WATERLOO REGION — With the deadline for the regional official plan upcoming, a local environmentalist says this is the biggest chance to dream about what residents want the region to become in decades ahead.
“Climate change solutions are implemented — the most effective ones, the most important ones — at the local level,” Kevin Thomason, with Smart Growth Waterloo Region, said to a virtual crowd of over 100 attendees on Thursday night.
“It’s going to be our decisions on where and how we live and get around our communities, our housing choice and that is going to be what makes the big impacts. Tell your story, get out there and voice your concern, connect to the hearts and minds of your local elected officials and staff.”
During the two-day Southern Ontario Growth Conference, a number of guests spoke about community and local actions to address climate change.
Official plans, which are done at the regional and municipal level, lay out the long-term growth and development in a region.
“The sad thing is, most citizens will never read an official plan and yet they impact them daily,” said Thomason.
These plans lay out where housing will be developed, what type of housing, where the jobs will be and how to locate them, and how the region will protect its farmland.
Premier Doug Ford has given a deadline of July 1 for most upper-tier municipalities to complete their plans.
“So really, time is ticking on this one.”
Thomason said consultants in the province said around half of municipalities will miss the July 1 deadline.
Thomason pointed to other changes made by the Ford government, such as the target rate for intensification dropping from 60 per cent to 50 per cent, and people and jobs per hectare from 80 to 50.
Intensification is the number of building permits issued in an existing urban area.
“When we hear 65-per-cent intensification, that means that 65 per cent of the building permits are basically going within the built urban boundary and only 35 per cent would be out in what has been farm fields,” he said.
“These numbers, which sound technical, really have big impacts when it comes to the amount of land required to house the same number of people.”
Urban boundaries may be implemented with the goal of saving natural areas and farmland, but Thomason said they have also pushed people to scramble for development opportunities in the region, since the official plan can’t be appealed.
It wouldn’t hurt to take council members out to places they may not be familiar with that residents hold dearly in their hearts.
“I think it’s so important that we don’t let land speculators determine the future of our communities. Most often it’s these developers and folks who are most involved and engaged with our planning staff and politicians,” said Thomason.
An example of local initiative was Halton Hills Coun. Jane Fogal’s leadership in Stop Sprawl Halton, a group that came together to save Halton’s farmlands. Fogal was also a speaker at the event.
Local speaker Kae Elgie, president of the Architectural Conservancy of Ontario’s provincial branch, said buildings and construction make up almost half of carbon emissions.
“We need programs and policy which encourage energy conservation work on existing buildings. We need programs and policies which encourage repairs and ones which prohibit climate-harmful demolition.”
She laid out three ways to address climate change — implement programs to reward emission reduction, consider building lifetime carbon costs for demolition applications and implement carbon budgeting.
A number of other speakers from Montreal to Hamilton spoke about personal projects and initiatives and gave advice on what individuals can do to take action against climate change in their own communities.
The conference also focused on what municipalities are doing and can do to stop climate change.
Multiple speakers pointed to the importance of making cities safe for pedestrians and cyclists to help people switch over from using cars.
Ken Greenberg, a Toronto-based urban designer, city building advocate, and author, said the most precious resource in our cities is the diverse human gene pool.
In order to maintain this, he said new, sustainable and inclusive neighbourhoods need to be built — this would see a yoga studio for grandma and a playground for a child within walking distance of a resident’s home.
Greenberg also said that building up and sprawl are both solutions that cause damage with overreliance.
“Can we accommodate a full life cycle in our cities?” Greenberg questioned.