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I’ve struggled to complete my series on my experience at Tamarack, as the concluding day tackled deeper issues. These included what a strong community looks like, and how we can each return to our own communities with renewed purpose and energy to make the community visions a reality.

As I’ve reflected on community and what we can each do to grow a vibrant and caring city, two major developments passed the city’s planning committee, despite the protestations of both planning staff and many concerned citizens. The mayor has touted the construction developments in environmentally significant areas as a major win for our city because of the potential 1,200 jobs they will bring. This is against concerns that this growth further spreads the sprawl already too typical of London, the fact that the jobs would be mostly minimum wage jobs to multinational corporations not invested in the best interests of our communities, and that it would draw opportunities away from neighbourhoods across our city that are already struggling.

I was motivated to write this letter after reading Shawn Adamsson’s letter to Council expressing his concerns about the direction these developments will take our city. Please consider writing a letter to Council (wards and contact information available here). The more people who are sharing their thoughts and opinions on important civic issues, the stronger our city becomes. Please feel free to use this letter as a template if it helps to express your thoughts on this issue.

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To Councillor Armstrong, Mayor Fontana and members of London City Council,

I believe the two developments approved by the planning committee this week are the wrong direction for our city for several reasons.

As a student of urban planning and a participant in the highly successful ReThink London process, I’m concerned that these proposed developments are contrary to the public will and the wisdom of the city’s planning staff. The recently published ReThink London discussion papers and specifically the paper Creating a Mixed Use, Compact City demonstrate the public will to utilize our existing lands more efficiently and creatively, instead of the further hollowing of the core these developments would represent. If Council opts to ignore these massive citizen engagement initiatives, to ignore the advice of their paid professionals and instead to side with furthering urban sprawl for very little net job gain for our city, we risk further disenfranchising and losing valuable London citizens.

As a member of the Argyle Community Association board and a member of the city-led Strengthening Neighbourhoods Argyle initiative, I am very concerned about the impact these proposed developments will have on our community. Strengthening Argyle has worked diligently to survey the community to understand their priorities, with the ultimate goal of creating a vision statement and action plan for citizens to see their desires realized. One of the underlining goals for the community is jobs, especially jobs that provide a living wage that allows Argyle citizens to live comfortably and be contributing members of the community. I am deeply concerned that these jobs will do very little to provide new net jobs to our city, and only further drain opportunities from communities already struggling.

I recently had the opportunity as a member of Strengthening Argyle to  join the Tamarack Institute gathering on neighbourhoods and communities in Kitchener with many City of London employees. One of the key features of the gathering was walkabouts in Kitchener, Waterloo and Cambridge communities to hear their success stories. One of the walks we were able to take was to see downtown Kitchener, featured as “The Revitalization of an Urban Core”. In it we saw many repurposed buildings (most notably the extremely successful Tannery District) and infill developments, making the most of existing sites. The planning staff that guided the tour noted that these kinds of projects help save the city money by slowing the need for expansion, reducing strain on public utilities and infrastructure.

As a previous employee of London Hydro working in the engineering office (2010-2011) and as a current contractor to hydro utilities, I see first-hand the costs of expanding developments into unserviced areas. On top of the massive environmental impact of clearing and developing an environmentally significant woodlot and wetland, the city needs to consider the burden servicing these developments will have on the citizens and infrastructure of London.

As a family that depends on public transportation to get around the city, we are concerned that these developments would either be unserviced by the LTC and therefore costly to reach (especially by the minimum wage employees of that site), or by being serviced by the LTC, would further strain an already over capacity and underfunded public service. There are many routes in the urban core that are unable to deliver sufficient seats to people that depend on transit (including students who pay for a bus pass as part of their tuition), and the LTC hopes to keep up with neighbouring cities by introducing express bus service. Furthering our urban sprawl will sacrifice these kinds of ambitious projects, and put us further behind the kinds of innovative communities we must compete with for our post-secondary grads.

