Cover

FOULING OUR CITIES

Garbage, sewage, traffic, smog—they’re getting worse and it’s time to clean up our act

JULIAN BELTRAME July 29 2002
Cover

FOULING OUR CITIES

Garbage, sewage, traffic, smog—they’re getting worse and it’s time to clean up our act

JULIAN BELTRAME July 29 2002

FOULING OUR CITIES

Cover

JULIAN BELTRAME

Garbage, sewage, traffic, smog—they’re getting worse and it’s time to clean up our act

THEY’RE HOME TO eight out of 10 Canadians. They’re the country’s economic engine and a source of national pride. Yet they are arguably the least understood, least financed and least cared for resource in Canada. We are talking, of course, about Canada’s cities, once the jewels of North America, praised as safe, clean and efficient. Now, while not exactly urban eyesores on a par with Mexico City or Camden, N.J., they’re hardly the showcases they once were. The air we breathe, the transit systems, the roads and sewers, the urban waterways—the elements that make it possible to work, play and thrive in our cities—are under enormous stress. We know that, and yet the situation just worsens. “The trend lines are all negative,” says James Knight, chief executive officer of the Federation of Canadian Municipalities. “We could be descending into the kind of problems that afflicted American cities two decades ago.”

Like some toxic dust, those problems have been settling slowly. Blame the tight money decade of the ’90s. When senior governments began downloading responsibilities to improve their bottom lines, cities, being at the end of the pipeline, were stuck with paying for greater services with no commensurate increase in revenues. All they could do was complain, and postpone the upkeep and improvements they couldn’t afford. Over the past decade, few Canadian cities have had the resources to do anything but emergency maintenance. Mostly, they’ve stood by as sewage and water treatment facilities deteriorated, potholes proliferated, bridges went unat-

tended and urban transit systems aged.

Meanwhile, rural Canadians and immigrants kept flocking to urban centres. According to the 2001 census, 80 per cent of Canadians live in communities of 10,000 and more. Our 10 biggest cities now hold more than half the population53 per cent. But municipal revenues haven’t come close to keeping pace with the growth. “Something has had to give,” says Knight, “and something is giving.”

What’s giving are the intangibles, those ineffable, hard to quantify things that make up what we call the urban environment. Each city has its own tale of woe. In Halifax, any talk of environmental degradation quickly turns to the rank, latrine-like odour that rises to greet tourists on any summer day in the coastal city’s storied harbour. After years of studies and plans for a modern sewage treatment system, Halifax continues to use its main attraction—the sea—as a depository for untreated sewage. In Ottawa, it’s something as ordinary as morning and afternoon traffic snarls. Not so long ago, the capital’s residents bragged they could get from one end of the city to the other in less than 15 minutes. Now in peak hours, the Queensway, the city’s only east-west highway, turns into a parking lot. Commuting times have doubled or even tripled.

In Calgary, it’s urban sprawl. Locals joke that unknown forces are constantly moving the “City Limits” signs outward. No wonder. The latest civic census shows Calgary’s population—905,000 and counting-increased by nearly 30,000 in the year ending in April, with much of the growth in the burbs, where the vast majority of the city’s 11,000 new homes built in that period have risen. Struggling to keep up with the demands of new commuters, Calgary recently launched a borrowing program to finance $1 billion in road construction over the next five years. How big is the issue? A city survey last year found Calgarians more concerned about road maintenance (42 per cent) and traffic (41 per cent) than with education (14 per cent) or health care (12 per cent). “Although this growth provides many job opportunities,” observes Mayor Dave Bronconnier, “it also presents many challenges.”

In Toronto, Canada’s biggest metropolis by far, it’s been a while since be-

leaguered residents heard their home described as the “city that works.” Congestion, smog, inadequate public transit, homelessness—Toronto is becoming as well known for its failings as it once was for its livability. The New York Times recently profiled the city in unflattering terms, focusing on Tent City, a shanty-

town along the eastern waterfront that’s home to about 80 people who say they can’t find affordable housing. Former mayor David Crombie, now president of the Canadian Urban Institute, generally agrees that his hometown is in decline, although he believes the problems are solvable. “What’s happening,” he says, “is

we’re starting to pay the price of what previous generations decided they didn’t want to pay for.”

How far have Canada’s cities fallen? The answer isn’t clear. Certainly there’s been a deterioration in the quality of life, say experts. Take air pollution. The good news is that, statistically, the air we breathe is

better than it was 30 years ago, thanks mainly to a decline in smokestack industries, fewer—and cleaner—coal-fired plants and better fuel-efficiency for automobiles, the largest single contributor to city smog. Ontario’s environment ministry reports some impressive declines in emissions from automobiles and industry since

1971—sulphur dioxide by 82 per cent; carbon monoxide by 81 per cent and nitrogen dioxide by 23 per cent—despite enormous population growth. But—and for the typical resident, it’s a big but—on many a smoggy summer day, the evidence suggests otherwise. Michael Harcourt, former Vancouver mayor and British Columbia premier, now a member of the National Round Table on the Environment and the Economy, flew to Toronto recently. “There was a haze around the city like it was Mexico City,” he says. “Then I got into a taxi and I was in gridlock.”

One reason the numbers may not reflect what people see, says Quentin Chiotti, air program director for the environmental lobby group Pollution Probe, is the time frame used by the ministry. “A lot of the improvement happened 30 and 20 years ago,” he says. “In the last 10 years, the numbers are pretty flat.” In some cases, they’ve gotten worse. Last summer, the Ontario ministry issued 23 smog alerts—when pollutants posed a health hazard—in just seven days. That’s the highest concentration since 1993, Chiotti notes. According to Environment Canada, about 5,000 people die each year from air pollution, primarily children with asthma and the elderly with respiratory and cardiac conditions. “Sure we have cleaner-burning cars,” says Chiotti, “but we’ve got more of them, we’ve got SUVs and truck traffic has increased.”

