Urban Tipping Point

It’s high time that we put “vision” back into municipal planning if we want sustainable cities. + Ten Principles from Melbourne

AT THE TURN OF THE 20TH CENTURY, cities were at a tipping point. Many people believed that broad social problems, such as poor public health, poverty, widening class divisions and social unrest, were closely linked to the design and (non-)functioning of cities. Visionary urbanists, such as Ebenezer Howard, Frank Lloyd Wright and Thomas Adams, showed how humans could settle in ways that would be in concert with, rather than in opposition to, human aspirations and natural settings.

AT THE TURN OF THE 20TH CENTURY, cities were at a tipping point. Many people believed that broad social problems, such as poor public health, poverty, widening class divisions and social unrest, were closely linked to the design and (non-)functioning of cities. Visionary urbanists, such as Ebenezer Howard, Frank Lloyd Wright and Thomas Adams, showed how humans could settle in ways that would be in concert with, rather than in opposition to, human aspirations and natural settings. Their prescriptions usually involved some form of decentralization – essentially to thin and air out the city by building garden suburbs or self-sufficient satellite towns in surrounding regions.

Today, we are at another tipping point. Victimized by the decentralization movement’s success, our cities have become giant machines that convert vast quantities of fossil fuels into asphalt, air pollution and greenhouse gases. Cheap fuel and the introduction of the automobile gradually pried open the urban hinterlands for waves of suburban development. This process, which began around 1900, picked up speed after the Second World War when it became the dominant form of development throughout Canada and the US. Although profitseeking developers drove it, planners, whose visionary profession was transformed into a bureaucratic process based on zoning rules and engineering standards, facilitated it. In a few short decades, we used up much of the ancient energy stored in the Earth’s crust to fuel our sprawling cities and their auto-based transportation systems.

Many people now see the warming planet, longer commutes, worsening traffic congestion, rising fuel costs and disappearing countryside as signals that the form of urbanization that marked the 20th century was an aberration from which we must now recover, or face dire consequences. As British green-urbanist Herbert Girardet says, “There will be no sustainable world without sustainable cities.” Once again, the fate of the world is tied inexorably to the fate of our cities.

Planning with vision

Sustainable-community planning (SCP) is a new movement that is reviving the visionary role of urban planning. It marks an important turn away from conventional planning, which is based on the tacit assumption that current trends (e.g., population-growth, land-consumption and energy-use) can be extrapolated indefinitely into the future. In contrast, SCP asks a simple question: “What kind of community do we really want and how should we realize it?” It raises the radical possibility that in order to preserve the things that most people cherish – a livable environment, a healthy lifestyle, meaningful employment and a rewarding life – we might have to change how we plan, design and build our cities.

As an international movement, SCP has champions throughout the world. In the US, pioneers include Richard Register, who wrote the 1987 book Ecocity Berkeley: Building Cities for a Healthy Future and organizes the International Ecocity conference. In Canada, William Rees, who helped develop the ecological footprint notion, and Patrick Condon, a well-known landscape architect who led the design of the innovative East Clayton project in Surrey, BC, are closely associated with the SCP movement.

Although every sustainable-community plan is different, they usually strive for similar goals: building a compact urban form that limits sprawl and car use, encouraging transit and active forms of transportation, reducing waste, shifting to green energy, increasing the energy efficiency of buildings, providing local sources of food, preserving community identity and a sense of place, promoting socially inclusive neighbourhoods and generating meaningful, life-supporting employment.

As with all sustainability initiatives, SCP attempts to integrate economic, social and environmental development. Beyond this, SCP does not have associated with it a universally accepted definition. This may reflect the fact that the underlying concept of community sustainability (and of sustainability itself) is rather diffuse. The academic literature and practical applications of the concept, nevertheless, point to the emergence of a reasonably coherent set of ideas about how to approach land-use planning in a more sustainable manner.

The following definition attempts to capture these ideas in one sentence: Sustainable-community planning (SCP) is a collaborative, integrated approach to community planning that steers the community toward the implementation of a community vision, using a long-term perspective.