As we struggle with 9.8% unemployment and the continued drain of our younger generation, these new developments may seem like big gains for our city. However, the generations of young educated professionals we want to keep value the environment, value having efficient public transportation, and recognize that a city with long strips of vacant commercial space (like the Pond Mills area, or McCormick area) already being serviced is short sighted to abandon that neighbourhood to decay for the sake of the appearance of progress (shovels in the corn fields).

Thank you for your time and consideration.

Sincerely,

Brian Gibson, Ward 2

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Shortly after writing Why Public Transit Matters, we had our second public participation meeting around London Budget 2013 (#ldnbudget13), with many great speakers around a variety of issues. A common set of themes for many was public transit, active transit, public health, the environment, and how they can all work together.

Photo credit: Wired magazine http://www.wired.com/autopia/2008/10/bikes-on-board/

I searched online for future strategies and existing examples, and quickly found many. This picture is from a Wired Magazine article on San Francisco’s Caltrain system, which was one of the first to allow bikes on board. The article explains that the idea was so popular with commuters that it soon became unsustainable, because of the demand for bike space outstripped the availability of train cars. Possible solutions include having a bike renting/sharing program, or having additional bike racks at the station for “beater bikes”, one you can leave overnight so it’s waiting for you to get you from the station to work and back. Why is combining rail/bus transit with biking/walking transit so attractive? From the article:

“Transit trips are way up,” Tim Blumenthal, head of the national bike advocacy group Bikes Belong, told Wired.com. “More buses have racks on the front, and more light rail and subways are allowing bicycles on board even during peak hours.” According to Blumenthal, the benefits of bicycle transit trips are huge: commuters lose weight while the air gets cleaner, and highways get less crowded while America starts to recover from its oil addiction.

There are many benefits to both public and active transit, and creating a city that fosters both would help us towards being a sustainable, healthy community. A green strategy report by the City of Vancouver states:

How we move around a city makes a big difference to our quality of life. The air we breathe, the amount of land we need, our physical health and well-being, and the cost of travel are all impacted by our transportation choices. Green transportation includes transit, as well as active transportation like cycling and walking. It is also about the places we see and experiences we have on the way to our destinations.

This report “Walking to Public Transit: Steps to Help Meet Physical Activity Recommendations” by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention covers the direct health benefits of taking public transit. It identifies that the Surgeon General recommends at least 30 minutes of physical activity, yet nearly half of Americans don’t meet these guidelines. Many may receive the recommended amount simply by walking to and from public transit, which increases their activity drastically over driving a personal vehicle.

 As well, Toronto has examined the health and financial benefits of encouraging walking and biking in the city in this report, “Road to Health”. As the quote below shows, there are a great deal of human and financial benefits to be considered when building active transportation infrastructure:

Higher levels of physical activity through increased cycling and walking can significantly reduce an individual’s risk of a number of chronic diseases and prevent deaths. Based on very conservative calculations, 2006 levels of walking and cycling in Toronto are estimated to prevent about 120 deaths each year. Total savings from these prevented deaths range from $130 million to $478 million depending on how deaths are valued. Savings in direct medical costs arising from residents staying active by walking and cycling are estimated to provide a further economic benefit of $110 to $160 million.

London as well as communities including KitchenerTorontoVancouver,  and Hamilton are shaping comprehensive strategies for our transportation future. London’s SmartMoves 2030 Transportation Master Plan (full report found here) lays out ambitious goals for lowering London’s reliance on cars and creating a city that is denser, more efficient and easier to move through alternative transportation methods.

Personal vehicles were once a North American symbol of empowerment, opportunity and freedom. However, younger generations are now driving much less than their parents, often foregoing driving a car entirely to embrace public transit, biking and walking. This shift is happening slowly, but this may very well be our transportation future as more and more people look for ways to get around that are healthier, more sustainable and better for the environment.

So what can we do?

