Where Do We Grow From Here?

In the next few months, a review of the Capital Regional District's (CRD) Regional Growth Strategy (RGS) will be well underway and was, in part, the genesis behind the November 14th CRD-sponsored Forum of Councils' "Sustainable Futures" workshop, focused on sustainability, a much-used term but not always well defined. Planners, municipal staff, politicians and CRD staff joined the speakers for a morning that examined sustainability and planning in a largely urban context.

To help us understand what sustainability is and what it means to population growth, climate change, community planning and our future, keynote speakers at the workshop were Mike Harcourt (former municipal Councilor, Vancouver Mayor and BC Premier and now leader and spokesperson on sustainable urban growth and planning) and Dave Biggs, founder of Metro Quest (researcher and leading consultant on public involvement in urban planning and sustainability whose company has developed interactive tools for public engagement).

Highlights from Mike Harcourt:

Calling this the "urban century," Mike Harcourt asked, "How do we try to define the concept of "sustainability?" He suggests that there are 4 key elements:

- economic prosperity

- environmental health

- social inclusion/justice

- vibrant culture (sense of "place," creativity and innovation)

He argues that at the rate the world is going, we have no choice but to plan sustainable communities -- if we make the wrong choices, there will be consequences.

He tells us that human growth patterns suggest that by 2050, there will be 10 billion people inhabiting our earth (the equivalent of adding two more Chinas) and 75% of these will be living in cities. To put this into some perspective, Harcourt stated that in 1930 the world population was 2 billion and in 2000, it was 6 billion. He cites Canada as one of the most urbanized countries in the world, with about 80% of our population living in cities.

Harcourt also warns that approximately 1 billion people in developing countries could be living in shanty towns by 2050. Regarding population impacts on climate, Harcourt says that in China alone, the country is currently building 500 coal-burning plants a year and in developed countries, we are consuming resources at the equivalent of 4 worlds.

His message to all of us is "get with it" -- we can no longer afford the kind of suburban sprawl that dominates many of our community landscapes -- we must concentrate growth within urban areas that are already high-density and can be sustained.

He also talks about "live-ability accords" and "sustainability agreements" made between communities that set out principles, standards and values that focus planning on sustainable land use and community development that uses energy integration to reduce air pollution, waste and emissions. He refers to models of mixed use and high density communities that use geo-thermal, solar and waste recovery to heat space and water, not electricity.

He concludes by lauding Victoria's Dockside Green as a leader on the continent for sustainable building and references four excellent books/resources that might convince us that sustainability and climate change are inextricably linked and must be planning imperatives for the future:

- Three books by Richard Florida titled "Rise of the Creative Class," "Flight of the Creative Class" and "Who Is Your City?"

- "The Climate Cover-Up," a book that explores and exposes those who deny that climate change is occurring with major negative impacts on human health and the world's future.

Highlights from Dave Biggs:

Dave Biggs, founder of MetroQuest, opened with some significant facts about our Capital Region:

- By 2038, an additional 110,000 people will live here.

- Of these, 75,000 will be seniors or about 29%, up from the current 17% ratio.

- Currently, 49% of Greater Victoria's population lives in single family dwellings.

- 72% of us drive alone in vehicles.

- Only 12% of us use public transit (if access to public transit is located more than 500 meters away, it is less likely to be used).

We then participated in MetroQuest's interactive process using electronics to collect and tally our responses to questions about what we value for future regional planning and sustainability. As a result, the audience identified 5 top priorities ranked as follows:

- Clean Air

- Lower Carbon Emissions

- Walkable Neighbourhoods

- Vibrant Downtown

- Smaller Eco-Footprint

Audience results further suggest that examples of our lower planning priorities for the future are big homes and big yards, easy car travel and lower fees/taxes. It appears from the results that we also want to concentrate new growth in existing areas such as the Western Communities, Saanich, Victoria and Town of Sidney -- in other words, keeping population growth and housing compact and building within current densities, which are consistent with the existing RGS and its urban containment boundary.

Biggs concluded with some housing projections for the CRD that suggest that by 2046, regional populations will be living in small houses on small lots, in ground level housing (e.g., town homes with access to outside space that is either a small garden or patio) and in condos and apts. in buildings of 5 storeys or less. He also argues that because municipalities have to fund their infrastructure, large developments can be net negative over time, especially after 20 years i.e., servicing costs for these large developments become a significant financial drain for municipalities.

It would seem that Smaller is Better.


This workshop was one of the best I have attended in recent years and kudos to the CRD for putting this one on. While the focus was largely on urban development and planning, the information and attitude trends suggest to me that many of us in the Capital Region value the principles expressed in the Regional Growth Strategy -- many municipalities care about and are committed to a sustainable future. Mike Harcourt says we have no choice and Dave Biggs says he can help us to engage our communities in this important conversation.

I realize that those of us who attended this workshop may also be the converted -- I sometimes find that the people who should be in the room are often not so I look forward to making efforts to reach the dissenters, those who have not yet accepted the inevitability of climate change and the need to build sustainable communities.

I also recognize that not everyone in the Capital Region agrees with RGS principles, amending formula or other administrative practices. Some municipalities seem to feel that it impinges on their independence and authority. Mike Harcourt suggests that we should set aside our regional differences for the sake of future sustainability. Others at this workshop are calling for an even stronger RGS document, one that has "some teeth" and will protect against sprawl and safeguard rural, agricultural and green spaces throughout the area, especially on the Saanich Peninsula.

Still others suggest different remedies, such as amalgamation as an answer to containing sprawl. But there appears to be divided opinion on amalgamation, with one urban Mayor warning against it, suggesting that it is not a more efficient and cheaper means of delivering local government services, as some proponents would argue. He said in part "...homogenization simply doesn't work for me." In my view he makes a good point.

I attended this workshop with my colleague Councilor Ruby Commandeur who is a local organic farmer in Deep Cove. Both of us specifically asked the speakers about how a rural-residential area such as North Saanich, with large tracts of green space and agricultural land, can contribute to the sustainability process that seems more about urban space. Metchosin Councilor Jo Mitchell and Central Saanich Councilor Alistair Bryson joined our chorus about the need to protect small rural communities that are "agricultural havens" for the future related to local food production and security.

While our question went largely unanswered, Tracy Corbett, CRD Senior Manager of Regional Planning, said that she appreciated our questions and comments and offered to explore putting on a session that focuses on small community issues such as rural protection. Like many other local and regional politicians, I believe that if the region values the Saanich Peninsula's rural/agricultural assets, then the CRD and its member municipalities must act to protect this area. In fact, one rural Mayor called for a more proactive and less reactive approach to regional planning. I agree.

The RGS review will be a major CRD undertaking over the next few months and I believe that the results will have far-reaching implications for all of us, especially for communities such as North Saanich. But all of us living in this region have a stake in the review and the outcome so please take the time to get informed.

I have always supported the RGS as a key planning document that demonstrates leadership and innovation in regional planning. Below this post is an article that I wrote last year (Oct. 2008) about the RGS and its importance in protecting small rural communities from urban sprawl and environmental degradation. For those of you who have not read it, I encourage you to do so and for those of you who have, please take the time to read it again.

Please also visit the CRD website to find out more about the RGS review, regional sustainability and information about CRD Board and Committee meetings, at www.crd.bc.ca