Climate Activists Turn Their Sites on the Suburbs

Don Pittis, writing for the CBC, has an interesting article that posits Climate change focus moves to the suburbs as cities continue to sprawl. He makes some good points.

You might think that cramped and crowded cities, dense with roads and highrise towers, are bad for the environment and bad for addressing climate change, but it is a long-established principle of environmental economics that while the land beneath urban cores has been largely stolen from nature, cities provide ecological benefits. Packing people all into one place, called “densification,” makes carbon-friendly public transit work. It also allows us to concentrate services such as sewage treatment and energy systems.

True, but while they may be better for the environment as a whole, downtown cores are not themselves healthy environments.

Perhaps most important, environmentalists have hoped that concentrating people into dynamic cities such as London, New York, Montreal and Vancouver would take the pressure off surrounding green spaces that are so essential for keeping the environment healthy.

Then they should have focused on making those places work for people other than young high income professionals who can afford to live in expensive apartments, and don’t have children and therefore a need for more space.

But there are increasing signs that those hopes have faded and that COVID-19 has just made things worse. Climate scientists say it is time to take that into account.

I would say Covid-19 has made things better. In the long term, the question is how many people who would otherwise not have left will move back, how many will stay in their new found suburbs but continue to work from home, and how many will actually commute every day. My company, which has always had a large number of remote workers spread across North America and Europe, is unlikely to push for a wholesale return to the office.

“In the early 2000s, there was a lot of talk about a return to the cities, and millennials and boomers wanting to be back, choosing cities over suburbs, but that has been somewhat disproven,” said Hannah Teicher, a researcher at the University of Victoria’s Pacific Institute for Climate Solutions in British Columbia.

I can think of one person I know who had a child in the late 90’s and moved back into the city. Most of the yuppies who live in the city are millennials or young genXers. Those who have children generally move to the suburbs or, if they can afford it, to the city outside the downtown core, where single family homes are still common.

In the midst of the well-publicized pandemic race for space — as Canadians worked, went to school and entertained themselves in homes that suddenly seemed too crowded — Statistics Canada released data showing that rather than rushing into cities to take advantage of their vibrancy and services, people were moving out.

Would you want to be trapped in an 800 square foot box either alone or with your partner? Especially when all the restaurants, theaters, and clubs that made city life fun are closed?

“Urban sprawl continues, with Toronto and Montreal both experiencing record-high population losses to surrounding areas,” said a mid-January report from the statistical agency.

City life is expensive. Everything costs more. You have no space to buy in bulk. If you’re lucky, you might not have to pay for parking.

In June, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced “the first-ever Census of the Environment,” a Statistics Canada program to quantify the country’s green spaces and how quickly they are being lost to industry and urbanization. One of the difficult things for the Statistics Canada researchers working on the new census, including the project’s research manager, François Soulard, is how to put an economic value on the benefits they offer.

You can’t put a price on the outdoors. Without it, Vancouver would be a lot less attractive.

“We know that ecosystems provide goods and services that we rely on every day, generally without noticing it,” Soulard said in an email conversation on Friday. Until crises like the heat dome in Western Canada or deadly floods arrive, things such as air quality, carbon sequestration, flood protection and heat mitigation seldom stack up against the profits of real estate development — especially when Canadians are demanding more single-family homes.

Forests and wetlands don’t actually provide a lot of goods and services, though agricultural land, a lot of the best of which around here has been built on, does. It’s hard to defend green spaces when developers work to put their friends into power to make developer friendly changes to zoning. The mountainside behind my house used to be second growth forest until the neighbouring town of which it was a part built a bridge over the river that separated it from the rest of the town. Now its a giant treeless housing tract, like large parts of the rest of that town.

In fact, some analysts, including from the real estate industry, say the solution to a housing shortage is to cut red tape and let builders build.

The solution to a housing shortage is to build more houses? Seems pretty radical.

According to new research published last week by Teicher and two colleagues, if the trend away from downtown cores continues, it is essential to urgently refocus some of the effort to fight climate change from cities to suburbia.

And by “effort”, they mean regulation.

While the authors still believe urban densification is better for the environment, their paper — titled Climate Solutions to Meet the Suburban Surge: Leveraging COVID-19 recovery to enhance suburban climate governance — addresses the reality that in both Canada and the United States, the trend toward sprawl will be hard to stop.

Governance is a funny way to say red tape. Oh well, guess that housing shortage won’t be solved any time soon.

