Beyond Lot Lines

Towards the Sustainable Transformation of Existing Neighbourhoods

Triple Threat or Triple Bottom Line. Environment, Equity, Infrastructure. These are three key challenges standing in the way of reshaping Canada’s aging urban [and suburban] fabric into more livable and resilient districts.

By Wayne Olson

Traditional responses to these problems have been compartmentalized and resource constrained in a way that is increasingly inadequate for the complex task of the so-called ‘triple bottom line’ [economy, society, environment] regeneration of existing neighbourhoods:

  • • Our cities, which are THE primary generators of climate-changing greenhouse gases globally, are being increasingly buffeted by climate change related events such as ice storms, flooding, heat waves and pests like the Emerald Ash Borer. These environmental stresses typically bring tweaks to building codes and modest green building standards that have little or no impact on existing built assets.
  • • Urban inequity is a growing issue in many cities. Almost a third of children in Toronto grow up in poverty, with many living in poorly maintained rental housing. A key difference from post-war Canada is that today’s poverty is increasingly entrenched, meaning that our cities risk fostering a long-term “underclass” that remains in place despite a pinch of social program funding or a dash of affordable housing dollars from time to time
  • • Canada`s civic infrastructure – just roads and pipes - carries a $170 Billion state-of-good-repair deficit. Unlike many U.S. or European jurisdictions [and due in part to shrinking support from upper-tier governments over the last four decades] most of the financial burden rests on the local property tax base - inadequate even before adding the financial burden of new infrastructure to serve urban growth and resilient infrastructure responding to climate change.

These present-day threats of infrastructure failure, environmental vulnerability and growing inequity might be characterised as the ‘perfect storm’ of challenges for cities and their existing neighbourhoods. Compounded by increasing urbanization and smart growth plans that limit greenfield development, we have a perfect storm inside a pressure cooker.
The good news? This may be the nexus that drives innovation and cross-sector collaboration allowing us to transform post-war neighbourhoods into connected, healthy, socially and culturally vibrant, low carbon, prosperous communities - the building blocks for future great cities.

Old Way – New Way
Cities are increasingly intricate social, technical and economic ecosystems where everything connects. Intuitively, it is easy to understand that overly simplistic decision making may ignore important issues and ‘externalities’ leading to unanticipated negative effects, and to missed opportunities to synergistically support other urban priorities.

There are endless examples of old, linear, silo-based problem solving frequently failing citizens, neighbourhoods and cities:
• Neighbourhood streets are repaved one year only to be dug up the next year for utility work.
• Transit investment drives up property values, forcing residents and locally owned business to relocate to ‘affordable’ areas with [ironically] poor transit.
• Lightly used local roads and urban laneways contribute multi-lane expanses of impervious, heat absorbing pavements while cities face more heatwaves and flooding.
• Communities designed for the car tend to limit active mobility and demonstrate higher rates of obesity, diabetes and heart disease linked to higher health care costs and a decrease in productivity.
• Traditional top-down planning and development processes are ill-suited to holistic, incremental transformation of complex existing communities. They often leave residents feeling disrespected, disempowered and cynical; exacerbating NIMBYism.
We are starting to do things differently. In fact the green building movement fostered valuable skills in innovative, lateral and integrated thinking. We understand that remarkably affordable, comfortable, high performance buildings can be achieved through an Integrated Design Process [IDP] where owners, architects design engineers and facility managers collaborate to find synergies that create more efficient, sustainable built environments.

And we have learned that the happiness, health and productivity of building inhabitants is a key prerequisite for holistic sustainability regardless of kilowatt-hours saved. What are the opportunities and challenges related to applying this approach at a district scale? What if policies, protocols and tools could be brought to bear that would help to bring citizens, businesses, policy makers, institutions and not-for-profits together to leverage public and private investments for greater positive impact? How do we find synergies that can solve more than one challenge, or unlock more than one opportunity?

District Scale Tools

The principals of collaboration and integrated problem solving become even more relevant for complex and incremental district renewal projects where building-by-building solutions and program investment overlay district and regional infrastructure; where there is a complex quilt of ownership, community viewpoints, and political priorities; and where infrastructure investments may be asked to deliver supplementary community economic, social and environmental benefits. To streamline this complexity, a variety of new tools are required.

Indeed, various flavours of district scale ratings, protocols and guides have been developed over the last few years. Some are focused on a narrow but critical scope of issues [i.e. environment and climate] or at select target users [i.e. governments or commercial building owners] or at a specific project model [i.e. new development].