Four approaches

SCP is an emerging paradigm that does not follow a standard approach. Rather, it can be seen as a rubric under which various approaches with similar features are grouped. These approaches vary widely in their degree of formalization, from structured models with established principles and processes, to more loosely constructed ideas without a set process that can be liberally adapted to local conditions. Some of the most common approaches to sustainable community planning include the following:

The Natural Step was developed in Sweden in the 1980s and has recently been applied to community planning in Canada. It provides a science-based definition of sustainability and a strategic-planning framework to help communities make development decisions to move them toward a sustainable future. [See “Stepping Stones” on page 22] The Natural Step’s four “system conditions” focus attention on the reduction of resource use, the elimination of synthetic chemicals released into the environment, physical encroachment on nature and the meeting of basic human needs. This integrated, systematic approach to community planning helps stakeholders develop a common language and shared vision.

The towns of Whistler, BC, and Canmore, Alberta, have embarked on community-planning programs guided by The Natural Step’s framework. Strathcona County, near Edmonton, is using the same principles in formulating its municipal development plan. On the East Coast, Wolfville, Nova Scotia, is using the framework to prepare a sustainable-community plan and municipal planning strategy.

Local Agenda 21 provides a framework for implementing sustainable development at the local level. Local Agenda 21 was first described in Agenda 21 – the global blueprint for sustainability that evolved from the United Nations’ Conference on Environment and Development (Rio Earth Summit) in 1992. Chapter 28 of Agenda 21 identifies municipalities as the sphere of government closest to the people, and calls upon local authorities to consult with their communities, and develop and implement a local plan for sustainability.

In the aftermath of the summit, the International Council for Local Environmental Initiatives launched a campaign and The Local Agenda 21 Planning Guide to promote Local Agenda 21 as a participatory, long-term, strategic planning process to help municipalities identify local sustainability priorities and implement action plans.

Hamilton’s Vision 2020, an early sustainable-community plan that has been updated every five years since 1992, is an example of an Local Agenda 21 community planning process. The City of Montreal’s Strategic Sustainable Development Plan is also based on Agenda 21.

Adaptive Management Planning is a methodology developed by the Sheltair Group. It recognizes that human and natural conditions are always changing, and at least some unexpected outcomes are inevitable. The model allows the community to learn as it goes and make mid-course corrections. It is structured so that policies and programs implemented by communities can be adjusted according to the ever-changing circumstances of human-environment interactions.

One of the most comprehensive examples of using the Adaptive Management Planning framework was for the citiesPLUS (Partners in Long-term Urban Sustainability) project in Vancouver – Canada’s first 100-year urban sustainability plan. Other initiatives using this approach include imagineCALGARY, another 100-year sustainability plan; Rossland, BC’s Visions to Action Strategic Sustainability Plan; and Envision Wood Buffalo, in Alberta.

Ten Principles from Melbourne

  1. Vision Provide a long-term vision for cities based on intergenerational, social, economic and political equity, and their individuality.
  2. Economy and society Achieve long-term economic and social security.
  3. Biodiversity Recognize the intrinsic value of biodiversity and natural ecosystems, and protect and restore them.
  4. Ecological footprint Enable communities to minimize their ecological footprint.
  5. Model cities on ecosystems Build on the characteristics of ecosystems in the development and nurturing of healthy and sustainable ties.
  6. Sense of place Recognize and build on the distinctive characteristics of cities, including their human and cultural values, history and natural systems.
  7. Empowerment Empower people and foster participation.
  8. Partnerships Expand and enable co-operative networks to work toward a common, sustainable future.
  9. Technology Promote sustainable production and consumption, through appropriate use of environmentally sound technologies and effective demand management.
  10. Governance and hope Enable continual improvement, based on accountability, transparency and good governance. 

The Melbourne Principles for Sustainable Cities is the only internationally ratified set of sustainability principles for cities. They were developed through an international charrette or design event held in Australia in 2002, involving over 40 municipal and civic representatives from around the world. The process was carried out under the auspices of the United Nations Environment Programme, and Environment Canada was one of the original proponents of the process. Local governments at the Johannesburg Earth Summit in 2002 endorsed the Melbourne Principles (see “Ten Principles”).

A number of communities across Canada are adopting the Melbourne Principles, including Severn Sound, Rainy River First Nations, and the Niagara Region in Ontario, as well as the Calgary Regional Partnership.