London’s SmartMoves project is moving forward. We can follow its progress and advocate for the program. We can also work to change our commuting habits, and tell Council that we are looking for a public transportation system that makes getting around the city affordable, efficient and pleasant. We can follow the LTC and see how the service can be improved/enhanced to better service the London we want to build together. And we can push the city to continue to invest in path and bike lane infrastructure so we and future generations and move through our city effectively without relying on cars.

Thursday February 28, Council will vote on London Budget 2013 (#ldnbudget13), and how our tax dollars will be spent in the year ahead. It is an excellent opportunity to see how Council operates and represents us, hope to see you there!

Next post: Our transit future

As written in my previous post, water conservation advocate Maude Barlow spoke at London’s Aeolian Hall Wednesday night, joined by two local water, habitat and ecosystem conservation advocates. I was glad to be there for the talks, as well as the great performance that kicked off the event.

There was an enjoyable surprise start to the evening in the form of a performance by the El Sistema Aeolian, and a brief introduction to the program. The introduction included a video briefly explaining the El Sistema project’s beginnings in Venezuela, available to watch here. I was delighted by the skill of the young performers, and was interested to learn more about them, having seen the group open a City Council meeting a couple months ago. The main source of their talent is the neighbourhood surrounding the Aeolian, specifically students from Lorne Ave. Public School. The program began in London November 2011 and is already flourishing, I look forward to seeing it continue to grow and spread.

After the performance, a traditional native elder of the London region’s Chippewas of the Thames performed a traditional ceremony celebrating the natural world, and specifically the water we all depend on for survival.

Thom McClenaghan, the President of the conservation group Friends of the Coves Subwatershed then started the night’s talks. He spoke about their group as well as work happening throughout London to protect, preserve and educate about the Coves and the other subwatersheds in the city. He explained how subwatersheds such as the Coves connect to larger watersheds like the Thames River, which eventually drain into large bodies of water, in our case, the Great Lakes. This message tied in well with the other two presentations.

Patrick Donnelly, Urban Watershed Program Manager City of London spoke next. His talk echoed Thom’s message about connectivity, and also discussed London’s deep connection with the Great Lakes. As we became very aware of last week, London draws its municipal water both from Lake Erie and Lake Huron, a very unique water collection method, and one that kept the city receiving at least some new water to bolster reserves while the Lake Huron pipe was unusable. He outlines how people in every watershed depend on those upstream of them to preserve the quality of the water for those below them, and how the water ultimately returns to the sources we draw from, reminding us that we must be very careful of what we dump in our streams and rivers, as well as directly into the Great Lakes. He also outlined some of the ways the city is working to take care of our section of the Thames, including working with and encouraging neighbourhood projects to adopt and protect watercourses such as the Friends of the Coves.

This talk led well into Maude Barlow’s message. She spoke passionately about the Canadian, North American and global importance of the Great Lakes, as the largest group of freshwater lakes on earth making up 21% of the planet’s surface fresh water. She talked of how there are many trade and protection agreements between Canada and the U.S. outlining the protection of the Great Lakes, but voiced concerns that as American water sources such as the California Coastal Basin aquifer is depleted and threatens U.S. food security, fresh water such as the Lakes may become too tempting as the next major water source to adequately protect it.

Her message was a strong reminder of just how amazing the Lakes are, and how fortunate we are to have them to enjoy. She spoke about different perspectives/philosophies about water resources such as the Great Lakes (and the global environment in general), ranging from preservation/conservation-led beliefs that see resources both as a gift and a responsibility to be protected for future generations, and much more human-centric views that see the natural environment as available firstly for our use and as an economy driver. She said that it doesn’t have to be a case of the economy vs. the environment, but encourages all citizens and businesses to strive for creative methods to both boost our economy and preserve our natural world for future generations.

As Maude noted, this talk came at a very relevant time for our city, as we were under an outdoor water ban last week, and this article was published yesterday. It states “With a meager 21 millimetres of precipitation falling in May, it was the second driest May since the record was set for London in May 1954 at 13.8 millimetres, according to Environment Canada.”. As well, May was another month in what has been an exceptionally dry spring, with the Upper Thames Conservation Authority issuing alerts that the low precipitation levels is causing low river levels which in turn may harm water and habitat quality (though we were fortunate today to get a great deal of much-needed rain, which will hopefully reduce the impact of the spring drought).