  • • LEED for Neighbourhood Development [USGBC] incorporates triple bottom line goals, primarily applied to new top-down [developer, institutional or government driven] projects. There are about 400 North American projects certified or planned. The first LEED ND Platinum project was Dockside Green in Victoria BC by Windmill Developments and VanCity Credit Union.
    • C40 Cities [Clinton Climate Initiative] is focussed on energy and carbon at a global mega-city scale. There are 80 participating or affiliated cities including Toronto and Vancouver.
    • District 2030 [Architecture 2030, AIA] emphasizes reduced energy, water and vehicle emissions in existing commercial districts. There are eleven participating districts including Toronto’s Financial District.
    • Star Communities is a U.S. based holistic rating and certification system aimed at municipal governments and city-wide application. Forty US cities have been certified to date.
    • One Planet Communities [Bioregional] is a guide for triple bottom line development of precincts, communities, and resorts. Its ten global projects are all new developments including the planned “Zibi” in Ottawa by Windmill Developments.
    • Living Community Challenge [International Living Futures Institute] is a rigorous guide and certification program for holistically sustainable community development and transformation. Five districts have engaged in pilot project studies, including Simon Fraser University in British Columbia.
    • EcoDistricts [formerly Portland Sustainability Institute] is a flexible, process-sensitive protocol and toolkit referenced in North America by 40+ existing mixed-use communities, commercial districts, and campuses to guide equitable, incremental and sustainable transformation and new development. A more prescriptive EcoDistricts Global Protocol certification toolkit will be available in 2016.
    • EnVision [Institute for Sustainable Infrastructure] is a certification system that rates the life-cycle community, environmental, and economic benefits of infrastructure projects and recognizes projects for transformational and collaborative approache.

Beyond Protocols

Protocols and rating systems provide templates for multiple projects and scalable impact. However many specific initiatives are also setting the stage for a more holistic approach to urban regeneration visioning and investment:

  • • Greenest City Action Plan [Vancouver BC] implemented by Council in 2011 affects most aspects of city governance, operations, community scale planning, and development approvals. It commits by 2020 to reduce overall community GHGs by 30%, existing building GHGs by 20%, and is working towards an ultimate goal of 100% renewable energy by 2050. Other integrated priorities include access to nature and healthy food, green jobs, active mobility, clean air and water.
  • • Community Benefits Agreements [Vancouver Olympic Village, Toronto Regent Park Redevelopment, Toronto Crosstown LRT] leverage large public investments and Public Private Partnerships to achieve community goals such as local jobs and training, social enterprise support, affordable housing, sustainability and community amenities.
  • • Provincial Infrastructure Legislation [Ontario 2015], established the principle that future provincial and municipal infrastructure investments should provide “supplementary social and economic benefits”.
  • • Mount Dennis Area EcoNeighbourhood Project [Toronto, Mount Dennis Community Association and the TO EcoNeighbourhood Initiative] is a community-driven pilot initiative inspired by EcoDistricts, laying groundwork for the collaborative development of a  ‘triple bottom line’ sustainable vision and action plan in one of the sixteen designated Neighbourhood Improvement Areas located along new LRT lines.

Where We Want to Live
Whether it is precedents, protocols, or policies, the conversation and increasingly the action at all levels is trending towards breaking down silos, creatively collaborating, and leveraging investment as the means to achieve sustainable, prosperous and equitable communities and cities.

That’s good news if we want our existing urban and suburban neighbourhoods to be places where we, our children and future generations can live happily and productively.  One way or the other, climate change, aging infrastructure, social equity challenges and urban intensification will ensure that our existing urban and suburban neighbourhoods will be quite different than they are today.

Case Study: Toronto’s Mount Dennis Community
Toronto’s Mount Dennis area is an historic, dynamic Toronto community. Since 2014 Mount Dennis has been collaborating with TO EcoNeighbourhoods Initiative laying the groundwork for a Mount Dennis Area EcoNeighbourhood Vision and Action Plan focusing on the priority areas of Environment, Livability, Equity, Health and Prosperity.

Equitable access to quality and affordable housing is a key livability and health issue for all neighbourhoods and certainly Mount Dennis - where 45% of households spend 30% or more of their income on shelter and some 40% of residents are reported to be facing a risk of homelessness - is no exception.

And with Toronto-wide real estate price escalation, and investors beginning to acquire local properties in anticipation of major transit infrastructure improvements, property prices in Mount Dennis have increased an average of 11% per year since 2011.
A broad range of public, non-profit and private-sector housing retrofit and development strategies – some built upon existing initiatives like Tower Renewal and Home Energy Loan Programs - will need to be examined, vetted and implemented to respond both to current housing needs and to looming gentrification challenges, and to support the transformation of Mount Dennis into a model livable, equitable and healthy neighbourhood.

More efficient housing with significantly reduced energy and water consumption is also a prerequisite for a regenerated EcoNeighbourhood that is more sustainable and resilient, and will make a meaningful contribution towards achieving Toronto’s climate change goals.

Wayne Olson is a Toronto-based architect, real estate development consultant, and coordinator to the EcoNeighbourhoods Initiative. He is an advisor to EcoDistricts in the development of their 2015 Global Protocol.

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