The future or not

As these examples show, SCP is spreading throughout Canada, in rural towns and larger cities, from east to west. The movement has gradually gathered momentum as the public exerts pressure on elected officials and administrators to adopt policies and plans that will promote economic and social development, while respecting environmental limits. In 2005, the movement received a boost from the federal government when it required that municipalities develop an integrated community-sustainability plan as a condition for receiving a share of a major new infrastructure funding program (the “New Deal for Canada’s Communities”).

While it would be comforting to conclude that SCP is firmly established as a new planning paradigm in Canadian communities, the truth is that we are still in the early stages of this movement and it is not entirely clear what the future will bring. One of the key issues is evaluating the impact of sustainablecommunity plans. Hamilton, as an early adopter of the SCP approach, has the longest history of plan evaluation in Canada. However, not all SCP initiatives have incorporated monitoring and evaluation frameworks, and it is still too early to assess the outcome of many of those that have. Moreover, if the evaluation process shows that a rift is opening between SCP goals and actual performance, there is not necessarily a procedure that will spur action to close the gap.

A related issue is the link between SCP and other planning processes. Communities usually adopt SCP as a strategic or umbrella plan that gives direction to other planning processes, including land-use, transportation, environmental and capital budgeting plans. While this is desirable in principle, SCPs typically have no formal legislative clout under provincial or municipal planning acts, and there is no guarantee that SCP policies will be carried over to other planning processes. Thus, over time, SCPs may give way to the more immediate planning issues that are facing the community.

A third issue relates to the balance between costs and benefits of the new approach. Advocates of SCP point out that it can reduce municipal-planning costs by increasing co-operation among departments, reducing the likelihood of costly planning mistakes and diminishing public resistance to planning policies. Operational costs could fall due to a shift to local renewable energy sources, more efficient transit or more efficient buildings. Infrastructure costs may also be lower due to long-term planning synergies, a more compact urban form and a greater reliance on green infrastructure instead of engineered systems (e.g., for stormwater retention or treatment facilities).

As attractive as this may sound, only quantitative studies showing financial savings can make this an open-and-shut case for SCP. While there is some research to show that public infrastructure is less expensive to build and maintain in compact communities over the long-term, there are currently no comprehensive studies on the costs and benefits of SCP in Canada.

Finally, there is the issue of the internal consistency of SCP goals. For the most part, the goals tend to be mutually reinforcing, which gives them a synergistic character. For example, more compact settlements usually have a range of housing types, which promotes affordability and social integration; creates local markets for goods and services; promotes walking, biking and transit use; lends itself to district energy use; and protects farmland.

However, it is important to acknowledge that these goals may aggravate one another under some circumstances – action on one may produce unintended impacts in other areas. For example, integrating nature into the built environment may reduce stormwater runoff and improve its quality, but it may also reduce densities. Thus, the challenge for participants becomes one of combining and layering these principles while trying to minimize any conflicts between them.

Many cities around the world have developed sustainability plans. Copenhagen, for example, recently declared its intention to become an “eco-metropole” with ambitious targets (e.g., 50 per cent of home-to-work trips made by bicycle by 2015). New cities, such as Masdar City in the United Arab Emirates, are being planned and built to eliminate energy inputs and waste outputs, and to drastically reduce water use. Closer to home, New York City’s PlaNYC 2030, sets out an impressive agenda and a compelling vision for a more sustainable future. As professor Timothy Beatley wrote, “Much of the new emphasis on cities reflects the notion that they are our best hope for a more sustainable future.”

Earth is entering a new geological period, which some people are calling the Anthropocene Era due to the significant influence of human activity on the climate. Whether or not we wanted it, the responsibility for managing our planet has been thrust upon us. While decision makers stumble forward with negotiations on a global scale, communities are finding tangible ways to contribute locally. Sustainable-community planning is one way for us to fulfill our collective responsibility wisely.

Ray Tomalty is principal of Smart Cities Research, a Montréal consulting firm that specializes in issues related to urban sustainability. He is also an adjunct professor at the School of Urban Planning at McGill University, an A\J editorial board member and a regular contributor to the magazine.