I was glad to have been present for the talk, but was left somewhat at a loss. We can each work to lower our water consumption, but there seems to be many elements entirely out of our control or influence. As well, Maude Barlow and the Council of Canadians are a polarizing group in Canadian advocacy/politics, and one of a diverse group of voices on the subject. I hope to continue thinking and learning about the subject of water conservation, and writing about it periodically here.

I was struck by her message, but it is something she said after that has really stuck with me. As she met with the audience, she said “We only have one chance here, so should make the very most of this time”.

As we try to balance the various elements of our lives and attempt to live out our beliefs even as they continue to be shaped, we can easily be bogged down. This message is a fresh reminder that we have only one chance in this world, we should continue to work and do all we can, while we can.

Wednesday morning, Londoners awoke to the news announcement that the water pipeline that supplies 85% of the city and area’s water ruptured, which caused citizens and businesses to resort to only using water held in reservoirs as well as from the other pipeline into the city, from Port Stanley on Lake Erie.

Since then, we’ve had to make do without. The City urged citizens to restrict their water use while the pipeline is repaired, going without outdoor watering/washing and keeping indoor water use to a minimum.

The pipeline has been repaired but being eased back into service slowly to ensure it is functioning properly. However, water consumption apparently actually increased above average on Thursday evening, causing the City to impose mandatory water restrictions over the weekend while they struggle to replenish the reserves. The City has said that city by-law enforcement officers will remind residents not to water outdoors, but will hand out $95 tickets for those found violating the ban.

This move from restrictions to a ban may further expose problems with City Hall’s communication strategy. I was frustrated to see neighbours washing their cars/watering their lawns last night, but many Londoners may have missed the memo. With readership of the Free Press dropping and less people watching local news, without people telling them they may not know there is a problem. I now check local media regularly, but didn’t always. Is my level of attention average, or the exception?

This ban comes at a particularly hard time for the area. It was announced this week by the Upper Thames Conservation Authority that the Thames River watershed is continuing to face drought conditions after a mild winter with little precipitation failed to replenish the watershed. We continue to see little rain, and without it this restriction makes it that much harder for residents hoping to grow gardens and keep their trees healthy this spring.

Events like this can also be a harsh reminder of just how much water we consume. We try to do what we can to restrict how much water we use, but between laundry, dishes, watering the garden/trees and showers/baths, it can all add up quickly. It has been a tough but good reminder to us just how much we depend on clean, fresh water, and everything we use it for.

The restrictions this week has also reminded us how hard it is to do without it.

Next Wednesday, national and international water conservation advocate Maude Barlow will be speaking at London’s Aeolian Hall along with London “partners in watershed protection”, specifically about the vast resources that this area of North American has in the Great Lakes.

This is just a short post on what is an enormous issue with a great deal of debate about what is appropriate use for water, restrictions/supports that should be put in place when it comes to companies that consume large quantities of water, etc. I’m really looking forward to these talks, especially when they’re being delivered at such a relevant time for our city. Hope to see you there!

earth hour 2012

Tonight is Eath Hour 2012, when people all over the world will be turning off their lights, electronics and non-essential appliances to lower their energy consumption and make a symbolic statement, drawing attention to climate change as well as affirming they will try to lower their overall energy consumption and impact on the planet. The event started in Sydney, Australia in 2007 when 2.2 million people participated in the event, conceived by the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) and the Sydney Morning Herald. This is the website for the event.

The event has already begun in Australia and Asia at the time of this post, as observed in this article. The article also states that Canadian utilities are getting involved:

B.C. Hydro made a pitch on its website, urging consumers to join in and also make plans to reduce energy use year around. Last year’s response shows what people can do, the utility said on its website. “British Columbians turned off the equivalent of 7.8 million 15-watt compact fluorescent light bulbs for the hour,” the utility said. “If everyone in B.C. implemented the same conservation measures for just one hour every evening, the combined savings would be enough to power close to 4,000 homes for an entire year.”

