a scientific or technological problem.  It is a social and cultural problem.  We already have all the science and technology we need to solve the ecological problems we face.  We know what needs to be done; we simply don’t choose to do it.  Sustainability requires better choices, not merely better tools.

Third, making better choices toward a sustainable future requires a dynamic understanding of all the interrelated systems involved. This means the static, three-legged stool model of sustainability – environment, society and economy – is not only fundamentally wrong but inherently dangerous as a guide to the choices we need to make.  We risk being in the absurd position of deciding we can’t afford to create a future in which people will be able to survive.

Fourth and finally, without the active participation and engagement of civil society in the planning, delivery and operation of initiatives aimed at sustainable development, these initiatives will all certainly fail.  This makes the citizens of any country not merely appendages to the decision-making of governments and industry, but essential stakeholders and partners without whose involvement any efforts to improve sustainability outcomes will be ultimately unsuccessful.

Setting these statements out as a foundation, I want to turn to the subject of “sustainable industries and urban centres” and offer some observations, beginning with the obvious statement that cities are places where people live.  Particularly, they are places that people call home. This distinction is important.

If the residents of any community regard it as transitional housing, as a step along the way to somewhere else, they are not as emotionally invested in making changes that could prove costly or personally inconvenient.  If you regard some place as “home,” wherever and whatever it may be, there is an inherent emotional investment toward its care, development and preservation in the longer term.

A sense of home is attached to personal and social identity, to community, to a place — however grim — where everybody knows your name.  Efforts toward clean energy and sustainable industry will only work if they are rooted within local communities, in which citizens have a stake not just for the moment, but also for the future.  Initiatives situated somewhere else that require local changes in behaviour will therefore not have much community support.

Efforts to enhance local identity, to develop local communities, to foster a sense of civic pride, therefore may create precisely the kind of circumstance in which sustainability initiatives can take root and grow.  We need to see efforts to improve sustainability in sectors like energy and industry within the context of first enhancing the identification of citizens with the place they call home.  A company with a wise corporate social responsibility profile would deliberately link sustainability initiatives with long term social engagement in the community, instead of merely cashing in their chips for a few annual charity pictures in the local newspaper.

Second, with the possible exception of Vancouver, urban planning in Canadian cities with respect to sustainability is largely a disaster if it happens at all.  We need to put absolute boundaries on urban development, both to protect arable land and to encourage the urban density that a sustainable urban infrastructure requires.  There is too great a temptation to plant that one last crop of concrete instead of addressing the issues of urban redevelopment that are much messier and more complicated than turning soybeans into subdivisions.

Without population density, especially in the core, mass transportation systems are too costly for the volume of potential traffic, given the size of the system required to service a diffuse population. Huge single-family dwellings, with three or four car garages and four baths, occupied by 2.3 people, located forty minutes away by car in rush hour from work or school, will never be a sustainable urban design from any standpoint, especially in terms of energy efficiency.

Of course, the main thing you need for population density is more people.  This is my third observation:  Our refugee and immigration policies have been utterly inadequate since the Laurier administration.  The gap between the numbers of newcomers we land and the ones we need to land is growing almost exponentially as the baby boomers retire and there are not enough younger people to take their places.  Nor is this problem solved by raising the retirement age.

In a climate-threatened world, millions more people will be displaced in the near future than we see at the moment.  As Canadians, we live in the most sparsely populated area of the world after Antarctica, so we have space to take in a few more people.  Eliminating the tangle of quotas and bureaucracy that stretch wait times for family reunification would bring in thousands every year with ties to family and thus to community that would strengthen the fabric of our society and make it more sustainable.

Fourth, cities are levers of change precisely because they are the places that increasing numbers of people call home.   Change how people live together in cities, so the story goes, and you will change things toward a more sustainable future.

In Canada, it would be a serious mistake to think urban centres only means cities, however, even if that is where the bulk of the Canadian population lives.  In the context of the country as a whole, urban centres are small islands in the midst of a vast landscape.

It is more accurate to see urban centres – of whatever size – as part of larger social, cultural and economic watersheds. Our understanding of the importance of such urban centres should be driven by location and role, rather than by size or population.

The parallel may be made between the watersheds of such urban centres and the physical watersheds within which we need to consider the ecological contexts of human activities.  Both require us to understand whole systems, first and foremost.

In a climate-changed world, it is not our cities that will mark Canada’s most significant contribution to a sustainable future, but our landscape – the rivers and lakes, the agricultural lands, the boreal and other forests. Our urban centres should be aimed at enabling and supporting the land around them, reversing the flow of energy and resources from the land into the city.

This is a crucially important point for Canada as we head toward 2050.  Other countries will point toward their cities as the places where the battle for a sustainable future will be won.  In Canada, it will be the reverse.  The more we focus on our urban centres to the detriment of the countryside around them, the less of a contribution we will make to the sustainable future of our planet.

We need to reverse our focus, to find ways to support and redevelop the small communities that are disappearing from the prairies, for example, returning them to their historic roles as agricultural centres.

This means dealing with the social and cultural realities of rural and small town life across the Canadian landscape.  Enhance the life of these small communities and you make it possible for people to once again survive on the farm.

Make them places where newcomers to Canada are given the opportunities to find a new home, just as western Canada was settled by wave upon wave of immigrants for the first half of the last century.

Make intentional the possibilities of where people can live and how they can make a living, and find ways to do this without further endangering the local ecosystems.

This would change the game in Canada, wouldn’t it?  And that’s what we need to do, if we want a different future than the one that is otherwise going to confront us.