Wednesday, 26 November 2008

Closing the Barn Door Before It's Too Late: Can Suburban Development Be Environmentally Friendly, Or Even Sustainable?

Sainte Martine, Quebec

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Yesterday I had a conversation with Elling Lien of The Scope, the alternative weekly in St. John’s, Newfoundland, about making cities walkable. Seems his newspaper is doing some in-depth musing about sustainability, and making cities walkable has come up.

The core of St. John’s is very walkable, since it was founded several centuries ago when walking was the way nearly everyone got around. But as the city expanded in the 20th century with classic car-dependent suburbs sprawling around, the city’s compactness disappeared. What to do in a situation like that? Lien asked.

The question echoed one asked the day before when I did a talk at John Abbott College in Ste-Anne-de-Bellevue on the extreme west end of Montreal island: What kind of place can John Abbott students expect to live in, ten years down the line? The original village of Ste-Anne which dates from the late 1700s was as walkable as the original St. John's, but Montreal has sprawled around it. The students at John Abbott grew up largely in car dependent suburbs and obviously these kids were wondering if they could count on the same kind of life

Unfortunately, I can't give a short, clear answer to either question. For many, many reasons we are going to have to make our cities denser, to have to live closer together, to depend more on public transportation and our own muscles to get around. Making existing suburbs denser by encouraging more compact housing development around transportation hubs seems clear, but beyond that, not much more is clear besides the need to be upfront about what real environmentally friendly development is.

That’s why I have such mixed reactions to a story in this morning’s Le Devoir. Sainte Martine, a small town on the south shore of the St. Lawrence near Montreal, has just announced it will give a one year municipal property tax holiday for developers who build houses that meet LEED gold or platinum standards for water use. Cutting down on the amount of treated water used and sewage produced will mean far more savings to the little town of time than will the one-time tax loss of about $2,000, according to the mayor.

Certainly water conservation is a big issue, even here where we get a lot of rain. But there’s a basic dishonesty in saying that classic suburban development—individual house and garden where car commuting is necessary—is environmentally sound, no matter how water- or energy-efficient the design.

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