Ontario electricity provider Hydro One said it would mark Earth Hour by turning off non-essential electrical equipment at its office facilities across the province.

This event is lauded by many. As one example, the National Post published this article today by Canadian celebrity contractor Mike Holmes, titled “Honour Earth Hour, every hour”. In it, Holmes describes the impact that this event makes as a statement to our governments, that participants are focused on the importance of sustainable practices and lowering our carbon footprint. He also points out that everyone can make responsible choices in their professional and personal lives. He says:

In 2009, I attended the UN Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen. I had the honour of being the eminent advisor to the Canadian government on sustainable building technology and its effect on climate change. It became clear to me that we all need to make a commitment to change. Building green and building sustainably are part of my future as a contractor. It should be part of any responsible builder who cares about the kind of future we’re building.

Many city governments, energy utilities and corporations around the world mark Earth Hour, with more countries participating in the event every year. Even some groups that air television during the event are participating in some way – for example, the NHL is taking part by turning off non-essential lighting at all games scheduled for Saturday night, and the league’s New York City headquarters will also observe Earth Hour.

There is also a great deal of criticism for the event. It has been pointed out that candles are made from paraffin wax, a fossil fuel derivitive, and could be more harmful than just continuing to use electric lights. The event has also been argued to be anti-technology, as posted here and here. In the latter article, the Ayn Rand Centre wrote:

Participants spend an enjoyable sixty minutes in the dark, safe in the knowledge that the life-saving benefits of industrial civilization are just a light switch away… Forget one measly hour with just the lights off. How about Earth Month…Try spending a month shivering in the dark without heating, electricity, refrigeration; without power plants or generators; without any of the labor-saving, time-saving, and therefore life-saving products that industrial energy makes possible.

As well, a movement started by the libertarian think-tank Competitive Enterprise Institute, called the “Human Achievement Hour” (HAH) encourages the opposite at the same time as Earth Hour, to “celebrate the achievements of humanity such as eating dinner, seeing a film, driving around, keeping the heat on in your home”.

I can see the point of these kinds of arguments, questioning the usefulness of the Earth Hour movement. Does sitting in the dark for an hour raise awareness? Does this action achieve perceivable results, or is it more akin to greenwashing – creating the perception instead of a reality of doing something for the environment?

However, I think these articles and actions like the HAH miss the fact that the event isn’t calling for a renunciation of electricity or any of the modern marvels humanity have produced. My understanding is that the event attempts to show us how we can be less energy dependant and work to lower our individual consumption. I am proud of where humanity is and all that we have achieved, but I think we can always do better. Locally, London Hydro has been distributing electricity to our city for over 100 years, but we can always find better ways to produce, distribute and consume that energy. But how?

We could have a “use a little less energy hour” but that kind of action isn’t likely to draw much press or attention. In the end, it is all about personal choice and personal responsibility. Does Earth Hour shape people’s perceptions of the environment and encourage them to make more informed energy decisions?

I believe it certainly doesn’t hurt to try. I honestly love Earth Hour, both for the experience and for recognizing the lifestyle I want to continue to lead. I think that part of the appeal is the opportunity to turn off the lights, turn off all the electronic devices, and spend quality time with the people important to us (similar to Adbuster Magazine’s TV Turnoff Week). It’s also an affirmation of my attempt to consume less resources – not just in the focused hour, but in my everyday life as well. I try to keep my consumption of resources like water and energy low, produce less waste by purchasing as little packaging as possible, composting etc.; Earth Hour is a great reminder of that. Lowering my energy consumption for an hour won’t likely have much of an impact, but I believe having communities across the world sharing in this experience is a great global affirmation of what our entire planet can do to lower our impact on the planet.

