May: Public investments and climate resiliency

It is fast becoming obvious that our cities are not ready to meet the challenges of the 21st century, due to unsustainable design. Climate change is a game-changer – and not just because of risks to municipal infrastructure posed by extreme weather events like hurricanes and forest fires. Having embraced low-density suburban design, our cities will struggle with resiliency related to the urgent need to decarbonize our economy – a necessary undertaking so that we have a chance of staving off the very worst impacts of global warming.

The world is changing. We’ve already taken the first tentative steps to wean our economy off of fossil fuels. Putting a price on carbon pollution, investing in public transit, encouraging the development of energy efficient buildings, and promoting renewable energy are all part of the formula for creating climate resiliency. However, efforts continue to happen in a relatively ad hoc manner. Governments must commit themselves to a greater role in co-ordinated planning and leadership.

North America’s cities are in a real bind. Decades of market-driving development fuelled by cheap fossil energy have created a car-centred suburban built form that is both expensive to maintain and vulnerable to the impacts of a decarbonizing economy. Pulling no punches, author and futurist James Howard Kunstler describes the suburban experiment as being, “the greatest misallocation of resources in the history of the world.” In a carbon-constrained economy, municipal officials will need to make difficult choices between retrofitting those parts of the suburban landscape that may be transformed into sustainable communities — or writing them off.

Transforming our car-centric cities into complete, low-carbon, climate-resilient communities is surely going to be one of the most significant challenges of the 21st century. Municipal leaders that aggressively discard car-centric suburban development and focus on sustainability will position their communities to best meet the coming challenges.

Sadly, leadership is sorely lacking at all levels of government. Over the past decade, there have been massive new investments in public infrastructure, largely financed by debt at the federal and provincial level. Unfortunately, much of this investment has gone towards perpetuating a car-centric urban environment. New roads and highways open up more land for suburban development. Buildings and structures continue to be erected with little consideration for energy efficiency. And fossil fuel infrastructure continues to be expanded.

Rather than looking at opportunities to maximize future return on investment – which may take a little more time for design and development – public money has largely been funnelled towards ‘shovel-ready’ projects with little consideration for climate resiliency. The misallocation of resources has continued with wild abandon. Our children will end up paying twice for our mistakes – first by picking up the debt-financing tab, and then paying again for infrastructure retrofits.

Going forward, where public investments are being made, there needs to be a co-ordinated effort to maximize returns – especially where projects are debt financed. Municipal officials looking to construct new facilities must plan ahead, rather than letting the market drive development decisions. Recognizing that the use of personal automobiles for transportation will increasingly become a less sustainable choice for citizens, officials must determine in advance locations in communities most easily accessed by alternative modes of transportation – and focus investments in those areas in order to maximize returns. Buildings must be constructed to high standards of energy efficiency, and clustered development should consider district heating and cooling systems. The buildings of the future will also do double duty as platforms for renewable energy production.

Planning ahead to get things right takes time. Rushing public projects towards completion will only exacerbate an ever-growing list of missed opportunities.

— Steve May is a member of the Green Party in Sudbury. 

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