Time for a change of consciousness

If we are to live up to Earth Hour, why more highways and air flights?

By Ryan McGreal

Posted April 02, 2008 in Essays (Last Updated April 02, 2008)



Published in the _Hamilton Spectator_ on April 2, 2008

David Suzuki once said, "Look in your garage. If there's an SUV in there, you can't tell me you give a damn about the environment."

I've been mindful of Suzuki's statement since reading last Saturday's Earth Hour editorial in The Hamilton Spectator, which noted, "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."

I find myself wondering what lurks in the city's "garage."

One of the most glaring hypocrisies is Hamilton's plan to expand the urban boundary and create "employment lands" around John C. Munro Hamilton International Airport.

The original study recommended cultivating airport-centred development: logistics, warehousing, light industrial and assorted multipliers.

John Kasarda, the University of North Carolina economist behind the airport-centred concept, calls "the three As: accessibility, accessibility, accessibility" the main driver of the new economy.

In Hamilton, we're betting the house on the three As. According to our employment studies, nearly 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 the glowing studies mask some serious problems.

Airport-related development depends on growth in air transport, but air transport is only cost effective as long as fuel remains abundant and cheap. This is changing as the global rate of oil production starts to decline. The price of oil has quintupled in less than a decade.

In addition to consuming the most energy, air transport also produces the most greenhouse gas (GHG). All the beer-fridge replacements in the world won't matter if we nullify our carbon reductions by growing air traffic.

To halt and eventually reverse global warming, the world needs to reduce its GHG production by 70 to 80 per cent.

There is no way to achieve that target without dramatically reducing every source.

Unfortunately, "Aerotropolis" has become a sacred cow - immune to criticism, exempt from evidence, beyond the reasoning that applies to other decisions.

When Hamilton chose among various models of long-term development through the Growth-Related Integrated Development Strategy (GRIDS) process, every single option included the airport lands.

Hamilton tried to expand the urban boundary without first conducting studies and public consultation on whether and by how much to do so. An Ontario Municipal Board 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 presented an employment lands study to Hamilton council in early 2007, it did not consider the energy situation or climate change, and it defined "employment lands" as "what occurs in business parks."

Not surprisingly, it concluded that all of Hamilton's employment growth will be business park employment - warehousing, logistics, light industrial manufacturing. Forget about jobs in offices, information technology, creative industries and skilled trades.

After the city defined "employment lands" as large, single-storey industrial buildings exclusively, a followup study concluded that there are not enough brownfield sites to provide a significant share of the total need for employment lands.

Even the community liaison committee appointed to facilitate the consultation process is stacked with people who support and, in some cases, stand to benefit directly from the boundary expansion.

After the peak oil argument gained prominence, many aerotropolis defenders tried to distance themselves from the original justification, arguing that the employment doesn't need to be airport related. Of course, if it's not airport related, it doesn't need 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, but this just hides the same argument behind a layer of abstraction. If the employment isn't airport related, it doesn't need 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."

The province is largely 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 compromised to allow a minimum urban intensification rate of 40 per cent.

Whether we "need" 2,800-3,800 acres around the airport depends on what questions we ask.

The airport lands are an obvious answer to the question, "Where can we find large, contiguous blobs of undeveloped land to build industrial parks?"

This obscures the deeper question we should be asking: "What kind of city do we want?"

Do we really want low-skill, low-value jobs based on transportation modes that produce the most air pollution and greenhouse gases and are the most susceptible to energy instability?

Other cities have decided instead that they want high-skill, high-value jobs in research, innovation, information technology, entrepreneurship and sustainable development.

They've set firm urban boundaries and picked unused and underused urban lands as the optimal sites for the kinds of jobs they seek.

They've reinvested in their urban centres, investing in pedestrian and cycling infrastructure, modern light rail transit, density, street life and the arts.

Those cities are growing their economies, creating high-quality jobs, spurring new industries, growing their tax assessments and dramatically increasing their quality of life.

They're reducing commuting distances, reducing car use, reducing energy consumption, reducing 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.

The Spectator editorial concluded, "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 incompatible with our professed goal of a clean, healthy, vibrant city?

1 Follow-Up

On April 8, 2008, the Spectator published a rebuttal to this piece by Steve Howse. I also wrote a follow-up to respond to the points he made.