My  beliefs about this event have also been shaped by the year I spent working for London Hydro. My school and work experience is entirely outside the realm of energy, so I was very interested to find the entire corporation was geared towards the event, and works to advertise both for Earth Hour itself as well as for lower energy consumption, both as a means of reducing strain on the distribution system as well as lowering the environmental impact of energy production. While I was there, I watched as the head of engineering worked with a local solar panel distributer as well as Fanshawe College and UWO to place panels throughout the city as a green energy initiative. There are now panels providing energy to the main London Hydro office as well as other high-visibility city/college/university properties throughout the city, including an array of panels on the rooftop of the Covent Garden Market (more information available here). I find this kind of project very encouraging, and signals LH’s intent to partner with others and produce energy in the city using renewable resources instead of relying entirely on energy distributed to us by Hydro One.

As I said, I believe we can be proud of our technological achievements while working to use that technology to find better ways to meet our energy needs. We can and should be proud of what we’ve produced, while aiming to leave our province, country and world in the best condition possible for future generations. With 7,000,000,000+ people on the planet and more joining us every moment,  we need to be serious about preserving our planet as we struggle to share our limited resources with an ever-increasing amount of people. Any effort to raise awareness and to limit each individual’s long-term impact is commendable and to be encouraged, in my opinion.

Tonight, I’ll be turning off my electronic devices, turning off the lights and spending a quieter, focused night with friends. I hope that you’ll give it a try too.

*This post is a slight departure from the small series I’ve been writing on current London and Canadian politics, but I will likely return to it in future posts.

This is a subject I’ve been thinking about for some time, but haven’t considered in as much depth as I could. The more I learn, the more I am sincerely convinced this is something every Canadian should be thinking and talking about.

I do have to admit that I am very biased on subjects about the environment. Please ask me about the high school semester I spent at a conservation area/natural education centre learning as well as teaching basic ecology. I kid you not.

I want to learn more about this subject. As an Ontarian I will be the first to admit I haven’t been to the prairies let alone to the oil sands – despite being to both coasts I have yet to visit much of the country in between, unfortunately. But I am deeply interested in this subject, especially as it keeps coming up in the news – from seeing our PM Stephen Harper campaigned to sell our “dirty oil” to the States and fail (or at least be set back), visited China in a good-will/trade mission as an alternative source for our oil (as discussed here), and watching the EU as it has debated the designation to place on our oil, and whether they should give it a special designation apart from other oil because of the high environmental cost associated with its manufacture (discussed here, here and here).

I’ve started to read the book “Tar Sands: Dirty Oil and the Future of a Continent” by Andrew Nikiforuk. I’ve found the entire book interesting, but a passage from Chapter 5: The Water Barons has really stuck with me:

Just about every damn agency in the country has expressed alarm about water use in the tar sands. The Petroleum Technology Alliance of Canada, for example, a Calgary-based nonprofit research group, declares water use and reuse to be the region’s biggest issue, because “bitumen production can be much more fresh water intensive than other oil production operations.” The National Energy Board, no radical group, has questioned the sustainability of water withdrawals for bitumen mining.

It reminded me of another book I read some time ago by Maude Barlow, former Senior Adviser on Water to the UN GA, Blue Gold: The global water crisis and the commodification of the world’s water supply”. In it Maude makes the compelling case for our dwindling water resources across the world as our populations continue to explode. In particular, she predicts world tensions will increase as water resources including ground water are tapped at alarming rates, and alliances between Canada and the U.S. will become more crucial/contentious as our shared Great Lakes gain even greater prominence in the world as other fresh water resources are depleted. As well, water sources in the prairies will be taxed as the incredibly wasteful tar sands consume water to produce refinable oil.

So what is the answer? These discoveries encourage me that we should continue green energy initiatives occurring across our province, in part because of the guidance of London-West MPP and Minister of Energy Chris Bentley. I understand some of the province’s methods of implementing wind energy projects are perceived as heavy-handed, but I believe they are key if we are going to move towards healthier methods of producing energy. But a greater problem persists – we are deeply dependent on oil to live our lives. What can we possibly do to lessen this burden when so many of the machines we rely on are powered by this dirty source of energy?