And despite innovations like car pooling, more people are travelling farther in their cars than ever before. The Ontario ministry estimates that the total distance all vehicles travel in the province has grown by 87 per cent since 1971, far more than the 53-per-cent rise in population. It’s the same story elsewhere as traffic congestion plagues ever more Canadian cities. That not only diminishes the quality of life, but it also has economic consequences through lost productivity. Congestion slows the delivery of goods across the border, across Canada and within urban centres. What is also clear, notes Harcourt, is that people who are stuck in traffic, or take sick days because of air pollution, aren’t at work.

The most visible sign of urban rot can be found in what planners call brownfields. Practically every city has them —acres of unused urban land, much of

it contaminated by former industries. Toronto has the eastern waterfront. Ottawa has LeBreton Flats, a large, polluted tract west of Parliament Hill that has sat empty for almost 40 years. There are about 3,000 brownfields all told across Canada, the Ottawa-based Round Table estimates. Its president, David McGuinty, says city managers should view them as an opportunity rather than a liability. Developing inner-city spaces would attract people to the core, thereby helping to alleviate the problems associated with urban sprawl. “We’re losing valuable agricultural land to development,” he says, while prime real estate that could absorb population growth lies ignored.

That strategy has worked wonders for Vancouver, often cited as one of the most livable cities in the world. Harcourt recalls when he was first elected to city council in 1972, he and other reformers were faced with a zoning regulation that banned residential construction in the city’s central business district. The fourdecades-old zoning restriction was based on a model that was all the rage in the United States—locate business in the core and people in the suburbs. Then have them drive their cars between the two.

In retrospect, the philosophy made no sense. It produced cities of soulless glass towers that buzzed with activity by day, then reverted to empty shells at night. Inner-city neighbourhoods deteriorated into ghettos of poverty and crime. “We decided we needed to revitalize the downtown and develop the brownfields,” he says. “By doing so, we have added about 30,000 new people to the inner city.” Vancouver also invested in urban transit, dedicated leftand rightturn lanes, synchronized traffic lights and other commuting innovations. And while the city has its share of problems— rush-hour traffic jams and smog among them—it is often cited as an example for others to emulate. “We’re one of the few big cities without a major highway dissecting it,” says Harcourt, “and that’s made Vancouver a much better place to live.”

If there’s one area where Canadian cities can crow about getting it right, it’s their drinking water. City dwellers, the experts say, should feel free to drink straight from the tap. Almost all of Cana-

da’s water disasters—most famously in Walkerton, Ont., and North Battleford, Sask.—have happened in rural communities. Although every system can be improved, Hans Peterson, executive director of the Saskatoon-based Safe Drinking Water Foundation, says tap water in Canadian cities far surpasses federal quality guidelines. That’s because the cities long ago invested in the facilities and expertise needed to react to parasite outbreaks and other potential risks that could overwhelm smaller jurisdictions. “I would say in every city, I have no concerns about drinking the water,” says Peterson. “I can’t say that about rural communities.”

Even so, some cities may be guilty of resting on their laurels. In 1996, the Round Table reported that most hadn’t upgraded their water treatment and sewage disposal systems since the 1960s or early 70s. The situation hasn’t changed much since then, says McGuinty. The report estimated that maintaining and refurbishing water and waste water facilities will require anywhere from $38 billion to $49 billion by the year 2015. New infrastructure demands will add another $41 billion to the bill, the report added. “Right now I trust the water,” says McGuinty, “but the wolf is at the door.”

Despite these mounting problems, the outlook really is not all bleak for Canadian cities. They still have a lot going for them. Many have well-developed and wellmaintained green spaces. The urban blight that afflicts many U.S. cities is largely unknown in Canada as downtowns remain hives of activity. Infrastructure, roads, air quality, traffic—they’re all in trouble, but they’ve yet to deteriorate alarmingly. Crombie quotes Bob Dylan: “It’s not dark yet, but it’s getting there.” Most encouraging, says Crombie, is that Canada’s cities at last are getting some attention and their importance is being acknowledged. Former federal finance minister Paul Martin has made a new funding arrangement for cities a central plank in his unofficial campaign for the Liberal leadership. Even though Ottawa has yet to offer significant help, Transport Minister David Collenette concedes that more money has to be allocated to cities. One way to accomplish this, he told city planners at a Toronto gathering on municipal issues, would be to col-

Most city experts are in agreement about what needs to be done. The only question, they say, is whether there is sufficient will and, by extension, money to do

the job. The fundamental fixes are well known. Develop underutilized city lands to bring economic activity and people back to the centre. Beef up urban transit to lighten congestion and, by extension, clear the air. Repair crumbling infrastructure-water treatment and sewage facilities, bridges, roads.

But it’s also time for some novel approaches to encouraging good environmental practices. Why, for instance, are firms allowed to claim a tax break for giving employees free parking, but not for

handing out free transit passes? Efforts to improve the urban environment will not only make life more pleasant in our cities, they will increase Canada’s competitive advantage. “We’re in the urban century,” Crombie explains. “The country with the best cities will win.” And Canadians may once again be able to boast of residing in some of the cleanest, safest, most livable cities in the world. M

Brian Bergman

John DeMont