The only pragmatic solution, Teicher said in an interview on Friday, is to develop policy to mitigate the worst impacts of suburban and exurban sprawl.

Wrong. The pragmatic solution is for government to deal with the commons, like public transit and interfere less with the citizens. An example of ridiculous government policy: My city repaved my street. My neighbour and I both have double wide driveways, separated only by a curb that runs along the property line. If we hadn’t made a written request to the city for an exemption, they would have dug up a 6 foot strip, 3 feet off each of our driveways, and planted grass on it. As it is, we now have 3 foot curbs at the ends of the driveways. I asked the contractor if they could refrain from putting these in, and they told me they were required to by the city.

“We’re not going to turn suburbs into cities, and suburban development is going to continue. The question is how can you redevelop existing suburbs to some extent and how can you make new suburbs better,” she said.

Why would I want anyone to redevelop my suburb?

With new suburbs, one technique is to build around the ecological goods and services that Soulard referred to so that they continue to provide their economic and climate benefits. That requires rules demanding developers preserve watersheds, wetlands and forest rather than paving over them, Teicher said.

Good idea, but hard to put in place and keep in place. So far, developers have at least been kept out of our watersheds, for the most part. Massive sections of farmland in my city, which are all on the river floodplain, are being built on.

Part of the solution is to increase the density of suburbs similar to the push in existing urban cores, where in what has been called “socialism for the rich,” swaths of single-family homes have become sacrosanct despite a high cost to all taxpayers.

Family’s want yards for their kids. Townhouses and condominiums tend to be governed by the provincial condominium act, which gives an elected council power to create rules, enforce them with fines, and levy fees for improvements that individual owners may not approve of. Detached homes don’t have this problem.

Teicher’s research notes that already, in suburbs surrounding Vancouver and Portland, Ore., there has been what she describes as “gentle densification” as property owners have been allowed to build more housing on existing suburban lots.

In Vancouver city, properties that were originally 100 feet wide were allowed to be subdivided into four 25 foot lots, called “Vancouver specials”. This was the only way developers could make money knocking down an old house. These so called “specials” are anything but. They are essentially tenements, though at least their owners don’t fall prey to the condominium act.

Other suggestions include stopping the trend toward more space per person in suburban construction — something that may have been aggravated by the pandemic urge for greater living space.

The only way to do this in an existing suburb is by subdividing lots. A lot of the remaining lots big enough to subdivide are prime agricultural properties. Paving them over doesn’t seem very environmentally wise.

Teicher’s research shows that rules insisting on better insulation and airtight construction can make it more practical for suburban energy to be produced locally using solar and ground source heat pumps.

Since the sun rarely shines in Vancouver, solar power is very inefficient here. Because our power is generated by hydroelectricity, it’s already green and renewable. Heat pumps are a very inefficient way to heat houses in cold climates. In a brand new airtight house, they might do the job, but in a place like mine, which was built in the 1970s, it would likely cost three times as much to heat with a heat pump as it does to use natural gas.

One trend that is already happening is that suburbs have developed their own highrise business centres that, combined with a pandemic shop local movement, could mean fewer polluting automobile trips to city centres or malls.

Highrise business centers do far less for preventing automobile trips than either working from home or public transit. The pandemic has made vastly more people shop online than it has made shop locally. How does Amazon delivery stack up environmentally against trips to malls?

“On the global climate stage, there’s been a lot of attention to cities,” Teicher said. “I think we need equal attention to suburbs.”

Government attention is almost never good. Here in BC, the government has had some reasonable programs that help people retrofit insulation and double glazed windows and upgrade old inefficient appliances, and we have some options for public transit, though it’s only able to serve a small percentage of the population. Building better rapid transit is one of the few things the government can do that will help the problem, rather than creating more bureaucracy.

It would be great if there was a more affordable way to upgrade our home electrical systems. My house was upgraded with a subpanel, but all my 240V circuits are in use (for the stove, the drier, the air conditioner, and the hot tub). This means I’d need to have BC Hydro (which is a “public corporation”) install addition capacity if I want to be able to charge an electric vehicle in a reasonable time. I’m not ready to buy one yet–they’re still too expensive by half–but when they become affordable, not being able to charge one is going to make it hard for me to want to.

About jimbelton

I'm a software developer, and a writer of both fiction and non-fiction, and I blog about movies, books, and philosophy. My interest in religious philosophy and the search for the truth inspires much of my writing.
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