Better Not Bigger

August 20, 1999

By Michael Jessen

You're an urban refugee, just arrived in Cranbrook, Nelson, or Rossland.

Asked what is missing in your new hometown, you're tempted to list Starbucks, McDonald's, Wal-Mart, Costco, or some other brand-name shopping opportunity.

Be careful what you wish for. You just might get it and your new hometown paradise may turn into the paved-over purgatory you left behind in the big cities of Toronto, Vancouver, or Kelowna.

Long-time residents of Kootenay communities have witnessed many changes to their towns and regions, some good - like specialty businesses opened by innovative entrepreneurs - and some bad - like increased automobile traffic and sprawl.

People move to or visit the Kootenays because of the lifestyle and the natural amenities. We, the residents, are challenged daily to find approaches that enable our communities to be cleaner, healthier, and less expensive; to have greater accessibility and cohesion; and to be more self-reliant in energy, food, and economic security than they are now.

Unchecked growth cannot be sustained forever. While not wanting to limit growth, Kootenay communities and residents are searching for ways to be smarter about how it grows. They hope to invent ways to create compact and efficient growth patterns that are responsive to the needs of people at all income levels and are consistent with the spirit and quality of life that exists here today.

Put simply, our challenge in creating sustainable communities is not merely about sustaining the quality of our lives, but improving it.

The blueprint for a sustainable Nelson was developed over a two-year period from 1993 to 1995. Nelson Area 2020: Creating Our Future was one community's attempt to provide strategic direction and action plans to help Nelson and area on the path to sustainable development.

On the issue of transportation in particular, it would appear that not enough is being done. A 1992 report produced for the Ministry of Transportation and Highways (MOTH) showed that on an average summer day approximately 17,500 vehicles move in and out of the City of Nelson from three directions - Castlegar, Salmo, and Balfour.

By 1998, the number of vehicles had increased at least 16 percent to 20,270 and that's using 1995 numbers for cars moving in and out from the Castlegar direction. The 1992 report indicated that 87 percent or approximately 15,000 vehicles are destined to stop in Nelson. If that proportion holds for the 1998 figures you can understand why the streets seem clogged with traffic.

While the public transit system has been expanded, bicycle lanes constructed along Highway 3A, and an educational program attempts to destigmatize the use of high occupancy vehicles and public transit, MOTH figures indicate the number of vehicles entering and leaving Nelson increase between 1.8 and 2.5 percent a year.

To protect the natural environment and increase quality of life, neighbourhoods, communities and regions should have compact, multi-dimensional land use patterns that ensure a mix of uses, minimize the impact of cars, and promote walking, bicycling and transit access to employment, education, recreation, entertainment, shopping, and services. Economic development and transportation investments should reinforce these land use patterns, and the ability to move people and goods by non-automobile alternatives wherever possible.

Mathis Wackernagel, co-author with William Rees of the book "Our Ecological Footprint: Reducing Human Impact on the Earth", has studied the amount of land area required to support household natural resource and energy use and waste assimilation. The larger the household's ecological footprint, the more resources (in acres of land and water) required to sustain its current level of consumption.

He recently estimated the housing and commuting component of the footprint of a person living in a high-rise or walk-up apartment would be 0.7 acres; a person living in a modest cohousing community would use about 1.1 acres; and a person living in a large, suburban home would use about 5.6 acres. Each estimate assumes the person is living as part of a family of four. These housing estimates do not include other impacts on the environment, including furnishings, recreation, food, and clothing.

The average Canadian has a total ecological footprint of about 20 acres, while there are about 5.5 acres of biologically productive land per capita in the world. This means if everyone consumed like an average Canadian, we would need several additional Earths to live on.

Carl Anthony is the founder and executive director of Urban Habitat Program, convenor of the Bay Area Alliance for Sustainable Development, and former president of the Earth Island Institute. According to Anthony, the United States is losing almost two acres of farmland a minute to new housing and commercial developments, "while racking up bills for new freeways, schools, sewers, and other infrastructure that we'll still be paying for a hundred years from now."

Anthony advocates five methods to combat sprawl: Growth boundaries to limit the expansion of communities; transit-oriented development; increasing greenspace in cities and uncovering old creeks and other waterways; well-designed, higher density housing; and the reuse of cleaned-up brownfields (abandoned toxic places) as parks, urban farms, and sites for housing and commercial activity.

It is hard to have healthy individuals without a healthy community. The Ahwahnee Principles were developed in 1991 to provide guidelines for developing more livable communities and they incorporate all of Anthony's ideas.

If your community has a vision for the future, revisit it often. Use defined indicators to measure progress. Insist on governance that allows for citizen participation in the planning and development process. If we stick to our principles, we can have communities that are better not just bigger.

ONE SMALL STEP - Diverse, green, beautiful cities don't just happen. Get together with neighbours and friends to discuss ways of revitalizing your community. Cities are centres for the exchange of ideas, not just goods and services. Consider becoming involved in a volunteer capacity or as an elected official.

Yes! A Journal of Positive Futures focuses on livable communities in its summer 1999 issue and contains an interview with Carl Anthony. "Toward Sustainable Communities" by Mark Roseland, 1998, New Society Publishers, is filled with inspiring examples of and useful resources for livable communities. The June 1999 issue of The New Internationalist gives the issue of green cities a world perspective. "Better Not Bigger", published by New Society Publishers in 1999, is the title of Eben Fodor's book which clearly defines and delineates the costs and benefits of community growth. The Nelson Area 2020 report is available from the Nelson Municipal Library. Organizations with web sites that provide information on sustainable communities include: the Center for Livable Communities at www.lgc.org/, the Coalition for Healthier Cities and Communities at www.healthycommunities.org/, the Center for Neighborhood Technology at www.cnt.org/, the Sustainable Communities Network at www.sustainable.org/index.html and the Sierra Club at www.sierraclub.org/transportation/. The Ahwahnee Principles can be found at www.lgc.org/clc/ahwnprin.html.


All columns archived here are copyright © 1999 by Michael Jessen, all rights reserved. If you wish to print an individual column for your own use, please do so. If you wish to publish any of the columns in either print or electronic format, please contact the author at toenail@netidea.com to arrange appropriate payment.